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London’s St Pancras station: Saved by a poet

St Pancras station, London

One of the benefits of spending a lot of time in France this year is the amount of times I’ve passed through one of my favourite London buildings – St Pancras Station. It’s a stunningly ornate Victorian Gothic-style building. And as you walk through the red-brick archways and under the huge, arched glass roof, it’s hard to believe that only 50 years ago it was on the verge of being knocked down. Now it’s home to the international Eurostar services as well as trains to the north of England. It has been beautifully restored and is well worth a visit, whether you’re catching a train or not.

St Pancras station

The entrance to the station and the new St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

The station was originally built in the 1860s by the Midland Railway to connect London with the Midlands. St Pancras was a pretty slummy area at the time but the railway company went all out to impress by commissioning a grand, lavish station and hotel. The train shed, designed by William Henry Barlow, was build on wrought-iron pillars topped with a 207 metre long and 70 metre wide glass arched ceiling – making it the largest enclosed space in the world at the time. And at the front was the Midland Hotel, designed by the architect George Gilbert Scott. He won a competition to design the hotel with his ornate Gothic red-brick design, impressing the railway company into blowing their budget on it.

John Betjeman statue

John Betjeman, commemorated with a statue for his campaign to save the station

But things started to go wrong for St Pancras in the 20th century. First the Midland Hotel closed down in 1935 and the building was used for railway offices. Then it was damaged by bombing during the Second World War. And finally changes to rail routes meant it wasn’t being used by enough train services to keep it running. The formerly grand building was seen as past its best – its impractical design made it hard to covert and it was covered with years of London soot and grime. By the 1960s there were plans to tear it down and redevelop the land into something sleek and modern. But Poet Laureate John Betjeman, a great lover of Victorian architecture, set up a campaign to save it from demolition, and in 1967 it was given Grade I listed status. Just in time too as the wrecking balls were due to move in 10 days later.

St Pancras statues

Statue of lovers on the St Pancras station concourse

Although the station was now safe from demolition, that still left the question of what to do with it. For the next 30 years it fell into decline, the former hotel buildings abandoned and the rail lines hardly used. But its fortunes changed when it was chosen as the new terminus for the international Eurostar services. It took almost 13 years and around £800 million to renovate the station, but by the time it opened in November 2007 it was almost unrecognisable. The buildings had been cleaned of their layers of grime to reveal the red-brick detail, the roof glazing had been repaired to the original design after its wartime damage, and the wrought ironwork was cleaned and repainted in its Victorian light blue colour. New shops and ticket offices were tucked into the arches below the concourse to leave the main space light and open.

St Pancras station

Passengers in St Pancras today

The final part of the station’s restoration was to turn the old Midland Hotel into the St Pancras Renaissance, which opened in 2011. Things are a bit different now to what you would have got as a guest of the Midland Hotel, which had the latest in electric lifts and flushing toilets, but only five bathrooms shared between its 300 rooms! It has been renovated to five-star standard and a stay in one of their restored Chambers rooms will set you back about £300 a night (en suite bathrooms are included these days). But you can have dinner in the Gilbert Scott restaurant, or try a traditional Victorian punch in the Booking Office Bar, with its 29-foot long bar and high vaulted ceilings. And while you’re there, take a peek at the spectacular Grand Staircase, where you can just imagine ladies in 1920s silk gowns and men in dinner jackets making their grand entrance to dinner (or less glamorously the Spice Girls filmed their Wannabe video here). You can find out more about the building’s fascinating history with a tour from the hotel’s own in-house historian.

St Pancras bar

The Booking Office Bar and the Champagne Bar

The station is also home to the longest Champagne bar in Europe, which stretches along the length of the Eurostar platform. And at the end of it is a statue of John Betjeman, looking up at Barlow’s original ceiling. So if you’re ever passing through St Pancras and stop off for a glass of Champagne, raise a toast to Betjeman as without him none of this would be here today.

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London’s St Pancras station: Saved by a poet – On the Luce travel blog

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  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    December 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Scott also designed Edinburgh’s Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, the largest ecclesiastical building in Scotland, which is featured in Shipscooksstuff here:

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      December 6, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      I was in Edinburgh a few months ago but never made it inside the Cathedral – will have to take a look next time. I like the sound of the typography on the plaques, I’m a bit of a font geek!

  • Reply
    December 6, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    It’s superb isn’t it Lucy? So glad it was saved. Must have a peak in the hotel next time I’m there.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      December 6, 2011 at 10:26 pm

      It’s lovely. Would recommend a drink in the bar and a poke around next time you’re there. I’ve signed up for the tour to have a proper look around – though not til Feb as it’s all booked up til then, so we’re obviously not the only fans of the place!

  • Reply
    December 6, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I am so glad that this building was saved from demolition – it’s stunning. I particularly like the photo, “Passengers at St. Pancras”. I was excited when I saw the Olympic Rings in another of your photos. The station will undoubtedly be taken over en masse!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      December 7, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks – yes London is starting to be gripped with Olympic fever! Eurostar tickets for when the games are on are already on sale and they are no doubt bracing for a huge invasion!

  • Reply
    December 7, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Well done Lucy! A building that deserves a good bit of writing and you’ve done it full justice. I love this station too, and even more so now you’ve informed me about it.

  • Reply
    November 12, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    This post is responsible for the booking I’ve just made to stay when we visit The Shard! A bit out of the way but it had to be done 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      November 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      Yay! Hope you have a great time. I saw in a couple of the rooms when I did the tour and they looked amazing. The Booking Office bar is as close as I got though (the cocktails almost made up for it!).

      • Travelbunny
        November 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

        I’m really excited about it – suddenly realised I had a load of points to use up so it didn’t break the bank 🙂

  • Reply
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    November 21, 2012 at 11:24 am

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    February 18, 2013 at 1:33 am

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  • Reply
    February 18, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Looks terrific Lucy! Love that entrance shot.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Shade of Red
    April 5, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Love your writing. I live in London and I think I will take a tour of St Pancras next weekend!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      Hope you enjoy it, I haven’t been for a few months now so may need another trip there soon!

  • Reply
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    December 11, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    […] you’d like to know more about St Pancras Station and its history check out this excellent post from Lucy at On The […]

  • Reply
    November 14, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Wow – I’ve passed through St. Pancras quite a few times and had no idea of this history, really fascinating! I’ll have to see if I can peek into the hotel sometimes.

    • Reply
      November 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      One day I will actually go and stay there! (may need to save up for a bit longer though)

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