Sunday 16 December 2007

St Pancras

There has been an enormous amount of publicity to celebrate the reopening of St Pancras Station as the Eurostar terminal for London. As a regular user of St Pancras in the Seventies and Eighties, I still struggle to comprehend this transformation. The place I knew was gloomy and uncared for. Its former glory, especially that of the train shed, could still be dimly appreciated and the hotel outside retained its sense of presence in the turmoil of the Euston Road but it seemed to be well and truly, on the skids. When the Thameslink line opened in 1988 the commuter trains from Bedford, Luton and St Albans no longer ran into St Pancras. They were hustled down a tunnel into the meanest possible subterranean platform that somehow epitomised the scorn that the Thatcher government had for public services. From that point I saw very little of St Pancras.

The last time I visited with a camera was twenty years ago in October 1987 and these are a few of the photographs. The clock and the train shed had an air of distinction but the overall impression was of a half empty facility which only intermittently came to life and then not for long. The trains and locomotives often looked shabby and neglected; these examples are not untypical. There was a sense that in a climate of persistent underinvestment in public services its days must be numbered. When the idea emerged that it could be the terminal for a high speed rail link with the Channel Tunnel it seemed improbable. Simply in terms of geography it made no more sense than running trains from Norwich into Waterloo and involved an immense amount of tunnelling under East London. Despite my reservations the project went ahead and I have been preparing myself for my next Eurostar trip by reading Simon Bradley’s book and watching a series of documentaries shown on BBC2.

The TV programmes were typically shallow being almost exclusively focused on human interest stories among the workforce to the exclusion of the engineering, construction and restoration. The misadventures of a sinister PR team and their champagne bar obsession took up two episodes and there was a lot more than I needed about the “iconic” meeting place sculpture. Someone writing on Flickr seemed to get that right in describing it as a 3 dimensional Jack Vettriano. Bradley’s book, on the other hand is readable and well informed and free of the sound of axe grinding that accompanied Simon Jenkin’s ill tempered Guardian article on November 9th. I prefer the uncritical enthusiasm of Jonathan Glancey’s feature (The Miracle of St Pancras) on October 11th. I doubt that he was surprised that so many Guardian readers found things to complain about. Residents of the East Midlands and South Yorkshire feel marginalised in the new order while travellers into Waterloo are unexcited about the prospect of spending the 20 minutes (and more) of saved journey time to Paris along the Jubilee and Victoria lines just to reach St Pancras. Some have observed that the covered platform extensions are singularly lacking in imagination and others have questioned the expenditure of 1 million pounds on a sculpture that is pure kitsch. So, I am now fully prepared for my expedition to St Pancras on December 18th. although nothing can quite prepare you for the surly security staff or the ice cold glare of suspicion at passport control.

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