St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley

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St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A concise, yet eclectic history of an architectural icon. One for admirers of the Victorian age, but maybe not for trainspotters.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861979964

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"The greatest of High Victorian secular buildings", or merely "nauseating"? Whatever your point of view, you can't deny that St Pancras Station provokes extreme reactions. And it's maybe the way it reconciles hatred and awe, art and function, the refined and the commonplace, that has made it such a powerful symbol of Victorian Britain - and ensured its survival.

Because, as this book reveals, the station has faced extinction more than once. But its future is now assured, as the terminus for Channel Tunnel trains. That, as author Simon Bradley leaves us in no doubt, is a cause for celebration.

Clearly an enthusiast for the station, Bradley's well-researched and eclectic book is no dry academic tome. Its wide-ranging frame of reference encompasses both The Spice Girls and Keats; pork pies as well as Pevsner.

But the chief focus of the first third of the book is George Gilbert Scott, the energetic architect of the Midland Grand Hotel, the immense secular cathedral which, for many, is St Pancras. It places him at the forefront of the neo-gothic movement of which the hotel is arguably its finest expression.

We get a vivid impression of Scott's staggering work-rate. His name is attached to over 800 buildings around the world, from workhouses to the Foreign Office. There are amusing tales, such as the one where he turns up and starts directing work on a church restoration, only gently to be told that his project was the one down the road.

Bradley is similarly evocative in his descriptions of life in the hotel during its late 19th century heyday. He exposes the rigid social stratification of the time: the separate refreshment facilities for men and women; the gradations of class expressed in the diminishing luxury of decor as you rise through the building.

That sort of detail abounds in the book, supported by plentiful black and white illustrations. Some of these do suffer from being scaled-down and not printed on coated paper (a little miserly, surely in a book which retails at £14.99). The author does admit, though, that photography can do little to convey the scale of the structure.

Nevertheless, the pictures and the social background make it a surprisingly engaging insight into a crucial period of this nation's recent history. A history which is still with us in many ways, yet so utterly alien in others. This may disappoint those who pick up the book with trainspotterly glee, expecting a run-down of every locomotive movement since 1868. Trains actually get little mention. The focus of the book is architecture first, then engineering.

The latter aspect comes to the fore in the discussion of the prosaically-named 'train shed'. This was the work, not of Scott, but of an engineer, William Henry Barlow. This structure is, Bradley persuades us, as awesome and influential as the iconic frontage. It too managed to unite past styles with technological achievement.

Both the architecture and the engineering cannot be understood, Bradley implies, outside their commercial and social context. For such a slim volume he brings in a surprising wealth of detail about the revolutionary nature of change in Victorian Britain. Bradley makes his point through a lengthy discussion of the transformation of food production and the British diet. What makes such distant digressions relevant, is that, like so many other upheavals of the times, they were predicated on the railways.

This elevates the book from what might seem, on the face of it, a potentially dull account of a functional building. It becomes, refracted through the lens of its times, a kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation and an empire at its white-hot peak.

The book is a passionate piece of advocacy - for St Pancras as an expression of that time, and for its future role. It is part of a series of volumes which will also encompass St Peter's in Rome, the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. You finish the book more than half-convinced that St Pancras belongs alongside such wonders. That is a tribute to the vigour of the writing and to the enduring relevance of the station itself.

When the book was re-issued in March 2011 it was updated and tells the story of the station's transformation in the twenty-first century and the reopening of the Midland Grand Hotel as the St Pancras Renasissance Hotel. If you're interested in London stations, you might find this interesting on Euston.

Booklists.jpg St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Magda said:

I still have difficulty coming to terms with how, essentially, extremely positive & successful time the 19th century was for Britain. One probably cnanot understand the country without having a deep awareness of the importance and meaning of that period and how it actually can be something people might be nostalgic for (of course, always imagining themselves at the lower floors and in the higher classes).