My Isle of Man friend John asks interesting questions.
When he disembarked at King’s Cross Station (after pausing to photograph his late-teenage son Matthew in front of Platform 9¾) he crossed the road to St Pancras and texted me “Why are the trains at St Pancras upstairs?”.
The answer is the Regent’s Canal.
When the first railway into London, the London & Birmingham, was built in 1837 the engineer Robert Stephenson tunnelled under the canal to reach the site of Euston terminus. The fact that this created a stiff incline out of the station wasn’t an immediate concern, because trains were initially cable-hauled to Camden Town where locomotives were attached. Subsequently, steam locomotives always had to work hard on the climb out of Euston.
In the late 1840s the competing Great Northern Railway was built into King’s Cross Station. Its engineers, Sir William and Joseph Cubitt, also tunnelled under the Regent’s Canal, creating a challenging 1 in 107 gradient for steam locomotives and a constricted exit from the station, the “Throat”, through Copenhagen and Gas Works tunnels.
William Henry Barlow, the engineer of the Midland Railway, chose the alternative when his company’s London Extension approached the site of St Pancras station in the mid-1860s. He bridged the canal, so that the terminus platforms are fifteen feet higher than the street level. His magnificent train shed, with its uninterrupted arch 240 feet wide and 100 feet high, is engineering elegance in every sense: not only does it look superb, but the ties beneath the platforms mean that a heavy locomotive could safely sit at any point without overloading the floor.
Pedestrians and taxis have always approached the platforms by ramps and stairs, and travellers used not to be aware of the vast undercroft below the platforms. This – now revealed as The Arcade and the Eurostar booking area – was intended to store Burton beer, brought down the line and lowered by a hydraulic lift from track level. Indeed the entire station is built to a module of 14 feet 8 inches, the dimensions of the Victorian beer barrel.
It’s no coincidence that one of the Midland Railway directors was Michael Thomas Bass Jnr, and that in the years after excise duty was removed from beer glasses in 1845, the dark London porter traditionally served in pewter tankards gradually gave way to the lighter ales brewed in Burton.
In the days before Eurostar, the undercroft was the rumoured location of the apocryphal “St Pancras Hoard”, silverware hidden when the Midland Grand Hotel closed in 1935.
Now at last, thanks to the redesign of the station in 2003, it’s possible walk off the street and reach the trains by lift or escalator. As you walk into the former undercroft and gaze up at the train shed above, your spirits will be lifted by the colour of the arches – “English Heritage Barlow Blue”.
The ironwork was originally brown, until in 1877 the general manager of the Midland Railway, James Allport, remarked, “Why cannot the train shed be the colour of the sky?” In the age of steam it didn’t stay sky-coloured for long; now W H Barlow’s wonderful space, reglazed to its original pattern, has become one of the most exciting sights in the capital.
Mike Higginbottom offers a one-hour lecture, St Pancras Station, including images taken from the mid-1970s onwards. For further details, please click here.