St Pancras Sunset“What the Londoner sees in his mind’s eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset…and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street“ (Sir John Betjeman, 1967) Image taken from Pentonville Road, October 2011
Situated in the very heart of the capital, Nelson’s Column, dedicated to Britain’s most beloved naval hero, is by far one of London’s most famous landmarks.
When it was first unveiled in 1843, the column wasn’t London’s only lofty monument to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. If you’d been around at the time and had ventured north towards Kentish Town, you would have discovered Nelson’s Tree…
The tall sycamore was said to have a direct link with Nelson who, as a 12 year old boy in early 1771, travelled from his native Norfolk to spend time with his uncle, William Suckling who lived at Grove Cottage, Kentish Town.
Whilst staying in what was then a very rural north London, Nelson is believed to have tended his uncle’s garden- which included planting the seed that would eventually blossom into the grand tree upon which his name would be bestowed.
Following his stint in Kentish Town, young Horatio headed further south to Sheerness in Kent, where he joined his other uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, aboard HMS Triumph.
Being sent to sea was something the budding young Nelson had specifically requested he be allowed to do.
His uncle agreed to take him on as a servant, although he was slightly bemused- Horatio was a sickly child, and the captain expressed concern about his nephew being “sent to rough it out at sea.”
In June 1846, (over forty years after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar in which Nelson was famously killed), The London Illustrated News reported that the houses surrounding Nelson’s Tree are “to be shortly removed in the formation of a new street; but the Sycamore, we are assured, will be spared.”
Sadly, despite these assurances, no trace of the tree can be seen today (nor can I find details on when it was felled).
The article also stated that, “as a guide to visitors whom curiosity may lead to the locality, we may mention that the Tree stands close to the southern wall of the Castle Tavern.”
Kentish Town’s Castle Tavern was originally built in 1651- the image above represents how it would have appeared during Nelson’s time.
In 1848, the pub was rebuilt on the same spot.
In recent years, the former Castle has had a rather chequered history.
A few years ago, it was turned into a live music joint called the Bullet Club. When this attracted noise complaints, the venue was rebranded The Flowerpot Club… which closed in 2010.
Sadly, this historic building now appears to be in the process of demolition; no doubt a process which will result in the site being replaced with a block of outrageously priced apartments.
As mentioned earlier, the 1843 edition of the London Illustrated News mentioned that the now long-lost Nelson Tree could be found towards the southern wall of the Castle Tavern.
Today, this site is covered by another forgotten local relic… ‘Kentish Town South’; one of London Underground’s many abandoned ‘ghost stations.’
Originally planned under the name ‘Castle Road’, Kentish Town South opened in June 1907.
Sandwiched between Kentish Town and Camden Town stations, Kentish Town South suffered low passenger numbers from the off and closed in 1924 after just 17 years.
After being used as an air raid shelter in WWII, Kentish Town South’s street level building was converted into shop units- which are today home to a branch of Cash Converters.
Part of the station is retained as an emergency access and evacuation point and sharp eyed commuters can still spot the hollow, cavernous remains as they whoosh through below.
In 1951, and apparently inspired by a real life (although quickly resolved) incident, Sir John Betjeman penned a short story about the unfortunate ‘Mr Basil Green’, who made the grave mistake of alighting at the ghost station following a mistake by the tube guard…
The full text of this darkly humorous story, which was originally broadcast on the BBC Home Service and takes a gleeful dig at meddling civil servants, can be read below…
* * *
‘South Kentish Town’, by Sir John Betjeman (1951).
This is a story about a very unimportant station on the Underground railway in London.
It was devastatingly unimportant.
I remember it quite well. It was called ‘South Kentish Town‘ and its entrance was on the Kentish Town Road, a busy street full of shops.
Omnibuses and tramcars passed the entrance every minute, but they never stopped. True, there was a notice saying ‘STOP HERE IF REQUIRED‘ outside the station. But no one required, so nothing stopped.
