ST PANCRAS STATION
ST. PANCRAS STATION
The Victorian period was one of rapid expansion, development and construction. It didn't always work of course, and you had the odd disaster, such as when Sir Thomas Bouch's Great bridge over the Silvery Tay fell down.
But on the other hand, some of the things that they managed to build were absolutely superb. While their engineering might not be quite the same as Montezuma and the Aztecs who built up with their bare hands what we still can't do today, some of their construction was magnificent.
The Victorian era symbolised a major change in architecture. On one hand, a previous generation of architects was still designing buildings that would normally be associated with an earlier graceful, hand built era, and on the other hand modern engineers were using modern construction techniques to construct massive edifices. The railways were the vehicle that they used to develop them, and was without doubt the apogee of their art.
The construction of the railways is without doubt the most important civil engineering project ever undertaken in the UK, and architects and builders rushed to display their art. Much of the extravagance of railway architecture has unfortunately been lost, but one of the finest of all the works, St. Pancras Station, remains. And no thanks to the planners either, who would have had this building down in the wink of an eye if they thought they could have got away with it.
My enthusiasm for St. Pancras is not shared by many other people, unfortunately. Thomas Beecham, the founder of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and grandson of the founder of Beecham's Pills had such a passionate hatred for Elgar's Symphony in A Flat Minor that he famously described it as "the musical equivalent of St. Pancras Station". In my opinion, this clearly shows that Beecham hadn't a clue what he was talking about.
Others however, do wax lyrical about the station. Sir Banister Fletcher, in his excellent book A History of Architecture states that "The train shed, by the engineer William Henry Barlow in conjunction with R(owland) M(ason) Ordish (a pioneer of suspension bridge design), is the largest and most spectacular of the High Victorian period, being a single span of 243 feet (74 metres) rising to 100 feet (30 metres) high in a slightly pointed wrought-iron arch. The total length is 700 feet (213 metres). At the base, the arched vault is secured by rods 3 inches (76 millimetres) in diameter under the platforms."
Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman, in their book Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism, wax even more lyrical. "Its 243-foot span was not an exceptional dimension for bridges, as we know, but for an interior it was extraordinary, especially extended in depth to form the widest and largest undivided space ever enclosed. The skeletal transparency of the ferrovitreous vault added a futuristic, magic dimension to the stunning space, especially as the vault was made to spring from the platform level where the passenger stood."
St. Pancras was built out of necessity in the 1860s. At the beginning, the Midland Railway did not have its own routes or station in London. It negotiated running powers into Euston Station with the owners of that station, the London and North Western Railway. As one might expect, this was fraught with difficulty. If there were two trains bearing down on the junction, one of the LNWR and the other of the Midland, then there are no prizes for guessing which one would be stopped. And as rail travel increased, then this happened with greater frequency.
The Midland Railway then turned to the Great Northern Railway, and in 1857 negotiated passage for some of its trains into Kings Cross for a princely sum of £20,000. This arrangement was far from ideal, for the company was still without its own terminus, and now had its routes split between two stations. And sure enough, after a short while, the company started to become squeezed by the Great Northern in the same way that it was being squeezed by the LNWR.
The lease that the Midland had negotiated with the Great Northern was to last for 7 years - i.e. until 1864, and in 1861 the Midland started to buy up as much property as it could in the slums of Agar Town and Somers Town, the area to the west of Kings Cross and the Great Northern mail line. This was with the aim of acquiring the land to construct its own London terminus and railway line to connect to the southern end of its independent line at Bedford. In those days, the British Government had forbidden the building of railways in the centre of London, hence the cluster of stations along the Euston Road.
Construction of the railway began in 1862, and the London end was far from easy, as the line was on a considerable south-facing slope. It was necessary to tunnel underneath a canal and plough through a graveyard, complete with the bodies of cholera victims. It was no surprise to anyone that a subsequent cholera epidemic was blamed upon the company. A church in the path of the railway was dismantled and re-erected at Wanstead.
The company's chief Civil Engineer, William Henry Barlow, laid out the ground plan for the station, and 11 architects were invited to compete for the design for the station buildings and hotel. Gilbert Scott, the legendary Gothic Revivalist architect, submitted a design that was by far and away the most expensive.
After the powers-that-be had recovered from the shock of reading Scott's estimate, it took them just one glance at the plans to reach the conclusion that here was a masterpiece that would outshine any other railway terminus in London. Compare Scott's masterpiece with Kings Cross Station here in the photograph on the left. Which one do you think is the most significant and imposing of the two?
Construction was subject to lengthy delays due in part to the novel technical feature of the giant roof, and the station was unfinished when it opened to the public in 1867. It was completed in 1868, and held the title of the largest-ever single-span enclosed structure for a good 25 years.
