St Pancras station — London's cathedral of the rails — turns 150 years old today.
Its one-and-a-half-century anniversary is marked with a towering six-foot birthday cake, created by Parisian cookery school Le Cordon Bleu — the icing depicting key moments in the station's rich history.
It was on 1 October at 4.20am, that the William Barlow-designed railway shed welcomed its first train — the 10.05pm overnight mail from Leeds.
Yet in the early days of St Pancras, people weren't the main commodity being transported on the trains — it was beer. Burton-upon-Trent brewery Bass used the bowels of the station — today converted into boutique shops — as the main London storage facility for its beer, as did a number of other breweries.
Milk — delivered to St Pancras from farms in the Peak District some 150 miles away — was another early liquid money spinner.
In 1874, the Midland Railway operated the UK's first luxury rail service, known as the Pullman train. And by 1902, 150 trains were running to and from St Pancras daily — with passengers travelling to destinations including Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Carlisle, Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Lowestoft.
All those passengers needed somewhere to stay. George Gilbert Scott's showy Grand Midland Hotel was completed in 1876 — offering the height of luxury to stopover passengers. That was the idea, anyway. The hotel was almost immediately dated — offering just nine baths between 300 rooms [pdf]. It closed in 1935 due to poor profits.
A 500kg bomb damaged the station in 1942, but a larger threat came in 1966 when the British Railways Board proposed demolishing St Pancras altogether. This was a time when rail was in steep decline, as Britons took to cars and roads in their droves. A campaign launched by John Betjeman — who would go on to become poet laureate — eventually led to the station earning Grade I listing, and avoiding the grim fate of its neighbour at Euston.
Betjeman was honoured with a statue on the station concourse (and a pub named after him), when St Pancras reopened in 2007 — following major renovations, and the addition of the Eurostar terminals, shifted from Waterloo. Another statue — Paul Day's The Meeting Place — faced some sharp criticism when unveiled, yet has become an emblem of the romance of the place. Says CityMetric's Jonn Elledge of today's St Pancras as he ranks it the city's finest terminus, "I mean it’s just brilliant isn’t it? The outside is beautiful. The inside is beautiful... Even the roof, for heaven’s sake, is beautiful – the blue of the arches automatically bringing to mind joyful days and cloudless skies."
St Pancras International is now how London greets thousands of international passengers daily, welcoming up to 50 million people a year. And what an awe-inspiring welcome it is.