Hardly anyone used the station at all. I should think about three people a day. Every other train on the Underground railway went through without stopping: “Passing South Kentish Town!”
Passengers used Camden Town Station to the south of it, and Kentish Town to the north of it, but South Kentish Town they regarded as an unnecessary interolation, like a comma in the wrong place in a sentence, or an uncalled-for remark in the middle of an interesting story.
When trains stopped at South Kentish Town the passengers were annoyed.
Poor South Kentish Town.
But we need not be very sorry for it.
It had its uses.
It was a rest-home for tired ticket-collectors who were also liftmen: in those days there were no moving stairways as they had not been invented.
“George,” the Station Master at Leicester Square would say, “You’ve been collecting a thousand tickets an hour here for the last six months. You can go and have a rest at South Kentish Town.” And gratefully George went.
Then progress came along, as, alas it so often does: and progress, as you know, means doing away with anything restful and useless.
There was an amalgamation of the Underground railways and progressive officials decided that South Kentish Town should be shut.
So the lifts were wheeled out of their gates and taken away by road in lorries. The great black shafts were boarded over at the top; as was the winding spiral staircase up from the Underground station. This staircase had been built in case the lifts went wrong – all old Underground stations have them.
The whole entrance part of the station was turned into shops. All you noticed as you rolled by in a tramcar down the Kentish Town Road was something that looked like an Underground station, but when you looked again it was two shops; a tobacconist’s and a coal-merchant’s.
Down below they switched off the lights on the platforms and in the passages leading to the lifts, and then they left the station to itself.
The only way you could know, if you were in an Underground train, that there had ever been a South Kentish Town Station, was that the train made a different noise as it rushed through the dark and empty platform. It went quieter with a sort of swoosh instead of a roar and if you looked out of the window you could see the lights of the carriages reflected in the white tiles of the station wall.
Well now comes the terrible story I have to tell.
You must imagine for a moment Mr Basil Green.
He was an income tax official who lived in N.6 which was what he called that part of London where he and Mrs Green had a house.
He worked in Whitehall from where he sent out letters asking for money (with threat of imprisonment if it was not paid).
Some of this money he kept himself, but most of it he gave to politicians to spend on progress.
Of course it was quite all right, Mr Green writing these threatening letters as people felt they ought to have them.
That is democracy.
Every weekday morning of his life Mr Green travelled from Kentish Town to the Strand reading the News Chronicle.
Every weekday evening of his life he travelled back from the Strand to Kentish Town reading the Evening Standard.
He always caught exactly the same train. He always wore exactly the same sort of black clothes and carried an umbrella. He did not smoke and only drank lime-juice or cocoa. He always sent out exactly the same letters to strangers, demanding money with threats.
He had been very pleased when they shut South Kentish Town Station because it shortened his journey home by one stop.
And the nice thing about Mr Basil Green was that he loved Mrs Green his wife and was always pleased to come back to her in their little house, where she had a nice hot meal ready for him.
Mr Basil Green was such a methodical man, always doing the same thing every day that he did not have to look up from his newspaper on the Underground journey. A sort of clock inside his head told him when he had reached the Strand in the morning. The same clock told him he had reached Kentish Town in the evening.
Then one Friday night two extraordinary things happened.
First there was a hitch on the line so that the train stopped in the tunnel exactly beside the deserted and empty platform of South Kentish Town Station.
Second, the man who worked the automatic doors of the Underground carriages pushed a button and opened them. I suppose he wanted to see what was wrong.
Anyhow, Mr Green, his eyes intent on the Evening Standard, got up from his seat.
The clock in his head said ‘First stop after Camden Town, Kentish Town.’
Still reading the Evening Standard he got up and stepped out of the open door on to what he thought was going to be Kentish Town platform, without looking about him.
And before anyone could call Mr Green back, the man at the other end of the train who worked the automatic doors, shut them and the train moved on. Mr Green found himself standing on a totally dark platform, ALONE.
