In the 1990s, Waterloo station expanded further when it became home to London’s first Eurostar terminal, connecting the capital to Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel (or Le tunnel sous la Manche as it is in French).
The idea of linking Britain and France via an underwater route has a surprisingly long history, the first crossing being suggested by French mining engineer, Albert Mathieu way back in 1802.
Very much ahead of its time, Monsieur Mathieu’s concept envisioned a tunnel lit by oil lamps (surely a serious affront to health and safety by today’s standards!) through which continental travellers would have been conveyed via horse drawn carriages. The proposal also included the creation of an artificial island in the middle of the Channel to provide an important rest stop.
One year later, Englishman Henry Mottray came up with a similar scheme to create a crossing by submerging and connecting a string of pre-fabricated iron tubes.
Sadly, these pioneering visions were cast aside by the onset of the Napoleonic Wars (which concluded in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo… after which Waterloo Bridge and, consequently, Waterloo station are named).
The idea of building a railway beneath the Channel was first suggested in the 1830s by Aime Thome de Gamond who, like Albert Mathieu was a French mining expert.
Thome de Gamond spent over 30 years and lost most of his wealth pursuing his idea (which, in the even grander scheme, aimed to extend the link all the way from London to Calcutta).
As testament to his determination, Thome de Gamond made a number of dives to the bottom of the Channel to collect geology samples… and he did so without a specialist suit, taking only a rope, 160lbs of pebbles to act as ballast and pig bladders to help him ascend. Whilst in the murky depths, Thome de Gamond gained some unwelcome attention from the Channel’s Conger Eels…
During these terrifying expeditions, Thome de Gamond was rowed out into the channel by the person who believed in him the most- his daughter, Elizabeth.
In 1856, Thome de Gamond pitched his idea to Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, informing them that “I have carried my studies to the limits of my personal powers…” The heads of state gave their blessing to his proposal and support was also voiced by esteemed engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson.
Sadly, despite this encouragement the project was scuppered by the outbreak of yet another war- this time the Franco-Prussian conflict.
Exhausted and penniless, Aime Thome de Gamond died in 1876. Despite his tragic demise, he is now widely regarded as the ‘Father of the Tunnel’.
At around the time Thome de Gamond died, the Anglo-French Channel Tunnel Company was established, bringing together a collection of canal and railway engineers who carried out serious research into the creation of a tunnel. In 1880, test bores were dug at Shakespeare Cliff, Dover and at Sangatte in France.
Unfortunately, with past wars still in mind, it was figured that such a connection would make it all too easy to mount a future invasion so the project was abandoned.
It wasn’t until 1974 that a further tunneling attempt was made. Initially quite promising, this endeavor was quickly ditched after just one year thanks to grave financial concerns triggered by the oil crisis.
Despite this, the idea of forging a link between London and Paris remained a tempting concept.
In 1982 British Rail approached Lambeth Council with plans for a possible terminal at Waterloo should the idea be revived in the future… although in 1984 they also looked into the possibility of establishing a helicopter terminal on top of Waterloo in the hope that choppers capable of ferrying 200 people between the two capital cities would soon be developed!
This idea may not have sounded as far fetched as it seemed- for a brief period in the 1950s, a helicopter terminal was indeed based at Waterloo, acting as a shuttle service to and from London airport. The Shell Building now stands on the site.
A newsreel from 1953 featuring a helicopter test-run from Waterloo to Paris can be viewed below:
In 1985 things were once again set in motion when the governments of Britain and France invited private companies to come up with proposals for a channel crossing.
This resulted in four schemes being shortlisted:
Eurobridge: A vast suspension bridge for cars, with the traffic lanes contained in an enclosed tube suspended 70 meters above the Channel. The estimated cost of the bridge was £5.9 billion.
Euroroute: A £5 billion road built across a series of tunnels and bridges which would have been linked by artificial islands.
Channel Expressway: A large tunnel for both cars and trains with ventilation shafts jutting out in the middle of the Channel. Cheaper at £2.1 billion, the tunnel would have seen road and rail sharing the same space- the idea being that traffic would alternate, with cars being halted ever hour to let trains through. One can only imagine the tailbacks such a set-up would have created!
Eurotunnel: A straight-forward railway tunnel… which, of course was the idea eventually chosen, mainly due to concerns that a road tunnel would pose too many problems with fumes and accidents. In 1985, the estimated cost for the Eurotunnel was £2.3 billion.
