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May 22, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Spring 2012 issue
Splendour of Victorian travel revived
Words: Jim Dunn
Nothing less than a Victorian masterpiece, although those wishing to be unkind have called it a monstrosity, the wonderful and massive St Pancras Hotel and Station area in London, was designed by leading Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott and built at the height of Britain’s imperial power. Yet it could all have easily been reduced to a heap of rubble.
Thanks, however, to the enlightened government of the early sixties, after many years of uncertainty, neglect and general disinterest, the site was saved. Today it’s a magnificently restored and protected hotel and station forecourt which ironically has turned out to be Britain’s gateway to Europe.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of preserving the site was Britain’s great post-War poet and general commentator of things topical at the time, Sir John Betjeman. For his efforts he is rewarded with a statue on the concourse.
The area is now called the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and when you visit London as you might very well do this special year of the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II (who could miss all that?) take a moment to wander round the St Pancras area and see for yourself. It’s a living, working museum of architectural and design interest with plenty of coffee shops and retail therapy available at hand.
‘There is no other building in London or elsewhere that embodies more precisely the achievement of mid-Victorian Britain,’ wrote the first historian of the St Pancras area, Jack Simmons.
Today this most romantic building with its fairytale skyline of seemingly Disneyworld views of chimneys, pinnacles, towers and spires has become available to the public. You could simply have a look, or you could visit the Champagne Bar on the main platform. (How chic to have some champagne and smoked salmon before you tackle that train journey). Or how about a meal or an overnight stay before heading up country to the north of England in the footsteps of the country’s Empire builders? Even if you decided to stay in the capital you are only a short walk or cab ride from the West End.
If you are travelling to Europe on Eurostar or paying a visit to London’s suburbs you will have to pass through this great Victorian wonder. The Eurostar terminal has become an integral part of the new development. And so a Victorian building thought at one time to be obsolete is now the centre of travel for the future.
The whole area’s latest salvation began in 1996 when it was decided to establish the Eurostar and Channel Tunnel Terminal there, and with the arrival of the Manhattan Loft company to redevelop and recover the historic interiors.
You can even have a home high above the station concourse. London property tycoon Harry Handelsman, founder of the ever popular Manhattan Lofts developments is offering apartments in the restored building. They are not cheap and why should they be as they are, to use that much abused word, unique, and do not come up for sale all that often.
I first saw the building way back in the early seventies when a client was based for a pittance in the dilapidated and neglected building’s basement, but even then you could feel the history and see the intricate Victorian work, abandoned and crying out for help.
The restoration of Scott’s building is a huge success and reflects the skill of Harry Handelsman. The original spaces have been opened out again and there are several new restaurants and bars to be visited. Then there’s the opulent Victorian decorative schemes that have either been restored or recreated. The whole interior has been cleaned up, restored and, where it was unavoidable, replace. It’s a triumph!
Now that it has been recovered, spearheaded by Mr Handelsman, it seems odd that at one time it was considered worthless and dispensable. The original sumptuous decorative schemes are there in all their glory.
Hurry to see The Grand Staircase…what an entry or exit one can make on this! The stairway is tall and spectacular and is supported on iron beams. It rises and divides under a ribbed Gothic vault…heaven.
St Pancras was the creation of the Midland Railway which wanted its own terminus in London. This new station was to be a spectacular advertisement for the railway, designed to beat all its competitors. In that it has succeeded. With the possible exception of the much knocked about London’s Victoria Station to the south of the capital which retains a little of its Victoriana, St Pancras looks like a train station should look – big, bold and grand. A perfect starting point for some wonderful journey.
If you are heading to Britain this year my advice is to book now for your air, car and hotel needs. If there is one thing the Brits still excel at it must surely be organising and producing The Grand Occasion and with two huge events this year, the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee culminating in the Thames River Pageant in June, the world will be fighting its way to the capital. London already traditionally has its peak tourist season during the summer months when these two events are taking place, so watch this space for house full notices.