“My hat!” said Mr Green, “wrong station. No lights? Where am I? This must be South Kentish Town. Lordy! I must stop the next train. I’ll be at least three minutes late!”
So there in the darkness he waited.
Presently he heard the rumble of an oncoming train, so he put his newspaper into his pocket, straightened himself up and waved his umbrella up and down in front of the train.
The train whooshed past without taking any notice and disappeared into the tunnel towards Kentish Town with a diminishing roar.
“I know,” thought Mr Green, “my umbrella’s black so the driver could not see it. Next time I’ll wave my Evening Standard. It’s white and he’ll see that.”
The next train came along. He waved the newspaper, but nothing happened.
What was he to do? Six minutes late now. Mrs Green would be getting worried.
So he decided to cross through the dark tunnel to the other platform. “They may be less in a hurry over there”, he thought.
But he tried to stop two trains and still no one would take any notice of him.
“Quite half an hour late now! Oh dear, this is awful. I know – there must be a staircase out of this empty station. I wish I had a torch. I wish I smoked and had a box of matches. As it is I will have to feel my way.”
So carefully he walked along until the light of a passing train showed him an opening off the platform.
In utter darkness he mounted some stairs and, feeling along the shiny tiled walls of the passage at the top of the short flight, came to the spiral staircase of the old emergency exit of South Kentish Town Station.
Up and up he climbed; up and up and round and round for 294 steps.
Then he hit his head with a terrific whack.
He had bumped it against the floor of one of the shops, and through the boards he could hear the roar of traffic on the Kentish Town Road. Oh how he wished he were out of all this darkness and up in the friendly noisy street.
But there seemed to be nobody in the shop above, which was natural as it was the coal-merchant’s and there wasn’t any coal.
He banged at the floorboards with his umbrella with all his might, but he banged in vain, so there was nothing for it but to climb all the way down those 294 steps again.
And when he reached the bottom Mr Green heard the trains roaring through the dark station and he felt hopeless.
He decided next to explore the lift shafts.
Soon he found them, and there at the top, as though from the bottom of a deep, deep well, was a tiny chink of light. It was shining through the floorboards of the tobacconist’s shop.
But how was he to reach it?
I don’t know whether you know what the lift shafts of London’s Underground railways are like. They are enormous – twice as big as this room where I am sitting and round instead of square.
All the way round them are iron ledges jutting out about six inches from the iron walls and each ledge is about two feet above the next. A brave man could swing himself on to one of these and climb up hand over hand, if he were sensible enough not to look down and make himself giddy.
By now Mr Basil Green was desperate. He must get home to dear Mrs Green.
That ray of light in the floorboards away up at the top of the shaft was his chance of attracting attention and getting home. So deliberately and calmly he laid down his evening paper and his umbrella at the entrance to the shaft and swung himself on to the bottom ledge.
And slowly he began to climb.
As he went higher and higher, the rumble of the trains passing through the station hundreds of feet below grew fainter.
He thought he heard once again the friendly noise of traffic up in the Kentish Town Road. Yes, he did hear it, for the shop door was, presumably, open.
He heard it distinctly and there was the light clear enough. He was nearly there, nearly at the top, but not quite. For just as he was about to knock the floorboard with his knuckles while he held desperately on to the iron ledge with his other hand there was a click and the light went out.
Feet above his head trod away from him and a door banged. The noise of the traffic was deadened, and far, far away below him he caught the rumble, now loud and now disappearing, of the distant, heedless trains.
I will not pain you with a description of how Mr Green climbed very slowly down the lift shaft again. You will know how much harder it is to climb down anything than it is to climb up it. All I will tell you is that when he eventually arrived at the bottom, two hours later, he was wet with sweat and he had been sweating as much with fright as with exertion.
And when he did get to the bottom, Mr Green felt for his umbrella and his Evening Standard and crawled slowly to the station where he lay down on the dark empty platform.
The trains rushed through to Kentish Town as he made a pillow for his head from the newspaper and placed his umbrella by his side.
