Friday, December 2, 2011

Great Scott

St Pancras Hotel today

I've been going to the British Library quite often recently, a building deserving of a blog post of its own. But on my way there, after getting off the tube at Kings Cross I pass my favourite building in London, The Midland Grand Hotel.

Or at least that's what it used to be known as. Now it's St Pancras Hotel. It has been rebuilt, restored to its former gothic glory as part of the development of St Pancras, which recently re-opened as the Eurostar terminus. The refurbishment is wonderfully done, and St Pancras now incorporates old and modern beautifully. It boasts the longest champagne bar in Europe apparently, which is ironic considering the only place you could get a pint at the old St Pancras was at a dodgy station bar, with threadbare carpets and the perpetual stench of stale cigarettes and urine.

The Midland Grand c1874

It marks a major transformation from when I first moved to London. St Pancras was the tiredest and shabbiest of London's great stations and the Midland Grand Hotel was derelict. Which, naturally, is why I liked it so much. Is there anything as creepy and sinister as a derelict building? It loomed unwanted, yet majestic, dark and silent over a menacing and rundown area, like some Transylvanian castle.

George Gilbert Scott

The story behind it is worth retelling. In 1865 the Midland Railway Company held a competition to design a hotel to accompany its new station, St Pancras (beats the type of competitions we get nowadays. I heard one the other day asking for people to come up with a noise to help advertise a chain of chicken restaurants. What price a chicken noise wins). They received 11 submissions. The most expensive came from an architect called George Gilbert Scott. The organisers wanted a 150 room hotel. Scott's design was for 300. In an example of the sweeping ambition that characterised the Victorian age, Scott's design was chosen. It opened in 1873 and featured a whole host of innovative designs - hydraulic lifts, concrete floors, revolving doors. Unfortunately no one saw fit to put in any guest bathrooms but that was the convention of the time.

Derelict in 1996 - courtesy of

Sadly a few decades later it wasn't. It needed vast army of staff to empty and carry chamber pots, tubs, bowls and spittoons. The hotel turned into a bit of white elephant. It closed in 1935. Its sheer size deterring any potential buyers. Part of it was eventually  turned into offices for British Rail, but they failed fire safety laws in the 1980s and the whole building was shut for good.

So, there it stood, a breathtaking example of Victorian architecture, but one nobody wished to use. Fans of Ealing comedies might remember it making a suitably sinister backdrop, along with the railway cuttings and bridges that surround Kings Cross, in The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness, and perhaps one of the finest British films ever made (and certainly one of the best London films).

It may well have continued to lay abandoned had it not been for the decision to relocate the Eurostar terminus from Waterloo to St Pancras. But now the hotel is reborn, as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, with many original features (plus the addition of bathrooms) and a restaurant named after its creator. It's gratifying to see it returned to life, but those of who like the weird nooks and crannies of London's past also feel something has been lost.

National Temperance Hospital

Thankfully, I have new derelict building in which to find some melancholic poignancy. Wandering to a concert in Camden a while back I passed the shell of the old National Temperance Hospital. A place where many a poor wretch found himself, particularly this time of year. Boarded-up, overgrown with weeds, with the required amount of menace, just as we like it.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan, your post couldn't have been more timely. I've been looking for a new place to stay in London, and you found it for me! Thanks. Only one question. Is there a metro stop nearby or should I just tell a cabbie, "Take me to the NTH"?

  2. I love your pictures, and old buildings. I have so much fun imagining the goings on that used to happen there. You did such great job of putting us in the picture, so to speak, thanks.

  3. Dan--

    Have faith. Some day that long champagne bar will reek of wildly expensive urine and tobacco.