A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s difficult to know when the tide of popular opinion turned and Victorian architecture stopped being everyone’s favourite whipping boy and became instead something worth preserving. It’s more difficult still to understand clearly why people took against it so much. I can remember as a child that my Edwardian-born father was firmly of the opinion that the Victorians could not – as Bertie Wooster once famously put it – be trusted around a pile of bricks and a trowel. At its finest Victorian architecture is bullish, ebullient and self-confident … and perhaps that was the problem. It reminded us of our lost past. Simon Bradley probably puts his finger on it fairly accurately when he says:
“The great buildings of Victorian Britain, so confident and optimistic, had become poignant reminders of former glories, like swaggering family portraits squeezed into the commonplace house of a penurious descendant.”
That St Pancras Station not only survived but is now magnificently reborn as the Eurostar terminal and probably the most impressive railway station in the world, is thanks in no small part to The Victorian Society and its chairman Nikolaus Pevsner. They secured Grade I Listed Building status for both George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel – the startling neo-Gothic building which fronts the station – and W H Barlow’s superb train shed behind.
The history of St Pancras is a roller-coaster ride, and you couldn’t hope for a better or more entertaining guide than Simon Bradley. He not only knows and loves his subject with the fervour of the true enthusiast, he also knows how to communicate that enthusiasm to his readers – irrespective of their own levels of knowledge and expertise. Add to that a wry sense of humour and an elegant writing style, and you have a book it’s hard to put down.
For instance … where many would have explained that the clear span arched roof of the train shed expands and contracts with the changes in temperature, and left it at that, Simon Bradley adds, rather wonderfully:
“… like the shallow breathing of a mighty creature in its sleep.”
St Pancras Station isn’t just about its eponymous subject, however … in order to help us understand the context better the author leads us through the stages of the Gothic Revival, introduces us to the main characters and delivers along the way telling vignettes and little barbed asides about them that reveal more in one sentence than a straight biographer could probably manage in several paragraphs. Take, for instance, this comment regarding Brunel’s handiwork in Bristol:
” The implacable Pugin thought Brunel’s Great Western Gothic ‘at once costly, and offensive, and full of pretension’ but then Pugin said that kind of thing all the time.”
Although the subject matter itself is fascinating enough not to need much enlivening, there is plenty here to delight the snapper-up of unconsidered trifles – from the “advanced state of desperation” caused to early train travellers by the absence of on-board toilet facilities to the fact that the basement of St Pancras was specifically designed for the storage of beer (the transport of beer from the Midlands being a major source of income for the railway). The spacing of the even ranks of cast iron columns in the basement was based on the dimensions of a barrel. Thus, when the train shed was constructed overhead, the 25 giant arches had to be placed so as to coincide with the columns in the vaults beneath. The basic design was, quite literally, dictated by a beer barrel.
St Pancras opened for business before construction was completed – purely because the company badly needed the revenue – and we are treated once again to a beautifully spare description of the historic moment. There were no speeches, no fanfares and no grand opening ceremony:
“A little after midnight on the last day of September 1898 the night shift from the Midland’s booking office walked quietly across the road from King’s Cross where the company had been basing operations …”
The first arrival was the overnight mail from Leeds at 4.15am.
The Midland Grand Hotel closed in 1935 when the Midland Railway was subsumed by the London, Midland and Scottish – passing ascendancy to Euston. It was very little use as office space and thus earmarked for destruction, but then it was decided that it wasn’t even worth the effort and cost of demolishing, so instead it was declared a dead loss and effectively left to rot quietly, its magnificent and historic interiors preserved by disinterest and neglect.
In the 1960s there were grandiose plans to redevelop the whole of the Kings Cross and St Pancras area(which is where the Victorian Society entered the fray), but they came to nothing. The only tangible result was that St Pancras achieved Listed Building status.
Fast forward to 1994 and the opening of the Channel Tunnel. London and Continental Railways needed a terminus for its Eurostar service …
The wheel has now turned full circle. Scott’s building will once more house one of the finest hotels in the country and St Pancras Station is being hailed a modern wonder of the world.
Not bad for a building that the architectural historian Sir John Summerson once described as “nauseating”.
Paperback. Oct 2007. ISBN: 978-1-86197-951-3. 224pp.
Hardback. Jan 2007. ISBN-10: 1861979967 ISBN-13: 978-1861979964. 224pp.