Tag Archives: St Pancras

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

She just won’t die

How do you define a London film, exactly? I’m not talking about things like Robinson in Space (which isn’t as exciting as the title makes it sound), I’m talking about mainstream cinema.

For instance, many people tend to think of 28 Days Later as a London film, but much of it takes place on the outskirts of Manchester. The Harry Potter films have a lot of scenes set in London, but nobody thinks of them as London films. It’s clear that the definition is unclear.

For me, I suppose, what separates a “London film” from “a film set in London” is something atmospheric, a film reliant on London, that couldn’t be set anywhere else. Alfie, for instance, has a few scenes set in the countryside (though the sanitarium scenes, at least, were filmed in Twickenham) but otherwise relies entirely on the city for its setting. Where else could you set it but in Swinging London in the 1960s? I heard rumours of a remake with Jude Law set in the present, but as we all know, that could never happen. Never happen.

Never happen

There are others – many of the Ealing comedies, for instance, are set in whole or in part in London. The one often cited is Passport to Pimlico, though technically most of that was set in Burgundy. Ah, but how about The Ladykillers?

Now you’re talking. This is indisputably a London film. Indeed, it never even moves beyond the bounds of King’s Cross. Released in 1955, it’s basically the story of a robbery that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the gruesome deaths of the perpetrators. But with laughs.

The movie stars Alec Guinness (wearing Alistair Sim’s dentures, movie fans) as the mastermind of a heist at King’s Cross Station. His fellow-robbers are played by Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green and Cecil Parker. His fifth accomplice, though unwitting, is vital to the plan – an old lady named Mrs Wilberforce, played by Katie Johnson.

As you can see, St Pancras has been cleaned up a lot since this was filmed.

The idea is simple – use the sweet old dear’s house as a base for the job. Convince her they’re a respectable string quintet, and in turn the police will never even consider asking the innocent, slightly dotty Mrs Wilberforce if she knows anything.

The plan, despite the various idiosyncracies of the gang and the well-meaning bumbling of Mrs Wilberforce, goes almost without a hitch. The money van is robbed and, using the instrument cases, the money is lugged back to the house.

Alas, the human factor lets them down – following a blunder, Mrs Wilberforce accidentally discovers the truth and demands that they do the right thing.

So of course they do. The money is returned and everyone learns a valuable lesson. Of course they don’t! Didn’t you see the title of the film? Having been discovered, they decide to silence Mrs Wilberforce for good. I mean, it can’t be that difficult to kill a defenceless old woman, can it?

The Ealing comedies are basically uptight ’50s Britain viewed through a cracked window. Aristocrats, vicars, bank clerks, even little old ladies get subverted in these anti-authoritarian flicks. In The Ladykillers, classical musicians are bank robbers, policemen are incompetent and meddling elders are surprisingly robust. It’s dark, it’s funny and, for a film that’s fifty-five years old, it’s really rather edgy.

For me, as someone who works but fifteen minutes’ brisk walk from King’s Cross, there’s the additional pleasure of seeing my local area (sort of) rendered unrecognisable by history. The King’s Cross of The Ladykillers is a very different place, a place of sooty brickwork and few cars, where a blue police box doesn’t immediately mean aliens are about. Steam trains and bomb damage play important roles in the plot, as do kindly policemen and the notion that maybe not everyone is a criminal suspect. Indeed, perhaps it’s this latter point that dates it more than any location scene (satire).

Even if you’re not into mid-twentieth century London, it’s definitely a film worth checking out to see an excellent cast perform a superbly-written crime caper. Though perhaps it is outwardly dated, at heart it’s got a cynicism that’s very modern. We shall not see its like again, I feel.

Never happen.

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Canal Penetration

I do not appear to understand the concept of a short walk. This fact was brought home to me on Sunday. Having attended a wedding on Wednesday, I was feeling somewhat guilty at the Elvis-level calorie intake I had managed that day, and therefore had resolved to behave myself with a little more restraint. Sunday, I thought, would be an ideal day to get a little exercise. I thought it might be nice to do some more of the Regent’s Canal.

The Regent’s Canal, if you’re not familiar with it (though you may have some passing acquaintance with it if you’re a regular reader of this blog), is a waterway running from the Thames at Limehouse to the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington. The canal was opened in two sections – from Paddington to Camden in 1816 and Camden to Limehouse in 1820. In those days, before decent roads and railways, canals were the arteries of industry. The Grand Junction Canal was the quickest means of transporting goods in quantity from the industrial Midlands to London. The Regent’s Canal therefore served an important economic purpose, as it formed the final link between the Midlands and the Port of London and therefore the rest of the world. It survived the coming of the railways and the roads, but by the 1930s was largely obsolete.