He cried a little with relief that he was at any rate still alive, but mostly with sorrow for thinking of how terribly worried Mrs Green would be. The meal would be cold. She would be thinking he was killed and ringing up the police.
“Oh Violette!” he sobbed, “Violette!” he pronounced her name ‘Veeohlet’ because it was a French name though Mrs Green was English. “Oh Violette! Shall I ever see you again?”
It was now about half past ten at night and the trains were getting fewer and fewer and the empty station seemed emptier and darker so that he almost welcomed the oncoming rumble of those cruel trains which still rushed past. They were at any rate kinder than the dreadful silence in the station when they had gone away and he could imagine huge hairy spiders or reptiles in the dark passages by which he had so vainly tried to make his escape …
Tales From the Terminals now moves onto one of London’s most celebrated examples of architecture- St Pancras Station… or, as it’s been known since 2007, St Pancras International.
A Roman Martyr
It is all too easy to confuse ‘Pancras’ with the word, ‘Pancreas’… i.e., the gland organ which forms part of the digestive system!
In fact, St Pancras takes its name from a derivation of ‘Pancratius’; a 3rd century martyr who was born in Phrygia (now part of modern-day Turkey).
Orphaned at an early age, Pancratius was taken under the wing of his uncle, Dionysius.
The pair decided to travel to Rome and, whilst there, they converted to Christianity; a dangerous thing to do in those days.
Even more daring, Pancratius and Dionysius publically proclaimed their faith… an act of bravery which quickly led to their arrest. Dionysius died in jail and Pancratius- aged only 14- was beheaded for his beliefs.
The two early Christians later gained martyrdom and were made into saints.
It is believed that a church dedicated to St Pancras the Martyr has existed in the vicinity where the railway station now stands since the 7th century.
Today, there are two churches in the area; St Pancras Old Church (which sits a short distance behind the station) and the later St Pancras Church; a far grander affair which was built in 1822 and can be found on Euston Road
A Station is born
St Pancras Station dates back to 1863, when the Midland Railway decided to construct a terminal of their own. Up until that point, they’d shared space with The Great Northern Railway; based next door at Kings Cross Station.
With their plans for a new station in mind, bosses from the Midland Railway purchased land in the area known as ‘Agar Town’ which came under the parish of Old St Pancras church.
The land upon which Agar Town stood had once been open fields, belonging to wealthy landowner, William Agar.
When William Agar died in 1838, his widow began to lease the land at cheap rates… as a result, Agar Town- essentially a shoddily built shanty community, began to spring up.
The settlement was horrendously poor and, by the early 1860s, Agar Town was considered to be one of the worst slums in London. In 1851, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the area, describing it as:
“A complete bog of mud and filth with deep cart-ruts, wretched hovels, the doors blocked up with mud, heaps of ashes, oyster shells and decayed vegetables. The stench on a rainy morning is enough to knock down a bullock.”
When construction of St Pancras Station and its sprouting rail tracks began, Agar Town, being inconveniently in the way, required complete flattening.
Although the landlady received a handsome £19,500 through the sale of the land, the residents of Agar Town- of whom there were approximately 5,000- were unceremoniously kicked out with no compensation offered.
The demolition of St Luke’s- an Agar Town church- was also required but, being rather pious people, the Victorians re-built the place of worship a little further north in Kentish Town at a cost of £12,000. The relocated church still stands today, and can be found on Osney Crescent.
The disruption didn’t end there though.
Old St Pancras Church also lay very close to the worksite, and the need to dig a tunnel near the new station caused major disruption to the church’s graveyard.
The cemetery belonging to Old St Pancras was the final resting place for 1,000s of people (many of whom had been refugees. who had fled to London during the French Revolution) and, although it had been closed to burials for some 30 years, there was public outcry at the railway’s interference with the burial ground.
Many of the bodies had to be exhumed and re-buried but, rather than giving the corpses fresh plots, the authorities simply dug a 40 ft. deep pit, into which 7,000 cadavers were hastily placed.
