London St Pancras – a destination station
Much more than just a train terminus, Matt Thompson finds St Pancras is worth a visit in its own right. When you visit a city on holiday, every second counts. You want to see and do as much as you possibly can, filling every moment with museums, landmarks, restaurants, bars, or whatever else tickles your fancy. If you’re visiting London by Eurostar, that process of discovery begins the moment you depart the train and walk out into the majestic St Pancras building.
More than a station, this place is a monument to grandiose Victorian architecture. And you don’t need to be a train geek to appreciate the place. It’s genuinely gorgeous and certainly among the most stunning public spaces in London. No wonder it’s often referred to as ‘the cathedral of the railways’.
Recently refurbished and beautifully kept, this Gothic masterpiece boasts a huge, spired, terracotta exterior, which opens inside to reveal a seemingly impossible roof of glass and iron – once the largest single-span roof in the world.
When you’re inside, take a moment to look skyward and you’ll notice that decorative features don’t exist for the sake of it. Instead, it’s the structure itself that takes your breath away, with brackets, rivets, supports, girders and refracted light merging together in symbiotic splendor.
Unlike other stations, this building stops travellers in their tracks.
It has an almost calming effect. When we visit that fact’s in clear evidence, as commuters, tourists and visitors take their time, stand in the centre of the structure, and gawp upwards.
If it’s your first time in London, this is quite some welcome to the city.
Staring in wonderment
Once the initial wow factor’s lessened, St Pancras works hard to keep your attention. On the upper concourse, the station’s public art installations are certainly worth your time. Featured in a million selfies, the first piece is a seven foot statue of John Betjeman, former poet laureate and the man credited with helping save the building from demolition in the 1960s.
Known to love both Victorian architecture and railways, Betjeman adored this place, and this statue by Martin Jennings acknowledges that fact, depicting him in bronze, staring in wonderment at the station’s roof – a look replicated by visitors from the world over when they too first discover the building.
Further along is a towering, impossible-to-miss statue measuring nine metres from bottom to top. It’s called “The Meeting Place” and depicts a suited couple in a clinched embrace, presumably having met off the train.
It’s an imposing and intriguing sight, with a series of further bronze artworks placed around its base, each somehow related to the station or train travel more generally. While you can take-in the enormous main artwork from almost any position in the station, it’s worth getting up close to view these smaller pieces, too, most of which include hidden flashes of lightheartedness or hints to history.
A kaleidoscope of colour
When we visit there’s another huge piece of art displayed in the station, too. At the Euston Road end of the building it hangs in front of the station clock and looks like a colourful game of Tetris. Called “Chromolocomotion”, it was created by Scottish artist David Batchelor and is made up of bright interlocking “L” shapes that spray a kaleidoscope of colour down into the concourse when the sun shines through the roof.
Visitors from a few years ago may remember in this same spot a set of Olympic rings were hung for the 18 months before the London 2012 Games. That installation came to symbolise the city’s enthusiasm ahead of Games-time, and while the artwork no-longer hangs as it once did, it’s still in the station today, with the rings recycled into five Olympic-coloured seats that are now available for passenger to rest on as they wait for their train.
Nose hunting tours
If you can find it, one last creation worth sniffing out is a real-size nose affixed to the wall outside the station building, just right of the entrance to the Renaissance Hotel (by the St Pancras Chambers).
Created by artist Rick Buckley in 1997, it’s part of the “London Noses” installation – a project that saw Buckley affix replicas of his own nose to some of the city’s most important buildings.
More than 15 years since the project, today some people go on nose hunting tours to find them all. It’s thought originally there were 35 of them, but nowadays only about 10 noses still exist, with the majority scattered around Soho. Others are at the National Gallery and Tate Britain, with plenty of information available online if you were keen to see them all.
Life in countless variety
Once you’re done with the art, one thing that St Pancras does as well as anywhere else in London is provide somewhere to sit back and watch the world go by. The station boasts fantastic cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, pubs and, if you’re feeling plush, one of the longest champagne bars in the city. It’s a great place to people watch.
London’s a diverse city as it is, but St Pancras is on a different level. Here summer shorts mix with pinstripe suits; people lugging well-worn rucksacks stand shoulder to shoulder with those dragging dainty designer pullalongs. Listen out and you’ll catch a vivid mishmash of languages being spoken, too, and witness life in countless variety. When it’s busy, the place is a melting pot of people, and can be a fascinating sight. Particularly so when you’re relaxing with a drink, and not part of the bustle yourself.
The most opulent surroundings
If you’re really looking to push the boat out, go visit the Booking Room bar and restaurant at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which is accessible from the upper concourse of the station.
Pop trivia fans will recognise the hotel as the location for The Spice Girls now famous “Wannabe” video, but in the bar here you can relax in some of the most opulent surroundings, treating yourself to cocktails or champagne as the rest of the station goes about its business. Of course, it’s not cheap. But it’s grand in a way that few places in London are nowadays, taking you back via service and surroundings to a time of Victorian indulgence.
An ideal stop-off
So, if you’re travelling to London by Eurostar, it’s worth not rushing straight out of the station. Instead give yourself some time to savour St Pancras.
If you’re not coming over by Eurostar, then go visit anyway.
Connected by train, tube and bus, it’s at the very centre of London’s transport system, and sits right next to the world-renowned British Library and just a stone’s throw from Regent’s Canal. It makes an ideal stop-off for a day of sight-seeing, with the station itself being the main attraction.