Monday, October 27, 2003

An interesting afternoon

Yesterday afternoon I went on a tour of St Pancras Chambers, formerly the Grand Midland Hotel, which is essentially part of the structure of St Pancras Station, and one of the great Victorian buildings of London. I have written about St Pancras Station before, but it is an extraordinarily grand station, and the hotel was an extraordinarily grand hotel. It has been closed as a hotel since before the second World War, and for any regular use at all for 25 years or so, but you see the remnants or grandeur.

Walking through that section of London, you see this great Victorian structure, and you wonder at its magnificence, and about how rundown it is and why it is so rundown. You walk into St Pancras Station itself, and you wonder something similar. The single arch of the trainshed is the most magnificent in London (on indeed just about anywhere) but there are only a small number of platforms being used, the station looks like it could use a coat of paint, and there are a small number of trains coming and going. It is not like King's Cross station next door, which is architecturally less distinguished but absolutely bustling with people coming and going at all times. (Kings Cross has a second, even less architecturally distinguished trainshed that was built in 1875 and is usually used for suburban and short distance services to Cambridge or similar). The question "Why is this?" is one that I had asked many times, and that was one reason I went on the tour yesterday. (Talking to some of the other people on the tour this was a not uncommon reaction. Quite a few of the people on the tour were people who had walked down Euston Road and just wondered).

The magnificence of St Pancras compared to King's Cross was something that was noticed by the producers of the Harry Potter films. The mythical Hogwarts Express departs from platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross, which is supposedly located between platforms 9 and 10. Sadly, platforms 9 and 10 are in the unimpressive looking suburban section of the station. However, the second Harry Potter film uses St Pancras both for internal and External shots, presumably because a location scout went to Kings Cross, wandered around, and obseved that St Pancras was much more impressive to look at. (It seems that J.K Rowling herself did not to a location scouting exercise before writing the book. A friend once told me that she heard that Rowling was actually thinking of Euston when she wrote the book, but I haven't verified this).

And, yesterday I was able to find out. The Midland Railway had was a major operation in the Midlands, but it came to London rather late, opening its main line in 1868. By that time the Great Northern had served King's Cross since 1851 and the London & Birmingham (later absorbed into the London & Northwestern) had served Euston since 1838. Apparently the Midland wanted to really make a splash when they entered London, and one way they did this was by building a hugely impressive station and a hugely impressive building. But although St Pancras station was very grand, it was never as important or as busy as the Great Northern or the London & Northwestern. (Still, it was more busy than it is today until services from Bedford that had previously terminated at St Pancras were diverted underground to south London on the "Thameslink" line in 1988). And the hotel was a stunning building, but even when it opened it was in some ways not very modern, having no central heating (coal fires being preferred) and the rooms not having their own toilet facilities (chamberpots being used instead). If the building had been built ten years later, both of these features would have been different, and the hotel may have survived a lot longer, but as it happened it closed as a hotel in 1935. It had various other uses subsequently but it was closed to all full time use for safety reasons around 25 years ago. In some ways these "other uses" did not have the greated effects on the building, as (for instance) some of the beautiful stencil work on the ceilings and walls were covered with standard issue BR paint. Worse, it seems that there may be some quite beautiful artwork under some of the paint as well, but nobody is really sure. And why would you cover a marble column with white paint?

Oddly, enough, however, when you go inside the building, sections of it are quite familiar, as it has been used as a setting for many film, television, and fashion shoots over the years. Most notably it was used as the setting for the Spice Girls' music video for "Wannabe", in which the hotel is doubling for, well, a grand hotel. I haven't seen that video for a few years. After yesterday, I want to look at it again, now that I have seen the location firsthand. This is at least partly because that video was done entirely as a single shot, and given the physical layout of the hotel I think that may have been awkward.

In any event, the building is quite run down but interesting. The grand staircase is indeed grand, the arches of the windows and the art on the ceiling is almost religious in quality (Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect who designed the building, was also a church architect, and you can tell).

Unfortunately, about 25 years ago, British Rail auctioned off all the furniture, despite the building's heritage listing also covering the furniture. They just did this. Therefore, the main dining room (and the coffee lounge downstairs) of the hotel are now just bare rooms.

Apparently, Oscar Wilde was once eating dinner in this room, when word arrived that the Marquess of Queensbury's men were downstairs, and were threatening to come in and trash the place if Wilde didn't leave. According to the guide, Wilde was a gentleman so he left and the place wasn't trashed.

Also, the Australian and India cricket teams stayed in the hotel in 1930. Apparently the Indian team caused all sorts of problems for the staff by practising in the corridors. I do not know if the Australian team also practised in the corridors, but somehow I hope so. Walking along the corridors, there is something appealing about the idea that Sir Donald Bradman himself may have once waved a bat just there.

The Grand Midland Hotel was one of the first buildings in London with elevators. Of course, being posh and British they weren't prepared to actually call them elevators. Some other name had to be invented.

So what now? What is happening to this grand old building?

The second stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link into London is presently being built through a tunnel into central London. Services are going to terminate at St Pancras, and the station (and the area around it) is being massively redeveloped. When it is all complete, there will be 13 platforms at St Pancras, and it will be receiving the trains from the Midlands it receives now, trains from Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and no doubt elsewhere in continental Europe, plus fast domestic services from various places in Kent. St Pancras will be perhaps the most important railway station in London, for the first time in its history. Apparently the roof of the train shed is going to be painted the same dark blue it was in 1868, and it is going to be even more busy than Kings Cross next door.

This has led to an opportunity to restore the old Grand Midland Hotel to something of its former glory as well. The Mariott hotel group won the contract to take it over. A modern medium budget hotel is to be built on a brownfield site behind the British library and next to St Pancras chambers, and this is to be connected to the foyer of the old building. This is presumably the major money making part of the venture. The old building itself is to be restored into a mixture of apartments and a luxury hotel. At least, that is the story. Looking at the old building, such a restoration is likely to be very expensive and time consuming. There are apparently extensive discussions going on between English Heritage and the hotel groups as to just what they will be allowed to do. (For instance, if it is to be converted back into a hotel it is going to need modern plumbing). It remains slightly up in the air as to what is going to happen.

However, inevitably, something will happen. A depressed and rather nasty area of London is going to turn into a modern, developed, and not run down at all part of the city, through this and other developments nearby. Already there is a lot of construction going on - both of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, an upgrade of the Kings Cross underground station, and other work. The British Library (foreground below) is one nice public building in the area already.

There are various other planned transport upgrades that go through the Kings Cross area. The Thameslink 2000 upgrade has an important hub just under St Pancras. The Chelsea/Hackney railway (also known as Crossrail line 2) also is planned to go through Kings Cross. If all this happens, Kings Cross becomes the most important transport hub in London. And it may take a couple of decades, but inevitably it will eventually all happen. At which point St Pancras station and St Pancras Chambers will become an interesting Victorian gothic structure in the middle of what will be one of London's key centres of modernism. Which should be as a minimum quite interesting.

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