One of the officials employed to oversee this morbid task was none other than Thomas Hardy- a young apprentice architect who later went onto become one of Britain’s most celebrated authors; penning novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
In 1882, nearly 20 years after taking part in the St Pancras dig, Hardy summed up the grisly mass grave in his poem, The Levelled Churchyard; with one of the verses reading thus:
“We late lamented, resting here
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear
I know not which I am!”
Today, the burial pit has been built over and, perhaps quite appropriately, St Pancras Coroner’s Court now sits on top of it.
A number of tombstones from the torn up graves were retained by the Victorian planners, and grouped around a tree. This memorial of sorts is known as ‘Hardy’s Tree’ after the famous author who unhappily took part in the desecration.
St Pancras Station Opens
By 1868, St Pancras Station was ready for business.
The new station was a true marvel of Victorian engineering, frequently drawing comparisons to a cathedral.
The Midland Railway’s directors had clearly done their homework; taking note of earlier stations and incorporating the best bits from them into their own terminal… the grandeur of old Euston, the soaring iron and glass roof at Paddington and the practicality of Kings Cross all played their part in influencing St Pancras.
The mighty roof of the train shed was designed by William Henry Barlow, a seasoned engineer who had been involved in many projects- including the task of completing Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge following Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s death.
Barlow’s roof is 210 metres long, 73 metres wide and sits 30.5 metres above the rails; all supported by hefty iron ribs weighing 55 tonnes a piece.
When it first opened, this breath-taking canopy boasted two records; being both the largest single span construction and the largest enclosed space in the world.
Believe it or not, St Pancras station owes much of its immense size to… beer!
When the station was built during the 1860s, ale brewing was big business.
One of the major centres of this industry was the midland town of Burton-on-Trent, which had forged close links with the Midland Railway.
So huge was the industry in Burton-on-Trent, that the town’s brewers built their own, private railway specifically for moving their product around.
As part of this system, the brewers secured storage space at St Pancras; the new station being specifically designed to incorporate a vast network of cellars for the purpose. At its height, the vaults beneath St Pancras were able to store over a million barrels of booze, most of which went onto be shipped all over the world.
St Pancras’s main façade, which faces the Euston Road, is in fact a hotel; the Midland Grand (now called the St Pancras Renaissance).
It was built between 1868-1872, following a competition held by the Midland Railway to find an architect for the ego-boosting project.
The contest was won by Sir George Gilbert Scott (father of Giles Gilbert Scott who followed in his father’s footsteps; becoming an architect and designing the iconic red telephone box, Battersea Power Station and the Bankside Power Station which now houses Tate Modern).
It is perhaps surprising that Scott’s design proved victorious- because, out of the 11 plans entered, his was by far the most expensive!
However, it was no secret that the Midland Railway were out to impress. They wanted their new combined hotel-station frontage to be the biggest and boldest in the British Empire. Their wallets were deep and cost was no object.
Much of Scott’s soaring gothic design for the Midland Grand Hotel was actually based upon plans which he’d originally drawn up for Government offices in Whitehall.
However, unlike the board of the Great Midland Railway, parliament were not willing to bankroll such frivolity! The government’s rejection hurt Scott, but the opportunity to carry out similar work at St Pancras eased his upset somewhat. As he later recalled:
“It is often spoken of to me as [St Pancras being] the finest building in London; my own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose, but having being disappointed through Lord Palmerston of my ardent hope of carrying out my style in the Government offices…I was glad to be able to erect one building in that style in London.”
When the Midland Grand opened its doors in 1873, it was with the boast that the hotel was “the most perfect in every possible respect in the world”, and it did indeed remain at the height of luxury for the remainder of the century.
The hotel was a hive of mod-cons, including flushing toilets, electric bells, hydraulic lifts (or ‘ascending chambers’ as the Victorians liked to call them) and Britain’s first revolving door.