On July 29th 1987, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand ratified the Treaty of Canterbury, granting Eurotunnel the green-light. Construction began in December of the same year and the two sides finally met deep beneath the Channel on the afternoon of December 1st 1990 (please click below to view):
Meanwhile back in London, construction of Waterloo International was underway.
Designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw (who also created the very modern looking branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket in Camden Town), the challenge was quite unique- to essentially squeeze an airport-style building with customs, security and other facilities into a relatively small, central London area.
With its curved roof reminiscent of the undulating waves beneath which the trains would run, the £120 million terminal bolted onto the existing Waterloo station was a resounding success and won numerous awards.
Waterloo International was completed on schedule in May 1993… but had to lie dormant for over a year whilst the rest of the Channel Tunnel works caught up!
The first passenger train to the continent departed Waterloo on 11th November 1994.
When it first opened, the crossing was popularly known as the ‘Chunnel‘. Although seldom heard today, a reminder of this nickname can still be glimpsed on Lower Marsh, just outside Waterloo station:
Despite its popularity, the international terminal at Waterloo remained in use for just 13 years…
The main problem with the Eurostar operating out of Waterloo was that the fast, modern trains on the way to and from Folkestone had to use a route which had essentially been designed for steam engines many decades before.
Because of this, Eurostar trains had to travel far slower on English soil than they did on the continent; an anomaly which impacted the efficiency of the service.
As early as 1996, plans were in place to construct HS1; the high speed line which would re-route the service to the present terminal at St Pancras. The switch was finally made in November 2007, leaving Waterloo International looking rather empty and forlorn…
In 2011 the former international station was used to stage a production of E Nesbit’s 1906 novel, The Railway Children.
Thanks to the tracks and platforms, this meant that a fully working steam engine from York’s National Railway Museum, along with a carriage used in the 1970 film adaptation were able to be involved in the performance.
There are now plans (albeit very slow moving ones) to bring the redundant Eurostar terminal back into use, this time for commuter trains… which would be most beneficial as, despite losing its international role, Waterloo today remains the UK’s largest, busiest station.
* * *
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…
Although the shell of St Pancras had been saved, the interior was in a rather sorry state. It had been deteriorating for some time, and would continue to do so for several decades.
An effective indicator of this decaying state could be found in the form of the station’s grand clock.
Perched high over the station’s entrance and facing the platforms, the mighty clock- which was 18ft in diameter- had informed generations of travellers of the all-important time, as they hurried to and from their trains.
The clock had been crafted by ‘Dent of London‘ ; major purveyor of luxury timepieces whose craftsmen had also provided the faces for Parliament’s clock tower (aka Big Ben), as well as equipment for Charles Darwin and David Livingstone.
By the late 1970s, the clock was peering out over a dark, smelly station; the once grand timekeeper now nothing more than a magnet for cobwebs, pigeons and bird muck.
In 1978 and in need of cash, wheeler-dealers at British Rail agreed to flog the St Pancras clock to an American collector.
The sum paid was huge- £250,000… so it must have been quite shock when, in the process of taking the clock down, the workmen fumbled their task… and dropped the valuable timepiece!
The clock plummeted to the ground, smashed to smithereens and lost its high price tag in a nanosecond-an expensive catastrophe which bears quite a similarity to one of the most famous scenes from the legendary comedy, Only Fools and Horses!….
In their shattered state, the clock pieces were now deemed to be worth only £25… and a new buyer came forward- Roland Hoggard, a train driver who was shortly due to retire.
After transporting the jigsawed clock back to his home in Nottinghamshire (a task which took over a week), Roland managed to painstakingly piece the 18ft wide clock back together, attaching his labour of love to the side of a barn on his farmland.
The photo below depicts St Pancras in 1984 (note the obvious absence of the clock, which used to hang in the middle of the rear arch) and shows just how gloomy and dilapidated the terminal had become.
Although it had survived demolition 17 years before, the station looked positively ready to crumble and rot by its own accord.
To make matters worse, towards the end of the 1980s, the St Pancras Chambers offices (which had been converted from the old Midland Hotel) were deemed a death-trap by inspectors, who refused to grant the complex a fire safety certificate.
As a result, the offices were forced to shut down, thus transforming a vast slice of St Pancras into abandoned dereliction.
By the late 1990s, St Pancras Station was in an appalling state.
