There is something quite exquisite about grand railway termini. Folk fly through them, the dash for the train diminishing the status of these great cathedrals to travel. But these are not places through which one should rush. An earlier generation of Londoners referred to Victoria station as the “gateway to the continent”. Victoria’s role has been eclipsed by St Pancras — the grandest of termini in a capital that has many fine railway stations.
So we lingered at St Pancras in London for almost an entire day, catching the changing moods of William Barlow's magnificent train shed at dusk and dawn. We watched the last Eurostar of the evening glide smoothly into the station, while the cafés and shops on the lower concourse pulled down their shutters for the night. While others slept, we caught glimpses of cleaners sweeping the concourse and polishing glass in the wee small hours.
Great train stations have their own energy and their own grammar. Each has its own shades and shadows. In St Pancras there is a bluish tinge to the light which picks up the blue shades of the soaring ironwork in the theatrical train shed.
Yes, this is a spot for theatre. The corridors of the newly refurbished station hotel are full of drama. Where folk once queued to buy train tickets to all points north, couples now linger over one last glass of wine. The former booking hall of the Midland Railway finds new life as an elegant bistro and bar called The Booking Office, one of two restaurants that are part of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The other is the Gilbert Scott, all elegant curves and bright red banquettes.
We lingered long on the grand staircase of the hotel. It is the most spectacular feature in one of London's most triumphant restorations. And it is full of surprises. Climb up through three floors of Gothic fantasy to reflect on the eight virtues. Eight not seven, you note, for Victorians had their own special take on the world and its morals. EW Godwin painted these tributes to various shades of virtue for a castle in Ireland. But Irish damp did no favours to Godwin's art and the eight panels found a second home in the new railway hotel at St Pancras when it opened its doors to the public in May 1873.
Godwin's 'Virtues' are a reaction to the high-flown Victoriana that is forever associated with St Pancras. They are altogether lighter in touch, full of Oriental accents and whimsical references to Japanese design. They are forward-looking, anticipating the new aesthetics that would eventually defy Victorian conservatism.
And that's the secret of St Pancras. At one level so traditional, so weeping with nostalgia. At another level, so breathtakingly modern. William Barlow saw trains steam out of his train shed bound for Derby, Sheffield and Leeds. Today, St Pancras still serves its traditional markets, but it has also become London's gateway to the continent.
Along with Eurostar itself, St Pancras station has reshaped London's relationship with Europe. It is full of hidden corners, richly ambiguous, a space finely balanced between the past and the future. It deserves more than merely the 500 words allowed here on Europe by Rail. But the March 2012 issue of hidden europe magazine will feature the story of St Pancras.
It is a magnificent tale. It is about how Thomas Hardy stacked gravestones to make way for the Midland Railway and how beer from Burton on Trent helped shape a station. Few spaces in London are so full of character, exude so tangible and exuberant a sense of place as St Pancras station and its surroundings. It is far too good to rush through.