As a signal of this country’s economic transformation, you need go no further than our lofty, mighty stations. They are a history in themselves: plotting a journey through the last 175 years: cathedrals to Britain’s industrial might; vast spans of iron, fretted and decorated, caverns to transport and the glory of steam. And these were not just temples in our capital, but throughout the country: Temple Meads in Bristol; the curving platforms of York; Piccadilly and Victoria in Manchester; even end of the line stops were impressive: Grimsby; Lime Street. Some were like castles: Carlisle or transformed the terrain itself, like Waverley in Edinburgh. Most saw turmoil and demise before being reinvented for broader and different uses.
St Pancras in London is the finest. Fittingly, trains from the Continent arrive here: and what a statement: after years of political re-engineering, of turmoil; of strikes, of economic doldrum-drifting, St Pancras says, ‘London is reborn, London is back’. And if you arrive from Corby, Luton or Sevenoaks you stride purposefully forward too, dreaming the same dream. It is like a town in itself. Upstairs the daylight and nightlife: a crafty coffee in Benugo espresso bar perhaps, or a sip of Dom Perignon in a bar of a different kind; or even a Branzino* con palate e salsa in Carluccio’s, before your porter lifts your trunk into the carriage and John Betjeman waves you away Downstairs is the ‘town’; food and clothes shops; luggage, watches; a re-sole for your shoes or a simple polish; pay in a cheque or check on your family whilst hammering some honky-tonk on the old piano. Or grab a craft beer in the Sourced market, which is ironic given that the pillars between which today’s shops sit were not defined with Imperial exactitude, but rather by the more arbitrary length of a barrel of Bass’ beer – the undercroft was built and paid for by the massive brewers of Burton.
Today, our engineering in particular is focused on functional. Housing companies who build 3,500 houses a year have no time for beauty; no care for individuality or bespoke design. They are about numbers not a name. Not so the Victorians. As you approach along Euston Road, Gilbert Scott’s design grabs all of you, moves you; in fact, it grabs you by the throat and punches the breath out of you. Vistas emerge and open up: through to the booking hall here; a glimpse of the vast roof there; away into the depths for the Tube this way. Beauty is in the details too. The iron roof sails away from you like a Cathedral’s flying buttress, but there, in a nook, is the name of the manufacturer, wrought in for permanence, with pride in a job well done, a legacy left.
Iron was the pen and ink of the Victorian engineer. And St Pancras is not just a station but a place. And that place put its name to an iron foundry whose name crops up across the land. Not in massive structures that we cannot fail to notice; but in altogether, more ordinary, more humble work. For those who care to look, there is the reward: The St Pancras Ironworks Company manufactured utilitarian iron pieces: man-hole covers, gutters; stair-treads. What design, what beauty in a cover for a coal chute or for a Cardiff drain . The Works has gone now, but its Product remains. In their own way, the legacy of these human sized pieces is as moving and impressive as the jaw dropping edifice to travel which more famously carries its name still.
*Which, funnily enough, given who paid for the place**, is sea bass.
**I shall resist the temptation, fish puns are endless.