If you want to find the vision of an elusively prosperous and unified Europe, you have to go to a 19th-century railway station in London, Brexit or no. At the sparkling St. Pancras rail terminal, you can sit at the longest champagne bar in Europe and raise your sparkling glass to a train departing for Paris.
Some of the Eurostar trains go to Brussels, and all are sleek, clean, long and fast. You could board one mid-morning and be in the French or Belgian capital for lunch. Not that you’d need to. Here at St. Pancras, you can check out the gorgeous restaurants and bars of the St. Pancras Renaissance five-star hotel, or in the concourse in the trendy Betjeman Arms, or in the Arcade below, where you will find gourmet food markets and high-end retailers.
For those who saw Europe as Britain’s path to a future after empire, St. Pancras became both a literal and symbolic connection to the Continent. When Queen Elizabeth reopened it in 2007 after a three-year, $1.7 billion renovation, she said: “The remarkable rebirth of this great and gleaming station means that people across the whole of Britain and not just the Southeast are suddenly quite a bit closer to Europe.” As we know, in diffident British English, “quite a bit” means quite a lot. The Eurostar takes two hours and 15 minutes to go from St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord via the Channel Tunnel.
The rapid physical connection — up to 21 trains daily to Paris, another 11 to Brussels — remains after the recent Brexit vote, and a new service to Amsterdam is in the works. But what of the emotional and cultural links? Will Europhilic Londoners come to look back on St. Pancras International as signifying their golden moment in Europe, as evanescent as its locomotives?
Or, perversely, will the Brexiteers go to St. Pancras to get their Continental fix without having to leave Blighty? Of the million travelers who pass through the terminal each week, a quarter don’t step foot on a train; they are there to meet others and for the high-end retailers, the gourmet food shops, the literati bookshop, the farmers market or the bars and hotel.
Rob Haycocks, a spokesman for Eurostar, said it’s still too early “to know how Brexit would affect our business.”
To a longtime habitue of St. Pancras such as myself, the makeover as a major European transportation hub with a tangible Euro vibe is not so much transformative as transcendental. It’s not possible to grasp the significance of the renovation without considering St. Pancras’s history of rise, fall and rebirth.
Like all great Victorian architecture, the station was conceived as a synthesis of art and technology, a product of capital wealth and competition during Britain’s industrial revolution. At St. Pancras, technology took the form of the train shed, engineered by William Henry Barlow and formed of iron ribs and glass to create a structure measuring almost 700 feet long and 245 feet wide. It was completed in 1868 as the world’s largest single-span roof.
The art came in the architecture of the combined station building and hotel, which formed an ornate block on the south side of the platforms and shed. The artist was the architect George Gilbert Scott, whose composition became London’s most conspicuous Gothic Revival building after the Houses of Parliament. The station also was a showcase for the central English cities served by its owners, the Midland Railway Co. The 60 million rose-red bricks, the carved stone and polished granite give the station its distinctive polychromy. Its towers and spires — with French, Flemish and Venetian touches, presciently — produced a skyline on the Euston Road of unfettered Gothic exuberance. The station and hotel were fully finished in 1877 and soon became a London landmark. In an 1884 painting by John O’Connor (“From Pentonville Road Looking West”), the St. Pancras suggests a medieval cathedral rising above the mists of its subordinate city.
The station, named after a Roman martyr, is the most ornate of three major rail terminals clustered along the Euston Road. To its east lies King’s Cross; to the west, Euston Station.
By the 1960s, faded Victorian buildings were as popular as whalebone corsets. In the age of modernity, the old neoclassical Euston Station and its grand arch were torn down and replaced with something resembling a provincial air terminal. King’s Cross and St. Pancras also were in line for demolition, but the loss of the Euston Arch so galvanized preservationists that the other stations were saved. The most prominent crusader was the poet John Betjeman (1906-1984), who led an effort to get the buildings protected by preservation statutes.
But being saved is not the same as being loved. When I started using St. Pancras in the 1970s, it was a dump. The once-vibrant effects of masonry and glass were faded under grime, paint was peeling and the fabric of the building was badly deteriorating. The hotel, which closed during the Depression, had been converted into partitioned offices for the now-
defunct British Railways, and was abandoned in the 1980s.
For the waiting passengers, “refreshments” were mediocre and scant. You had to pay to use the toilets, which, I realize in retrospect, was probably a way to discourage vagrants and junkies. At the far end of the concourse, there was a wretched station bar, a place of stained carpet and beer-sticky counters. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. Outside, the diesel trains coughed fumes too and, on leaving the station, gave you a view of the gasworks and canal.
Being young and from the sticks, I found the shabbiness displaced by the excitement of arriving in London. But later I came to see that when it was new, St. Pancras signified the wealth and power of its age, and a century later it reflected a diminished society, a time and place of economic malaise, industrial strife and the generational anger of the Sex Pistols.
A government-owned enterprise, London & Continental Railways, was behind the station’s renaissance, itself part of a $14 billion investment in high-speed rail infrastructure between London and the Channel Tunnel.
Soon after the new St. Pancras International opened, I found myself in a mobile-phone shop in the Arcade where the hip, young assistant helpfully inserted a data card into a device. This lower “undercroft” was built to receive barrels of beer but now has about 60 retail enterprises, including such posh shops as Fortnum & Mason, the White Company and Pink. Buying the data card was no small act but a huge gesture, emblematic of a new, better place occupying an older, drearier one.
If a place can have spirit, then St. Pancras itself will remember its waves of history, the grand salons of the Victorian hotel and the sumptuous booking hall. It will recall a Europe gone bad, when German bombs fell on the station in World War II and — folks forget this — during World War I in the Zeppelin raids on London.
What would Betjeman make of the new station, and of Brexit? In his poems, he presents a midcentury England inextricably woven into its past. He is nostalgic and wistful, and his verse settles on the immutability of country lanes and thatched inns and of High Church Anglicanism. He hated industrial agriculture and saw land-rich farmers as ready to sell out the countryside.
Some critics view Betjeman as a great, reincarnated Romantic; others see him as little more than a doggerel-artist. Even his great booster Philip Larkin, writing the introduction to “John Betjeman Collected Poems,” calls him “insular” and “regressive.”
The new St. Pancras features a seven-foot bronze statue of Betjeman by Martin Jennings, and the poet is honored, too, in the station’s gastropub. As for the sculpture, there’s nothing Modern here. It captures a literal Betjeman: rotund, disheveled, on the go.
In its traditional rhyme and meter, Betjeman’s verse rested like St. Pancras in the 19th century. This heightened its emotional power, Larkin argued, so that even the most trivial subjects “carry a kind of primitive vivacity.”
It is plausible to believe that Betjeman would have associated himself with the “Leave” camp, which campaigned on a platform of stronger borders and greater sovereignty. His England was Albion writ large. Larkin, writing in 1971 — two years before Britain joined the European Economic Community — said of Betjeman, “[What] a poor figure he would have cut in the Paris of Stein and Cocteau; he was not, and never has been, a cosmopolitan.”
The statue has Betjeman looking skyward, his hand on his hat, to see where Barlow’s arch meets Scott’s Gothic fabric. His gaze is away from the Eurostar trains and their passengers as they glide forth now to a different, more fragmented Europe. The ghost of one of Larkin’s poems seems to be aboard. “My train draws out, and the last thing I see / Is my three friends turning from the light.”