Today, although there is a small amount of cargo, it’s primarily used for pleasure craft. The warehouses and factories that once lined its route have either been demolished or repurposed (most notably, one major interchange between rail and canal is now Camden Lock Market and the Stables). The towpath is a popular route with cyclists, walkers and idiots (yo).

My original intention was to only walk a short section of the canal, say Camden to King’s Cross or Islington. But I have this tendency, once I start walking, to keep on going far longer than is perhaps wise. As a result, I ended up walking all the way to Limehouse Basin. As I had previously walked from Camden to Paddington (hence the photos you have been seeing so far), I can now say that I have walked the full length of the canal.

From a psychogeographical point of view, what’s interesting about this walk is that it let me see familiar places from a different point of view. Of course, I’d seen the canal at Paddington, Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Caledonian Road, Islington, Hackney and Limehouse before. Indeed, I’ve written about it in at least two of those locations in this very blog. But it had just been a landmark then, with no sort of context. I had some vague awareness that this stretch of canal was the same as that stretch of canal, but only as a theoretical thing. To experience the whole thing from a boat’s eye view, as it were, was rather novel. I think I’ve been enlightened in some way.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on for far too long already, given that this was supposed to be a photo-ey entry. I shall keep the prattle to a minimum from here on in, and instead continue to present my (usual crappy) photographs in geographical order from Paddington to Limehouse. Camden Lock is a notable omission here,  due to the fact that on neither of the walks presented here did I actually intend to document the entire canal.

One last point I would like to make is the range of contrast as you go along the river, from affluent Regent’s Park and Little Venice to the post-industrial landscape of the Docklands. I’ll shut up now. For now.

Sorry, me again. At this point on the walk, the canal cut through the hill at Islington, and I had to leave the towpath. Some explanation may be needed for the following photos.

I snapped this because I had walked along this road once before, a couple of years ago, desperately hungover. I was leaving the Barnsbury flat of a friend we shall simply call The Monster early one Sunday morning. I attracted disapproving looks from pious souls. Anyway, to end up here again was rather surprising.

I eventually reached Angel – you may recall that my first paid acting gig was near here. Despite my familiarity with the area, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the canal. Fortunately, this sign guided me. It may also explain some of the stranger sights coming up.

Isn’t this just the dearest little owl?

Spitalfields already? God be damned.

And Shoreditch! How we are honoured!

This is a nice thing to do with a block of council flats. Photographic portraits of local folk. It’s like Eastenders, only without the death and unimaginable horror.

Hackney. If you feel a chill down your spine, that is because we are but a stone’s throw from the Last Tuesday Society’s sinister museum.

A dilapidated narrowboat advocating the cleaning up of canals. This would be that famous bargees’ humour I’ve heard so much about.

Some sort of junction. Further investigation is required, I feel – especially as there’s something familiar about this canal here.

Lo the Isle of Dogs!

Herons are basically the easiest birds in the world to photograph. How I managed to make this one blurry enough to shame the most avid Bigfoot enthusiast is therefore beyond me.

I feel this toy boat has a story to tell.

We are so close, me hearties, I can practically taste that lime!

Is that not the viaduct of the London and Blackwall Railway?

It is! Limehouse! We made it! Long live, long live!

I say “we” made it, but mostly you just looked at photos. I didn’t want to make a big thing of this.

The Thames as the sun begins to set.

The Docklands Light Railway at Westferry. Everyone wants to get on the seats at the front of the train, but for a novel experience I recommend the seats at the back as you enter the tunnel for Bank. It’s like disappearing down a giant oesophagus.


Further Reading:

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/talk-about-burning-your-bridges/ – An earlier entry focusing on a particular part of the Regent’s Canal.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Canals and Waterways, Current events, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Geography, Hackney, History, Islington, Kings Cross, London, Markets, Museums, Photos, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Regency, Rivers, Shoreditch, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, Thames, Transport

St Pancras – more than just a pretty facade

And now, children, we continue our story of London’s termini with St Pancras Station.

These days St Pancras is undoubtedly the most glam of the termini, thanks to the arrival of High Speed One and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (take a hike, Waterloo). Of course, it was not always thus. Yr. Humble Chronicler recalls the days when it was just a drab, second-rate grey sort of place. When you’re overshadowed by the awful Euston Station, you know you’ve hit rock bottom, all. When Alan A. Jackson wrote his book London’s Termini in 1969, he observed that its future was far from certain, although he thought it unlikely that the station would be allowed to disappear entirely.

