I visit London quite a lot, probably once or twice a week. I head down there from the relatively new East Midlands Parkway station, south of Nottingham, to St. Pancras International. No matter how many times I do it, I find arriving in London is always an event in itself. I actually think St. Pancras is possibly the best way to arrive in London on land.
Originally built and opened in 1868 St. Pancras Station has always been the southern terminus for the midlands railway line. Designed by William Henry Barlow, the station had to span the Regents Canal and, because of gradient constraints with the railway line, the trains came into the station between 4-5m above Ground level. Instead of infilling the land, a vast collection of brick arched cellars were formed underneath the station. These were used to store Beer from Burton-on-Trent. The single span roof structure, required because of the cellars, stretches to just under 75m across. The structure itself is a wrought iron lattice.
The station has suffered some low points; it suffered severe bombing during the Second World War and faced near ruin and demolition in the 1960’s. However during the mid-2000’s the station underwent a major transformation which was estimated to cost £310m. The reported final cost was £800!
Today St. Pancras International is the main London train terminus for East Midlands trains heading up to Nottingham and Sheffield. It also has local platforms for London regional trains and also the southern HS1 line. Finally, it’s the London terminus for the Eurostar, providing rail services direct to Paris, Brussels and many other European destinations.
The trains still arrive at the original level (above ground), but the midland mainline platforms have now been setback under a new canopy, which links in to the original structure. The old beer cellars have been exposed and turned into an open retail concourse. It’s like many you’d see at a major airport, but benefits significantly from not being completely artificially lit and ventilated. Most of the shops and cafes sit in the original brick arched cellars.
Beyond the successful fusion of historic brick and iron structure, with contemporary glass and steel, I think the best and most successful thing about St. Pancras is the fantastic atmosphere it has. I’m talking specifically about the humanistic experience.
The shops have been carefully selected to provide a broad range of essential travel retailers with luxury and aspirational retailers too. Also there are very few ‘high street’ brands here. There are some, but there is an impressive range of Independent retailers, cafes and restaurants too. This is refreshing.
But the thing that perhaps impresses me the most, and almost always makes me smile no matter what sort of a day I’m anticipating or have had, is that there are two Piano’s in the main concourse. These are separate, but sit right in the main concourse thoroughfare. They are tatty looking, perhaps intentionally, but simply say on them “Play me, I’m Yours”. And people do. People of all ages and backgrounds, often with a suitcase parked beside them, lose themselves for a short while and play some truly fantastic music. This gives St. Pancras life and character; something I believe truly successful buildings should have, beyond the fabric and function. People are encouraged to use this busy transport hub in many different ways.
If you’re looking for a drink don’t go to the Searcy’s Champagne Bar, head to the St. Pancras hotel bar – I think its much nicer. Its in the original ticket hall and many of the original architectural features are retained. You also get a traditional metal (with glass bottom) tankard when you have a pint.
St. Pancras is a great building. Its Architecture, both old and new, works well and I believe it provides an exemplar international transport hub. But what also works so fantastically well at St. Pancras is the way people are able to use it and experience it – beyond getting from A to B which is the only reason anyone is really there. It is a destination in itself and I building I love.