In London again for meetings, I pause as usual to admire the neo-Gothic grandeur of St Pancras Station. More whimsical than a church, as dramatic as if it were a castle towering over some fastness in a remote and mysterious land, it stands, a monument that celebrates the best of Victorian confidence and imagination. Taken as a whole, it could be the setting for a novel by Mervyn Peake; the former Midland Grand Hotel part of it would be the ideal backdrop for a modern take on the country house murder. Each time I see it, I also pay silent tribute to Sir John Betjeman, who was able to perceive its beauty and the poetry of its George Gilbert Scott and William Henry Barlow architecture and who fought to save it from the institutionalised vandalism that caused the original Euston station to vanish – save for its rather forlorn and redundant triumphal arch. Martin Jennings’ marvellous statue of Betjeman conjures both the poet’s and a universal sense of awe at Barlow’s glorious single-span train-shed roof.
Inside, today, St Pancras is a thriving modern business hub. Skilfully renovated, it contains a fascinating parade of shops, cafés and restaurants cunningly chosen to help travellers to pass their time – and relieve their wallets – while they wait for trains. Some of these trains depart for workaday Midlands places such as Birmingham, Wellingborough and Coventry; some go south to Brighton and other holiday destinations. But what really makes this station an exciting place is that it is the main UK terminus for the Channel Tunnel train – ‘Le Shuttle’. Passengers en route for Europe walk with extra purpose in their gait; they carry their luggage with more panache; they wear lighter, brighter clothes. Business-men and -women bound for Lille look less grey and crumpled than those heading for the City; holidaymakers travelling to Paris are glossier than those putting a brave face on going to Eastbourne in the rain. This festive atmosphere is augmented by people playing impromptu on the piano that has been left in the middle of the shopping precinct for the purpose. And – the final touch – announcements through the tannoy system are always relayed in French as well as English.
I wonder how much criminal activity takes place here. There are the usual signs warning passengers to be vigilant against pickpockets; but that isn’t what I’m really thinking of. In what kinds of business activity are the be-suited, glamorous commuters engaged? Are the man and woman dodging through the crowds, she stumbling in four-inch stilettos, he dragging a large case, merely late for a train that will carry them to a romantic destination, or have they just pulled off a lucrative scam and plan to escape by boarding train after train until they have journeyed far to the east?
All stations, even the most prosaically-built, contain a whiff of adventure, of the non-routine that travel implies. In this country, St Pancras is now queen over all the others. If he had lived to dine in the Grand restaurant there, Betjeman would have been happy and proud – and well-fed.
King’s Cross is now enjoying a similar loving makeover. I await the result with impatience and anticipation. It is not difficult to imagine that murder and mayhem took place many times in the murky, disreputable place that it used to be. It was like a malevolent old man in a dirty raincoat. I look forward to seeing a handsome king emerge from all the burnishing, fit consort for the queen next door.