Despite its grandeur, it always suffered from a lack of recognition when compared to its rivals at either end of the Euston Road. Someone once recounted an amusing little story to the effect that at one time on the stairs there was a sign that said "THIS IS NOT KINGS CROSS". Not that this would affect me, of course. I certainly know my station.
Which is more than can be said for the makers of the Harry Potter film The Chamber of Secrets. In order to give more ambience to the departure of the "Hogwarts Express", they use the exterior of St. Pancras station, instead of the bland and banal Kings Cross next door.
Work started on Scott's Midland Grand Hotel in mid-1868, not without controversy. Arguments over the rising expenditure led to costs being cut in respect of what was seen as some of Scott's more extravagent ideas, and the hotel was finally opened to customers on 5th May 1873. The final cost of the construction was £438,000. As an aside, it was one of the first buildings to have a hydraulically-powered lift.
As a hotel however, it was not a great success and closed in 1935. Subsequently, it was used as offices for companies such as British Transport Hotels until the 1980s when it was abandoned, presumably with half an eye on the value of the plot of land upon which it stood. The goods station, which had been a feature of the early station and which at one time was handling 20% of all coal arriving in London, had been demolished and the British Library was built on the site.
It isn't just the planners and the speculators who have tried to dispose of St. Pancras Station either. The German Air Force has contributed to the cause, and on more than one occasion.
In one of the epic feats of aerial navigation, on the dark, wintry evening of 17th February 1918 a German Staaken R.VI "Giant" bomber flew alone over London with absolutely no navigational aids, and dropped a bomb right into the station. One of the towers of the station frontage suffered a direct hit, causing a great deal of damage and killing and injuring a number of civilians and railway workers who had taken shelter in the station itself.
It was also targeted in World War II. It suffered 5 direct hits during an attack on 10th May 1941, one bomb of which caused spectacular damage to Platforms 3 and 4. It went clean through the station floor, which was made of wrought-iron plates on wrought-iron girders and supported on cast-iron columns, then passed through the basement where it buried itself in the clay at a depth of 25 feet - right behind the side wall of the Metropolitan Railway's tunnel for the underground line to Moorgate. Here, it exploded, collapsing the tunnel for over 20 feet and completely blocking it. Many of the cast-iron columns were destroyed or damaged.
It took seven days to clear the debris and reopen part of the station - a delay that may or may not be unconnected with the fact that there was an unexploded bomb underneath Platform 2.
I can safely say that my usual routes into and out of London never took me to St. Pancras, so it wasn't a station that I'd ever visited. That was, until January 2000 when I had to go there to pick up some passengers to take them to a funeral. I had something of an opportunity to have a wander about, but with only a throwaway camera in the car (this was in the days before the Jamcam), I didn't take any photos.
I was totally impressed by the architecture, but totally depressed by the deplorable condition in which the station had found itself. Overgrown, with weeds everywhere, it was looking like another candidate for the fate of Broad Street Station and it very probably would have been long gone if had had been in a more upmarket location.
The fate that has been reserved for St. Pancras is probably a little less devastating than total demolition. Since November 2007, it's become the new terminal for the Eurostar trains to Europe.
The London Chatham and Dover Railway had built what became known as the "City Extension", which opened to passengers on 1st January 1865. This extension had its terminus at Holborn Viaduct station, on the north side of the Thames. From here, there was a mainline connection from what was the Holborn Viaduct Low Level station via what used to be known as the "Widened Lines" out towards the north of England at St. Pancras.
The lines are still in place, and form part of the Thameslink project, but with a small amount of imagination, the derelict Holborn Viaduct station (closed in 1990 and subsequently demolished) could have been incorporated into the new Eurostar link, with through running to the north.
An Eurostar station here, right in the heart of the capital, would have been absolutely excellent. But nevertheless, the planners chose to cross the Thames futher east at Ebbsfleet, and run trains into London via Stratford.
There was another magnificent site that would have been superb for the terminus of the Eurostar trains - the derelict Broad Street Station. Here, trains could approach London from the east along the derelict freight lines to the abandoned Bishopsgate Freight yard, then by using the high-level tracks, cross over the Shoreditch High Street on a purpose-built bridge to link up with the old Dalston branch into Broad Street Station. Rolling stock could quite easily have been stored at the Bishopsgate yard.
You have to admit that Broad Street would have been such an impressive station for the Eurostar link in London. Not only was it situated right in the heart of the business area, its fairy-tale appearance would have made it special like no other railway station anywhere else in the world.
