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"In and Around St Pancras"
with Andrew Davies

Monday 27th September 2010

After an unpromising start as a result of the late arrival of the coach, this proved to be an excellent day. Thirty-nine members of Cranleigh DFAS accompanied Andrew Davies, such a well-informed and charismatic guide, on a walking tour of St Pancras Station and the surrounding neighbourhood.

Andrew gave each member a handout containing an outline of the history of the station and helpful diagrams. The overall impression of St Pancras is the integration of the old and the new and nowhere was this more apparent than standing by the plaque unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in November 2007. From here we could see the old columns of the undercroft, the Victorian engineering of the train shed, the new extension built to accommodate the Eurostar carriages, and the brickwork, where it has been left untouched, set against the new. In 1868, when the train shed was opened, it was the largest uninterrupted space in the world. The columns that supported it were hidden away in the undercroft where beer, transported from the Bass brewery at Burton on Trent, was stored. Andrew brought the history of the Midland Railway to life for us: the creation of the station as a showcase for the Midlands and the desire of the Midland Railway Company to outshine its competitors, with the beautiful detail of the mosaic decorating the train shed brickwork and the magnificent Midland Grand Hotel.

Andrew and Sir John Betjeman

A panel in the 3D frieze

Today the station is a hub of activity linking the capital with Kent, Sussex, the Midlands and the continent. In two years' time Norfolk will be added to this list. In 1967 St Pancras was four days from demolition and was saved by the efforts of Sir John Betjeman, an amazing networker, and others. His statue, looking up at the soaring arches, and lines from his poems set in the floor, provide a worthy memorial. Not far away is "The Meeting Place", a large statue by Paul Day of himself and his wife. Fascinating is the plinth on which it stands, its frieze, added only four or five months ago, depicting so many different aspects of the life of this busy station. The 3D effect is remarkable and few of us could resist rubbing the nose of the homeless person's dog which is already becoming noticeably polished! The imaginative scheme to let light into the undercroft, supporting the upper floor with a concrete raft strong enough to carry Eurostar, has provided accommodation for many upmarket shops, with a range of eating places upstairs including the famous champagne and oyster bar. It goes without saying that there was plenty of choice for our lunch and coffee stops!

The afternoon was spent exploring the surrounding area. In the German Gymnasium we looked at the plans for the King's Cross development and then headed off to Camley Street Natural Park, the headquarters of the London Wildlife Trust. Here, as we walked by the Regent's Canal, an oasis of calm, it was impossible to believe that we were still in central London. Again the old and the new were inextricably linked. We looked across the canal towpath to the stables for the horses which were changed every two or three miles. We continued to Old St Pancras churchyard where Shelley and his wife Mary "romped" before their marriage and where the Sir John Soane mausoleum provided the basic design for the red telephone box! We were fortunate enough to be able to go inside the church and see the seventh century cross carved into what was probably a portable stone altar.

From the churchyard we returned to St Pancras Station, passing the former site of the Midland Railway Milk and Fish Depot at the back of the British Library. The main gates from this depot now stand at the entrance to the wildlife garden we visited. We could admire the new Midland Grand Hotel development which lives so harmoniously next to its predecessor. The modern brickwork blends in with the style of the Victorian building: this hotel, however, should not suffer from the problems of the old: very few bathrooms and excessive noise.

This report can only give the flavour of what was a superb visit. Lasting memories? Well, so many: the lofty blue arches of the train shed; the forest of columns in the undercroft; the ornate frontage of the Midland Grand; a crumpled John Betjeman looking upwards; the ambitious designs for the development; a little skip garden, to name but a few.

Our thanks must go to Andrew for sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with us in such an exuberant and interesting way, and to Gwen Wright for all her hard work in making this trip possible.

Jane Cross

By St Pancras Old Church