The luxurious five-star hotel at St Pancras opened last week, icing on an already over-the-top cake. All the more reason for King’s Cross station next door — older, dumpier and currently festooned with scaffolding — to seem like an ugly stepsister.
St Pancras is lovely as it is, but I’ve always been more fond of King’s Cross, maybe just out of contrariness. I was fortunate to have a recent look behind the scenes of its renovation project, which helped confirm my inclination.
I was shown around by Tom Fernley, Project Management Assistant at Network Rail. The tour involved dressing head-to-toe in fluorescent orange, putting on safety glasses, hard hat, solemnly declaring I hadn’t been out drinking the night before and negotiating an immense building site that at times involved doing light gymnastics, while absorbing volumes of historical footnotes.
The centrepiece of the station’s restoration is the big curved roof for the new concourse on the station’s west side. I’m all for giving architecture in London silly nicknames, and the ‘glass pasty’ gets my vote. Standing in a room in the Western Range — the buildings that run along that side of the station — I can see it’s more of an aluminium pasty: with latticed pastry and a glass ‘crimp’ (second picture).
King’s Cross is the quintessential train station, and as stolid and utilitiarian as St Pancras is flamboyant. Like Barlow’s train shed at St Pancras, the one at King’s Cross is receiving a makeover, a dozen layers of paint are being painstakingly sandblasted off the ironwork, off comes the murky yellow fibreglass sheeting, on will go glass and solar panels. Up on the roof of the station, implausibly standing next to the back of the clock and on a mini railtrack between the two train shed barrels, I could see it will be a practical shade of battleship grey for King’s Cross, no signature sky blue like its neighbour. Unlike St Pancras, the roof restoration is taking place over a working station, a feat in itself.
What King’s Cross has going for it is modest simplicity, and human scale. These qualities have been overshadowed by 159 years of grime and nearly 40 years of green corrugated iron at the front of the station, though the latter won’t come off until probably 2013. However the roof renovation and the concourse are due for completion next spring. I suspect the reveal won’t be a ‘wow’ like its neighbour but just a sigh of relief to have the space the station has needed for so long.
The two stations do share some important similarities. Both of them have suffered from decades of neglect, and the wait to see their full restorations realised has seemed interminable, but in the end worthwhile. For me they both represent a bold vote of confidence in the renaissance of rail travel.
Next stop, Euston.