So in a magnificent example of joined-up thinking, and Paul McCartney having given Broad Street his regards, the planners did for Broad Street Station in 1986, just as talks were well under way with regard to the development of high-speed rail services to London via the Channel Tunnel.
So two underused railway stations down, one more to go. And it is St. Pancras that hes the honour of hosting the Eurostar trains in London. And just look what the planners have done to Barlow's and Scott's masterpieces.
Normally, when one tries to extend someone else's building, one tries to keep to the ideas of the original architect, and to pay homage to his achievements. That seems to be a logical place to start. But as you look at the building of today compared to the building of the 1860s, you can clearly see the join.
And quite frankly, it's appalling, isn't it? I cannot think of whatever the architect had in mind when he drew the plans, what the owners of the station had in mind when they accepted them, and what the Greater London Council had in mind when they passed them.
From a distance, where the sweep of the classic Nottinghamshire red brick construction meets up with the new appendage - well, what can be said about this? How about dreadful? Or criminal? Of how about both of them?
There can't be a finer tribute to any architect anywhere than to imitate his work. And it would have been a magnificent tribute to the Victorian engineers for a modern architect to have added to their work using the skill and technique that is available today and with all the lessons that have been learned over the past 150 years. But you can see that there has not even been any effort to try. It's all modern glass and concrete - the default mode of 21st Century building.
Now you'll never ever get me into a submarine because I suffer from claustrophobia - and when you compare the light, airy roof of Barlow to that of the modern designers, then you'll see immediately why I wasn't going to hang about for very long. The solid metal construction and smaller panes of glass, and the reduced headroom are just so unpleasant, especially when you consider the magnificent cathedral effect that Barlow had managed to produce.
One of the reasons that had led Barlow to design the roof in the way that he had was the lack of space available. The more columns he built into his station, then the smaller area of floor space there would be available for the passengers, and the fewer platforms there would be for the trains.
The designers of the modern St. Pancras have pushed the station backwards onto a wider site, demolishing the gasworks that were here, so that they would have enough room for platforms as well as supporting columns. And here we come to the crux of the matter as to why modern designers haven't even made the slightest effort to build an arched roof to complement that of Barlow - and that is that they no longer have the skill.
The architect in charge, Alistair Lansley, is quoted as saying that the new St Pancras station will become "the eighth wonder of the world". How about that for egoism? If you will just excuse me for a minute, I'm going outside to throw up.
Modern British engineering is in total disarray. You don't need me to remind you of the shambles that was the Millennium Dome. The problems with Wembley Stadium are even worse. Then there was the Millennium Wheel, the name of which was discretely changed to the "London Eye" after it missed the millennium.
The Millennium Bridge, must not be overlooked either. This was closed down almost immediately it was opened, due to a design and engineering phenomenon that was first recognised over 150 years ago. And just how ironic is thas, considering that Rowland Ordish, one of the pioneers of modern suspension bridges, collaborated with Barlow in the design of the roof of St. Pancras station?
The photograph above is of platforms 1 to 4 - intended to be for local services. The photo just here shows the other platforms. The ones right over the far side are also for local services, whereas the platforms you can see right in the middle of this photograph are those for the Eurostar services for France and Belgium.
So where are the platforms for high-speed travel throughout the rest of England and Scotland? Well, the truth is that there aren't any. In rather less than a blaze of publicity, the UK discretely dropped the idea of domestic high speed train travel at the time that St Pancras was being developed.
Britain is probably the only country in the world where the loss of fuel tax duty to the government is actually factored into the costs of improving the national passenger transport network. So as long as there is a viable road transport alternative, or a network of budget airlines paying passenger-handling taxes to the government, then it's really going to have to be something special that will move the present-day Government into helping a new modern rail network ever seeing the light of day. At the moment, it is quicker to travel by train from London to Avignon than London to Aberdeen.
If it was a modern road network, with motorways up and down the country, then of course the Government would be seeing that situation differently. New roads entice more vehicles onto them, and the more vehicles, then the more taxes that are paid.
Mind you, it's probably just as well that the high speed rail network was abandoned back then, given the state of British engineering. You will all recall a rail crash in the north-west of England that devastated the British rail network. A couple of fitters couldn't even put two bolts in a hole correctly. What chance did they have of building a modern high-speed rail network? Would you want to travel at speeds of over 200mph on railway track maintained by clowns such as these?
The irony is that all this time, effort and money has been poured into desecrating St. Pancras for no good reason. The Eurostar might just as well have stayed at Waterloo.
But cheer up. All is not lost. In early 2010 the British Government finally announced its plans for a high-speed rail link to the North of England . Hooray!!!
