Time Out recently presented St Pancras Station as their inaugural ‘Wonder of London’. Profile Books goes a couple of stages further by including the terminus in its ‘wonders of the world’ series – buildings and monuments, such as the Colosseum, Stonehenge and the Forbidden City, whose ‘names will be familiar to almost everyone’.
We’re not sure if the station is quite in that category yet. It’s doubtful it has anything like the global and even national recognition of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Buck Pal and the London Eye. But when you visit the rejuvenated station, recalled to life from its long slumber, you get a sense that St Pancras may indeed become a postcard regular.
Simon Bradley’s history of St Pancras is the perfect introduction to London’s new/old posterchild. It tells the story of the monumental efforts required to build what was then the world’s biggest single-span roof, and the architectural nuances of George Gilbert Scott’s red-brick frontage. Despite its grandeur, the hotel-station combo soon became unfashionable and almost met the wrecking ball in the 1960s. Georgian fanboy Sir John Summerson described St Pancras as ‘nauseating and unworthy of special protection’, and wasn’t alone in his views. Sense prevailed, and the structure slowly evolved into the international rail station we see today.
Bradley moves through the tale with erudition. He’s particularly strong on the station’s architecture, as would be expected from the editor of the Pevsner Guides. But he also gives a highly readable account of the social aspects, such as the lives of employees at the Midand Grand Hotel, and the shock to sensibilities when the three-class system of travel was abolished in 1875 in favour of two classes.
Thanks to Bradley, the anorak class has also been abolished: now anyone can read a book about train infrastructure in one sitting, as the 200 pages fly by like an international journey along High-Speed 1.