In 1896, a ladies’ only smoking room was opened at the hotel… this liberal move proved rather scandalous at the time, as giving the ok for women to have a puff in public just wasn’t the done thing!
Beds were priced at 14 shillings a night; over £60 in today’s money. Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), was bowled over by the hotel, commenting that “nothing in fact or fiction can match this wonder…”
By the 1930s, the opulent hotel had become sadly outdated.
The main reason for its faded eminence was that the hotel had been constructed in an era when en-suite bathrooms were unheard of.
As the twentieth century wore on, concerting guests at the Midland Grand were still having to ask for jugs of hot water to be brought to their room; a once gentlemanly custom which had rapidly become uncomfortably outdated.
The management introduced more gimmicks- namely an in-house orchestra and Moroccan style coffee room- in an attempt to boost the flagging numbers, but they were fighting a losing battle.
Unable to incorporate the required plumbing or space for en-suites, the hotel closed down in 1935.
The hotel building was later renamed ‘St Pancras Chambers’, and was converted into office space for use by British Rail.
Despite the hotel’s closure, St Pancras Station continued to play its part as an important railway terminal.
During WWII, the station was a major departure point for both troops marching off to war and for 1,000s of London youngsters being evacuated to the safety of the countryside.
In August 1942, the station was heavily bombed; badly damaging tracks, rolling stock and the once magnificent roof. But, in the typical wartime spirit, it did not take long for railway workers to get St Pancras up and running again.
St Pancras Station’s greatest fight
By the 1960s, a threat far greater than a lack of plumbing or fascist bombing was presenting itself to St Pancras station…
Whilst the 1960s gave much to the world in terms of music, fashion and social advancements, its record on architecture leaves much to be desired.
As mentioned in a previous post, the old, Victorian Euston station, along with its much celebrated Doric Arch, had been smashed to pieces in the early 1960s.
As work got under way building the new, somewhat boxy Euston, nearby St Pancras was the next grand railway terminal to swing into the developers’ sights….
Planners from the mid to late 20th century were a ruthless, unsentimental bunch, with little time or appreciation for Victorian architecture.
St Pancras Station was regarded in such circles as a vulgar, over-blown building from a bygone era which warranted wiping out.
As with Euston Station, it was agreed that the old St Pancras should be demolished and replaced with structures of the utmost modernity.
The plan envisioned sweeping away Scott and Barlow’s masterpiece and plonking a towering office block, leisure centre and social housing on the vacated site; a development that would not have looked out of place in Soviet Moscow.
As part of this plan, the routes running into St Pancras would have been re-directed to next door’s Kings Cross, also earmarked for a major overhaul.
Thankfully, St Pancras found a saviour in the form of Sir John Betjeman, the noted writer, broadcaster and poet laureate from 1972 to 1984.
Born in Highgate, North London in 1906, Sir John Betjeman was a strong advocate of Victorian architecture and its preservation; a passion which, in the 1960s, seemed to be something of a lost cause.
Sir Betjeman had campaigned to save Euston and the Doric Arch in the first half of the decade but, despite popular support, had sadly failed.
In 1966, a British Rail employee who shared Betjeman’s love of Victorian architecture, leaked the proposed but hushed St Pancras demolition plans to the writer. The act of kindness from this mysterious benefactor granted the writer and his contacts at the Victorian Society valuable time to mount a large campaign to rescue the station from its fate.
Sir Betjeman branded the demolition plans a “criminal folly” and the campaign he fronted involved the constant insistence to bureaucrats that the station had a special place within the hearts of Londoners.
As the poet romantically summed up;
“What the Londoner sees in his mind’s eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow’s train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street…”
Unlike the earlier Euston campaign, the attempt to rescue St Pancras was successful… but it was a still a close call…
The station was saved when the government bowed to pressure and blessed St Pancras with a ‘Grade 1’ listing, thus making it untouchable.
This rating was decreed on the 2nd November 1967… a mere 10 days before demolition was due to begin…