Simon Calder: On track for Britain's first 'destistation'
The man who pays his way
Saturday 12 February 2011
"Destination stations" are common overseas: at Union Station in Washington DC, you can barely find the tracks for all the retail and restaurant options, while Europe's biggest station, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, boasts 140 shops and, in winter, an ice rink.
You may find it difficult to imagine spending a single minute longer than necessary at, say, Crewe or Birmingham New Street. But one London terminus is about to become a complete destination so rich and diverse that you could arrive from Brighton, Bedford or Brussels, spend the day there, and return home feeling inspired, entertained – and full. It is, of course, St Pancras, where the former Midland Grand Hotel is about to re-open to guests, adding High Victorian flourishes to the station's long list of attributes; see the preview on page 15.
In a pre-emptive strike against the travel industry's manglers of English – the rogues who coined the dreadful terms "staycation" and "glamping" – I declare William Barlow's majestic terminus to be Britain's first "destistation".
Start with breakfast at the Betjeman Arms, named after the Poet Laureate who led the campaign against demolition of Europe's most beautiful station. (Don't take my word for that last assertion; it is courtesy of the men who know, and have checked: the compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.) You sit beneath the canopy of the Barlow Shed, your spirits soaring skyward as you contemplate this Victorian temple of the train, and devour a Full English as you watch trains waft off to Belgium and France.
Work off some calories: nip out of the exit beside the Southeastern platform, cross the road and jog into the German Gymnasium, Die Turnhalle. Britain's first keep-fit establishment was created shortly after the death of Prince Albert, Victoria's Saxon consort. Its muscular frame currently houses the King's Cross Visitor Centre (open 10am-5.30pm from Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-4.30pm on Fridays), devoted to the renaissance of the stern East Coast Trains structure next door.
St Pancras makes shopping (too) easy, with a double helping of Marks & Spencer and a shout from branches of every other upmarket high-street chain selling frocks or fragrances. For those who prefer their retail raw, there is also a market beneath the tracks selling ethically sourced fish, meat and vegetables.
In need of intellectual rather than gastronomic nourishment? The British Library is next door. That was where the two delightful ladies with whom I lunched at a communal table at Le Pain Quotidien had spent the morning. Their camaraderie more than compensated for the unexpected mutation of the salad I had ordered into a smoked-salmon open sandwich by the time it arrived.
My lunch companions had each ordered only a small slice of quiche Lorraine, and so were alarmed when their bill topped £30. That turned out to be because the table was so communal that they had been billed for my lunch, too. I looked them over, concluded they would probably out-run me, so stayed put and suggested we split the bill – which included the £9 sandwich I hadn't ordered.
As they bade me farewell, they urged me to take a shower at the station. I didn't take it personally, though perhaps I should have. Instead, I stepped across Le Pain's threshold, and gazed up at the wave of iron and glass that shelters this magnificent temple to the train.
At the sharp end of the 'Master Cutler'
The city-state of St Pancras is a tad short of banks: financial services comprise a couple of cash machines and an ICE bureau de change. Anyone reckless enough to change £100 here on Wednesday will have discovered that it does not even buy €100: here, the puny pound in your pocket is worth 99.6 euro cents.
What £100 will buy you (though with barely 50p to spare) is a one-way standard-class ticket on the Master Cutler to Sheffield, home town of the Master Traveller, Michael Palin.
If you are shrewd enough to buy the ticket to South Yorkshire at the Trainseurope desk, rather than the East Midlands Trains counter, it will be endorsed to allow you to use the First Class Lounge, just across from the statue of John Betjeman.
Yet the trouble with holding a ticket to Sheffield in a station so magnificent – and well-connected – as St Pancras, is the temptation to exchange it for one to Lisbon, Darjeeling or Shanghai.
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