Wednesday, September 22, 2010

St Pancras

 I suspect – I could be wrong – that some of you have been wondering who ‘Saint Pancras’ actually was. Don’t all raise your hands at once. I have investigated this interesting point, by virtue of reading a book about the building which I bought in the Foyle’s Bookshop on the station concourse. It is a mine of information, written by Simon Bradley (mine is a signed copy – I assume he had a reading in the Foyle’s shop, which would be very appropriate).

Old St Pancras Church, long ago on the banks of the
Fleet River
Pancras, who may or may not have existed at all, is described by Mr Bradley as ‘one of the dimmer figures from early church history’. If he did exist, he was a fourteen year old martyr who was a victim of a Roman Emperor’s persecution. The first St Pancras church in England is thought to have been founded in Canterbury in the seventh century, by immigrating Roman monks. There is an Old St Pancras Church in London, behind the station, and claims have been made dating it back to the seventh century too, but these are unproven. It was on the banks of the River Fleet, which is now underground. There is also a new St Pancras Church on Euston Road built in 1822:

One of the most interesting stories I discovered about Old St Pancras Church is that it was necessary to dig up its graveyard when the Midland Railway Company was building the station, in 1866. A big hoarding was erected around the site and work went on day and night, under lamplight. The Vicar complained about the work, finding skulls and thigh bones and so on strewn around. Amongst other quality-control measures, the architect sent in a young trainee of his to supervise – a young man from Dorset named Thomas Hardy. Yes, he was later to chuck in architecture and take up novel writing: he of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ fame. Mr Bradley speculates that young Thomas’s experiences in the St Pancras graveyard may have inspired these lines of poetry from 1882:

                We late-lamented, resting here,
                Are mixed to human jam,
                And each to each exclaims in fear,
                ‘I know not which I am!’

The Hardy Tree, Old St Pancras Churchyard
Charles Dickens made the graveyard a site of operations for body-snatchers in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’; and Thomas Hardy’s connection with the place is remembered by a tree surrounded by headstones moved during the excavations.

Sir George Gilbert Scott,
fearsomely Victorian
What else have I learned about St Pancras – the station, rather than the saint? St Pancras is said to ‘distil the very essence of Mid-Victorian power: for it is the most magnificent commercial building of the age.’ Its architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott, who was a hugely prolific Victorian architect who pioneered the ‘studio’ method of doing things: he was the ideas man and he had a couple of dozen ‘pupils’ doing all the work. He was a big celebrity – the Frank Gehry of the 19th century. The St Pancras building – and apparently most of his others – are Gothic Revival style. He designed and restored many, many buildings; there is only one county in all of England and Wales which is, as Mr Bradley puts it, ‘Scott-free’. His designs include such disparate buildings as Christ Church in Christchurch New Zealand,  Reading Gaol, and – this is a spooky co-incidence – the St Nikolai Church in Hamburg (see last Sunday’s post!) which (in other trivia) was the tallest building in the world from 1874 to 1876. Only the tall blackened spire remains.,_Hamburg

The Midland Grand in its heyday
St Pancras was built as a railway hotel – The Midland Grand. The huge glass and steel dome over the tracks behind it is known in railway parlance as ‘the train shed’ (William Barlow, engineer). The hotel, in its heyday, was considered one of the most dazzling in London, but by the 1940s it was found antiquated and unprofitable. It passed into the hands of British Railways, who turned it into railway offices. The station, especially the train shed, suffered bomb damage during both World Wars. In 1966 British Rail tried to knock it down, but the Ministry of Housing slapped a heritage listing on it, at the highest possible level, Grade 1. The poet Sir John Betjeman led the campaign to save it (commemorated by the Betjeman Arms Pub now on the platform level? how nice of someone.) But even its use as offices stopped in the 1980s, and the place became completely derelict. The goods station, which was adjacent, was knocked down and The British Library built on the site.

In recent times, up until 2005, it was possible to pay £5 and take tours around the crumbling old structure, complete with stories of a ghost – a man glimpsed going up the staircase. It was used as a set in films, television shows and music videos. In ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ its exterior was used as King’s Cross Station (the real King’s Cross is, as Mr Bradley puts it, ‘much less cinegenic’).

And so now the restoration of St Pancras is almost finished. Construction is still underway on the new hotel which will occupy part of the building (five star Marriott with 244 bedrooms, 2 restaurant, 2 bars, a health and leisure centre, a ballroom). It was due fro completion by 2008; the signs now say May 2011 - 

Of course the renovations to ‘the train shed’ are complete. In an echo from the past, the expansion of tracks to accommodate the Eurostar meant that what remained of the churchyard of Old St Pancras Church had to be....dug up. A lot of old bones have been shifted for this building.

Not everyone thinks that the restoration of St Pancras is a total success - particularly the contemporary addition to the train shed. See: There was also a fire during construction - the blogger on this site casts aspersions, but I haven't heard that any major portions of the building were badly affected.

So this morning I walked out of my front door, descended through various lifts, and 5 or 10 minutes later stepped through border control and on to the 11.04 Eurostar service to Brussels. An hour and a half later I stepped off it in Belgium. It is 27˚ here, and I am enjoying some Belgian chocolates.

And one final bit of trivia: the grandson of George Gilbert Scott, whose name was Giles Gilbert Scott, was also an architect. He is remembered as the designer of London’s red telephone boxes (1924).

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