Thursday, 22 September 2011

St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley

I’ve had a thing for Gothic Revival for many years and still believe that one of the finest examples of the style can be seen in London: the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece on the Euston Road.

Bradley’s book gives the history of the building that along with William Henry Barlow’s trainshed make up St Pancras Station. Now recently reopened as a hotel once again it has had a chequered past; it failed its fire safety inspection in the 1980s and for a long time British Rail were itching to get rid of it. They weren’t alone in their passion for cultural vandalism, the architectural trends of that century were seen as grossly outdated and impractical, even by the 1920s and 30s:

Even P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster got the drift, remarking somewhere that if he knew one thing about the Victorians, it was that they weren’t to be trusted around a pile of bricks and a trowel.

The trainshed is another marvel of its age, a cavernous space created by a single arch roof over the platforms. A stunning feat of engineering, its design is part of the changing drinking history in the capital:

Barlow’s first intention was that the spoil dug out for the tunnel should be used to infill the basement under his elevated platforms. Wiser counsels then suggested that this space would be better turned over to commerce, especially if this could be tied in with the railway’s own goods traffic. As it happened, there was growing demand in London for the fine ales of Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire, near the heart of the Midland system. The soft water and improved brewing techniques there allowed the production of a clear and stable brew very different from the capital’s darker and cloudier stouts and porters, a change in taste that also contributed to the slow disappearance of pewter tankards from pubs in favour of drinking glasses. The railway had already erected a beer trans-shipment warehouse for Messrs Bass alongside the nearby canal, a structure big enough to provide six acres of storage space: in brewer’s terms, enough for 100,000 thirty-six-gallon barrels; in drinker’s terms, enough for 28,800,000 pints. The huge void beneath the new station platforms, with its deep plan and stable temperature, was ideal for the same purpose and could easily be reached from the track level by means of hydraulic lifts.

Keeping this vast space stocked up with booze was hard work:

Such was the capacity of the new beer cellar that three dedicated trains loaded with casks arrived every day to replenish it, with even more coming in October, the peak month for brewing.

Best of all, the whole structure was purpose built:

The spacing of the columns at centres just over 14 feet apart was calculated to match the plans of the warehouses of Burton-upon-Trent, where the same figure derived from a multiple of the standard local cask. And so, in Barlow’s words, ‘the length of a beer barrel became the unit of measurement upon which all the arrangements of this floor were based.

Who said that the Empire was built on tea?


  1. This post has got me laughing all the way through. Especially the quote on Victorian building standards. Does provide an enlightening figure for how much booze flows through London, not that I am surprised at all.

  2. I like the reference to 100,000 thirty-six-gallon barrels being enough for 28,800,000 pints in drinker’s terms. Reminds me of the story about a man drowning after falling into a whiskey still. His colleagues tried again and again to drag him out of the still, but he bravely fought them off...