Having said that, in 1966 British Railways floated the idea of running all St Pancras’ services into King’s Cross, demolishing St Pancras and building an office tower in its place. A look at Euston down the road will show you how awesome that would have looked, and fortunately the uproar caused by the rebuild of that station seems to have given them pause for thought.

Nonetheless, for many years the station was massively underused. The Midland Hotel – the huge Gothic structure that one immediately thinks of when St Pancras is brought up – was closed in 1935, turned into offices and later abandoned, decaying fittings and all. Indeed, St Pancras has had something of the Gothic about it in a way that goes far beyond its architecture.

Consider the circumstances of its construction. The Midland Railway, its builders, drove their railway straight through the slums of Somers Town and Agar Town, moving the occupants on without compensation. The line also cut across the overcrowded St Pancras churchyard, and little reverence was shown to the dead who had to be moved. Accounts speak of open coffins left on site and bones scattered in the road. I’m surprised nobody’s tried to claim there was a curse on the station.

Supernatural aside, the reality behind St Pancras’ semi-abandonment was that in 1923, the Midland Railway became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. The LMS, as it is known to enthusiasts, also took over the much larger London and North Western Railway, whose terminus was at Euston. There was no sense in the same railway having two major termini within ten minutes’ walk of each other, so it’s understandable in practical terms that St Pancras would become the poor relation. Things became worse in the late 1980s with the opening of the Thameslink route, which took yet more of St Pancras’ traffic.

The station in its day was magnificent – the Midland Railway’s philosophy was that they might not be able to get you there as quickly as the other companies, but they’d be sure to get you there in style. The William H. Barlow train shed was, at the time of construction, the largest single-span arched roof in the world. The slightly Gothic-looking ridge that echoes the architecture of the Midland Hotel is actually a coincidence – Barlow thought it would offer some advantage in terms of reducing wind resistance. The hotel was intended to be the finest in London, and was designed by George Gilbert Scott. The original design was to be a storey higher, the Midland Railway’s head offices to be housed on the top floor. However, their decision to base themselves in Derby removed the requirement for one floor.

Scott’s design is sometimes erroneously described as simply being his design for the Foreign Office, hastily redesigned. In fact, though Scott did submit a Gothic revival design for the Foreign Office, and it was rejected, it did not become St Pancras. This was, therefore, his chance to prove himself as a Gothic architect and recover from Lord Palmerston’s snub. Indeed, Scott somewhat snobbily observed of the completed hotel that “my own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose.”

The combination of the Gothic architecture and the fact that it was abandoned have made it a popular filming location. If you’ve seen Batman Begins, the stairwell of Arkham Asylum isn’t in Gotham City at all – it’s the main entrance to the Midland Hotel. When Harry Potter goes to King’s Cross in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone  (Sorceror’s Stone in the US), it’s St Pancras he passes. Even the Spice Girls got into the act with the video for Wannabe. Or so I heard, cough cough. The station itself, having had such an infrequent service for so long, was a popular choice for anyone needing to film at a London terminus without causing disruption. Films with scenes here include King Ralph, Shirley Valentine, Chaplin, Howard’s End and Richard III, among others.

As we now know, of course, fortune was to turn in St Pancras’ favour once more. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link needed a London terminus and – by Jove! It just so happened that there was a half-abandoned one right there between King’s Cross and Euston! The rest, as they say, is history. The rebuilt station is, in Yr. Humble Chronicler’s opinion, a perfect example of how to modernise for the future while retaining respect for the past. You’d hardly think, looking at it today, that it had once been a candidate for closure. Why, they’re even planning to reopen the hotel.

Of course, I can’t finish this entry without mentioning the significance of the shopping arcade. As you can see on the left there, the platform level is supported by pillars. These pillars were originally designed with a very specific aim in mind. Apart from passengers, the major traffic intended to use St Pancras was beer. The Midland Railway served the well-known brewing town of Burton-on-Trent. They therefore built their station with extensive cellars under the platforms in which beer could be stored. The redundant cellars are now the shopping arcade. It’s worth noting that the pillars were specifically built with the optimum spacing for storing beer barrels.

A gloomy picture of the St Pancras undercroft, most likely taken in the 1950s.

