Getting Cross

Seeing the new Harry Potter film (it turns out Voldemort and Tom Riddle are the same person) has inspired me to continue my thrilling series on the termini of London with King’s Cross.

Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, King’s Cross is now probably the most famous railway station in London. Although, as I believe I said before, it rather irritates me that in the films, they decided to use St Pancras for the external shots instead. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that King’s Cross didn’t look stereotypically British enough, or just not sufficiently magical.

I know you’re not supposed to, but I actually prefer the architecture of King’s Cross to its Gothic neighbour. Its Italianate simplicity has a kind of casual dignity, a kind of unfussy impressiveness, like it’s cool and it doesn’t even need to try. Granted, these days it’s a little spoilt by that municipal bus shelter thing British Rail saw fit to graft on to its front, but that’s due to be demolished, so thank God for the triumph of common sense.

The station was designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway, a company whose name alone inspires. It was opened in 1852, and the simplicity of the design was actually a deliberate measure to save money. The whole station, including the Great Northern Hotel, cost less than the frontage alone at Euston Station, a snip at £123,000 for the biggest station in London at the time.

The only conspicuous ornamentation was on the clock tower, which had been on display at the Great Exhibition the previous year. For some reason it has four faces, even though one is never visible due to the fact that there’s a bloody great train shed in the way. The clock also used to have three bells for sounding the hour, but these were removed in 1947. It’s also worth noting that it never agreed with the clock at St Pancras, which must have made for some interesting scenes among last-minute passengers.

As time went on, the original station was found wanting – pity the poor signalman, who had to juggle local services, goods trains, expresses to Scotland and, from the 1860s, Metropolitan Railway trains (which had to come in backwards). At peak times there was so much traffic that it could take up to half an hour to cover the half a mile to Holloway. Extra platforms were added and, in 1875, a whole new station. This was known as “Kings Cross Main Line (Local Station),” but is now the suburban platforms. This, fans of the Harry Potter books should note, is where Platforms 9 and 10 can be found. Legend also has it that this is the site of Boudicca’s grave, although scholars refer to this theory as “bollocks.”

In 1878, the Metropolitan got its own platforms (or, as they were known then, “Kings Cross (Suburban),” which is of course not confusing in the slightest), which were notorious among train drivers for being very difficult to start from – the tunnel leading out was smoky in steam days and the track was steeply graded and sharply curved, and condensation made the rails slippery. Some poor egg was stationed in the tunnel to drop sand on the rails every time a train went by. In 1932, one train actually slipped backwards without the driver realising until it bumped into the locomotive behind.

Various other alterations followed over the years, but I suspect they would be of zero interest to anyone other than my fellow geeks, so I’ll spare you for now.

The station has always been associated with speed and the romance thereof. In the late 19th century, they were one of the starting points for the Races to the North, when the East and West Coast railways competed to see who could provide the fastest service to Scotland (an unfortunate side effect of which was that passengers often ended up in Aberdeen at around 4am).

During the twentieth century, the luxurious expresses of the London and North Eastern Railway departed from King’s Cross. Most famous of these was the non-stop Flying Scotsman, but one should not forget the streamlined splendour of the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation or the Queen of Scots.

This art deco opulence was slightly marred in 1934 by the discovery of a gruesome crime – a disembodied pair of legs were found in the left luggage office. The crime was never solved, and the only lead police had was that the legs fitted a torso found in the luggage office at Brighton. This can only mean one thing – if a man can carry half a woman on the Underground across London without being noticed, there is no excuse for those tourists who make a massive hash of simply carrying a suitcase.

The station sustained some damage during World War II and was taken over by British Railways in 1948 who, as they so loved to do, ran the place into the ground. One notable event during the 1950s was the station’s prominent role in The Ladykillers, about which I have written before.

A plan was drawn up in the Sixties to extensively modernise the station with a new extension. This never came to pass. but based upon the contemporary account by Alan A. Jackson that I have in front of me, it would basically have been like what we got, only bigger and worse. The horrible extension that was actually built appeared in 1972.

The station saw a number of accidents over its lifetime, mostly caused by the aforementioned steep gradients, but the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987 was something else entirely. A discarded match or cigarette set fire to forty years’ worth of accumulated debris under one of the escalators in the Underground station. As a result of a hitherto unknown phenomenon called “the trench effect,” and the drafts caused by trains moving through the tunnels down below, this resulted in a conflagration that claimed the lives of thirty-one people. Subsequent to this, fire safety precautions on the Tube were drastically overhauled and smoking was banned altogether.

1997 saw the station achieve worldwide fame with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which Harry famously takes the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters (although, as I’ve said before, it seems possible that J. K. Rowling was thinking of a different station altogether). In tribute to this, half a luggage trolley is stuck into the wall near the suburban platforms. There is no Platform 9¾ for us Muggles, alas, but as of 2010 there is a Platform 0, which frankly I find a little sinister.

I’ll say one thing for the modern railway, they have finally figured out that maybe a nice, user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing station is what people want, and in 2005 plans were announced to restore the station. It was decided that nothing could be better than the 1972 extension, and therefore they are replacing it with nothing – it’s being demolished and turned into a plaza. The older buildings are being cleaned and patched up and a new, modern (in a good way) concourse is being put up to the west of the station.

The future is looking bright for Cubitt’s creation. All in all, it’s not been a bad life for an economy terminus.

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1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, History, Kings Cross, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Transport

One response to “Getting Cross

  1. Hurrah, a post on King’s Cross. Being from Newcastle, this is the station I use to enter and leave London. And I prefer it to the others really.

    Even now, with the reintroduction of the Flying Scotsman train, I feel a bit of nostalgia entering King’s Cross … maybe I’m just sad!

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