And from which station do you think that the trains will be departing? Well done! Absolutely right! Errrr .....EUSTON. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Just imagine the scene - all these businessmen struggling from their Eurostar connection loaded up with coats, briefcases, laptops, suitcases and the like - and instead of them crossing two or three platforms for their high speed link to the North, they have to struggle for a mile or so along the Euston Road.
In the face of mounting criticism of this absurd proposal, the British Government has finally galvanised itself into action and on 24th March 2014 issued a definitive statement .
So now we know. There will be NO high-speed connection between St Pancras and Euston and there will be NO direct trains running from the North of England to mainland Europe. All the financial resources of the United Kingdom will once again be concentrated in the South-East of England and, instead of going directly to Europe on the Eurostar, anyone living north of London can go to hell in a handcart.
Cost is of course given as the reason, but
firstly given the cost of the project to build the HS2 network, the cost of a link between St Pancras and Euston is only a small proportion
secondly well over half of the UK population lives north of Watford and they are taxpayers too. Their taxes helped pay for the new railway infrastructure in the South-East of England. They have a right to use it with as little inconvenience as anyone else.
thirdly as we know, there was already an excellent railway station in London, built to large-gauge standards, with a massive underused capacity and which had links to both the northern and south-eastern railway networks, but was sold off for an office development - even though the office development could simply have been built over the top of the station and the rails.
What price Broad Street now?
You really can't make up a story like this, can you? It's something that can only happen in the UK.
John Prideaux, the initial head of Union Railways, the company engaged to to promote the St. Pancras Eurostar link, once famously said that the redesigned St. Pancras is "absolutely fantastic - a monument to modern British railways". Now I don't agree with the first part of his statement, but you can see from my comments above that I am totally in accord with the second part. It is a graphic and highly symbolic summary of the current state of modern British railways.
So what fate does the future hold for the abandoned Midland Grand Hotel and the Midland Railway Company's offices?
Demolition was always a real threat, and the clamour grew even louder in the 1960s once the grand Euston Arch up the road had been demolished. Only a spirited campaign by the poet Sir John Betjeman was to ensure the future of the Midland Grand. It was subsequently listed for preservation as a Grade 1 building - the highest accolade that anyone can give.
At least with the arrival of the Eurostar trains, a considerable amount of money has been invested in the area, and in 2005 planning permission was granted for a refurbishment of the Midland Grand. Work has already started, as you can see, and the work is scheduled to be complete by 2009.
Much of the public space on the ground floor and some of the existing hotel rooms, together with a new wing on the western side of Barlow's train shed, are to be converted into a modern hotel run by the Renaissance Company and to be known as the Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel - but given the ... er ... fluid state of the hotel business, this could well change before the opening date.
As for the remainder of the Hotel, well, you don't need any hints from me as to what the future holds, do you? Yes, of course, it is to be converted into luxury apartments and sold off.
Now, you might not think that this is such a bad idea, but the thought of putting a building such as this in the hands of a myriad of private owners frightens me to death.
If you click on the thumbnail here to enlarge it, you can see that the developers have used as a sales ploy the phrase "the recreation of a masterpiece". Now firstly, I'm not sure exactly how you would go about recreating a masterpiece, or even why you would want to. But this kind of thing is ringing alarm bells with me.
We've already seen how the 21st Century designers, having demolished stations just as impressive or even more useful, have desecrated probably the finest example of Gothic Revival architecture in order to prepare it for a goal that it isn't ever going to meet. So how do they intend to recreate the work of Gilbert Scott? And what horrors have they been performing?
Before I go, what I want to do is to leave you with some photos taken by someone who was lucky enough to visit the Midland Grand in 1999. Despite the dereliction and decay, you can clearly see the masterpiece that Gilbert Scott created. I want you to imagine the fate of all of this left in the hands of private developers and the myriad of private owners to which I referred above.
And before I finally leave, then of course it comes as no surprise at all to anyone to learn that there has been an occurrence of that property developers' best friend, a suspicious fire, on the premises just recently. Of course I have no evidence to suggest that it is what known in the vernacular as a "Jewish fire"
"I'm sorry to hear about the fire at your factory, Hymie"
"Hush! It's tomorrow!"
and I am certainly not suggesting or making any allegation that there has been any dirty work by the developers or any agent or employee thereof. But the number of times that when a listed building or any other property that needs a substantial amount of work that many developers consider unnecessary and expensive, a suspicious fire breaks out in the property. This so severely damages the superstructure that the building has to be demolished "on Health and Safety grounds" and something new and much cheaper to construct, and much more profitable can be erected on the site. It's happening with such monotonous regularity that most people are starting to expect it.
The only surprise for most people in this affair was the speed in which the Fire Brigade arrived and dealt with the blaze. That has to be something of a first.