The undercroft of St Pancras was to play a significant role in the history of Britain’s labour laws. Thomas Bass was the MP for Burton-on-Trent, a reforming sort of gent, was concerned about the working conditions of the Midland Railway. Trade unions were virtually non-existent in the 19th century, the attitude of the railway companies being very much “Here’s the work, if you don’t like the conditions then someone else can do it and screw you.” The consequence was ridiculously long hours (36-hour shifts were not unknown, even routine with some companies), no pensions and if you wanted to strike, the procedure was to down tools and get fired.

As well as being a Member of Parliament, Bass was a customer of the Midland Railway. And not just any customer.

This customer.

So when he mentioned that he was bothered by working conditions on the Midland Railway, the Midland Railway had to take note or risk a big, empty undercroft. Bass’ involvement with them and others led to the 1872 formation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the first proper railway workers’ union.

Next time you’re enjoying a croissant at St Pancras International, pause a moment. You’re in an important place.

In other news

Fans of this blog should keep an eye on the Evening Standard, for, er, no reason.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Churches, Film and TV, Geography, History, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Occult, Politics, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Transport

The Bloomsbury Christmas

A common complaint levelled against Britain is the weather. Speaking personally, I don’t mind it. I’m a cold-weather person myself. When it gets hot I either tend to get snappy and irritable or – to the relief of all – suffer from heat stroke. I overheat incredibly easily. In short, cold = good. What I’ll agree on, though, is that we tend to get our weather at the wrong time. We’ll get a sudden heatwave in September, or a week of rain in August. Most irritating of all is our snow. This never comes when it should, at least not in London. When we get proper snow (that is, snow that lies on the ground as opposed to the lame five-minute flurry that melts on impact), it’ll usually be in February or November or some other time when it does nothing but annoy.

Despite numerous Hollywood portrayals of rosy-cheeked carol singers huddled under a gas lamp in the snow at Christmas time (oh, hey Bridget Jones’ Diary, I didn’t see you there), white Christmases don’t really happen here. Of all the major population centres of Britain, we have by far the lowest number of white Christmases. The highest, by the way, is Aberdeen. This is largely due to the fact that London is a city of seven million people, countless animals and God-only-knows how many machines and electrical devices, all of which produce heat. And I’m afraid to say, all you people who live in less populous and colder climes who put money on it this year, white Christmases are measured from London (if a snowflake lands on the roof of the London Weather Centre on 25th December, it’s officially a white Christmas). Also, unlike many of its neighbours, Britain is warmed by the Gulf Stream, making white Christmases even less likely. Bing Crosby can dream all he likes. So.

That meant that last Monday, when we not only had snow but had it lie, was particularly unusual. I love the snow. I think it’s one of those rare occasions when it’s justifiable to regress to childhood. Others being Halloween, Christmas and birthdays, if your childhood involved heinous amounts of alcohol (mine did).

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. There’s always a lot of moaning when it starts snowing. And yeah, okay, it delays the trains and means a lot of places have to close, but still, snoooooow! I mean, come on, at least it gives you an excuse not to go into work.

Oh, and inevitably we had the papers getting all snarky about claims that trains were held up because the snow was too fluffy. The media, of course, like this sort of thing because it means they can sneer at the railways. In fact, fluffy snow is not a stupid excuse. The reason fluffy snow causes so much trouble on the railways is that the flakes are small and light enough to get sucked in through electric trains’ air intakes and thus into the workings. AND NOW YOU KNOW.

In the meantime, here are some photos I took around Bloomsbury and environs before the snow started to melt.

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Snow Days Don’t Count


The British Museum. Just near here I met a bunch of New Yorkers who were quite surprised that this was all it took to bring the city to a halt.


This was the sight that greeted me when I woke up.  I mean seriously dude.


Shin-deep snow. The only time I can recall encountering deeper snow in London was back in the 1980s, when it came up to my knees. Mind you, I was three at the time.


While attempting to take this Highly Symbolic Picture of an Underground sign covered in snow, I failed to notice the office block sneaking up on me from round the corner. In the ensuing battle I lost three teeth and a leg.


The junction at Tottenham Court Road.


Looking towards High Holborn. This junction is normally so jammed that it’s impossible to cross. In fact, it’s so crowded with traffic that I once saw a policeman do three drivers for obstruction in one go. Ha ha ha that was funny.


Bloomsbury Square. No humorous caption I’m afraid.


Charles James Fox had himself cryogenically frozen at the moment of his death, along with his entire garden. It is now all he is remembered for. Memento mori.


Looking towards Great Ormond Street. As a meta thing, the guy right in front was just taking a photo himself.


Harry was staying at Hogwarts for another Christmas.

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