I personally remember the station around that time as being most grotty, with grimy, sticky floors and a strong odour hanging in the air; a mixture of rotting food and smoky diesel fumes.
The station was dark and forlorn, mainly because the once gleaming roof was now a patchwork of botched repairs and glass panels which had been coated in paint.
It was also surprisingly quiet, as the level of railway traffic in and out of the terminal had been steadily declining over the years.
In short, the station was a shadow of its former self; a grimy, cavernous mausoleum to a long bygone era.
However, St Pancras was about to be reborn…
At the turn of the 21st century, it was decided that St Pancras should become the new terminal for Eurostar services to and from Paris and Brussels.
At the time, the station employed for this purpose was Waterloo; a role which the station south of the Thames had been playing since the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994.
However, the line connecting Waterloo to the coast was old, twisty and torturously slow; especially embarrassing as the French tracks on the other side of the channel were sleek and hair-raisingly fast.
A new, high speed line was needed for the UK leg; one which would make the journey to the Continent as fast and efficient as possible.
Labelled ‘High Speed One’, the new route was designated to link up with St Pancras.
In line with this new project, the dilapidated terminal was expanded and given an unprecedented makeover; polishing it to a standard which exceeded all expectations and made it befitting of a major European transport hub.
The re-build took place between 2004-2007 and cost £800 million.
Branded as St Pancras International, the once chronically neglected station is now one of the largest railway terminals in Europe; a beautiful building, bursting with light and energy, transforming the station from crumbling backwater into what is now one of London’s most celebrated landmarks.
The former Midland Grand Hotel, which stretches across the front of the station, has also been given a new lease of life
Fittingly renamed the ‘St Pancras Renaissance’, the once long empty, rotting rooms have been breathtakingly restored.
Today, the hotel is a five star affair; one of London’s most luxurious destinations- and with prices to match… although prices start at £205 per night, you can always go for the ‘Royal Suite’- a 3 bedroomed apartment which will set you back a cool £10,000 per night….
The new hotel contains a number of bars and restaurants- including of course the ‘Hansom Lounge’, a glamorous meeting place which incorporates the station’s old, horse-drawn taxi rank (you can find us modern cabbies ranked up around the corner; on Midland Road).
Back out on the main station concourse, St Pancras is now unrecognisable when compared to images of its former, sorry state. The station today is light, airy and enjoys all the buzz of a major European gateway.
The metalwork of the vast, restored roof has been painted an appealing sky-blue. At first, this may seem like a nod to modern tastes, but this shade is in fact the same colour used way back in 1868 when the station first opened.
The expansive labyrinth of cellars below, once hidden and used for squirreling away beer barrels, have been thrown open and converted into a bustling shopping arcade, linked to the station’s upper decks by gleaming escalators and glass walled elevators.
Upstairs, parallel to the Eurostar platforms, you’ll find Searcy’s St Pancras Champagne Bar– the longest of its kind in Europe.
If you’re the sort of person who can afford the £10,000 per night price tag for the St Pancras Renaissance’s Royal Suite, then the Taittinger Brut Reserve which comes in at a mere £1,500 should pose no problem to your bank balance.
For those of us without our own personal jet though, the champagne bar’s cheapest bubblies start at £8.50…
As part of St Pancras Station’s overhaul, the famous clock, which had been embarrassingly destroyed in the late 1970s, was recreated by Dent of London; the very same company who had produced the original so many years before.
In order to construct the replica, clockmakers from Dent paid a visit to Roland Hoggard; the train driver (by now well into his 90s) who had purchased and repaired the smashed original.
Thanks to Roland’s admirable reconstruction, the craftsmen were able to re-create an extremely accurate replica of the original. As a way of thanks, Roland Hoggard was invited to the grand opening of the remodelled St Pancras International.
Below the reinstated clock there stands a new, huge sculpture of a couple embracing.
This 9 metre tall sculpture is entitled ‘The Meeting Place’ and was created by Paul Day.
The couple are intended to represent England and France, and the close bond which the Channel Tunnel has forged between the two nations. On the plinth below, there are a set of detailed friezes, representing scenes from history and everyday London life:
A short distance away from this towering sculpture, there is a far smaller, more profound statue crafted by Martin Jennings… an affectionate representation of Sir John Betjeman, peering up in awe at the beauty and resurgence of the station he loved and fought to save.