Thursday, 12 December 2013

King’s Cross in all its glory

Leaving Cambridge one morning this week, I head for London. I have just come from a meeting about a report I’ve been commissioned to write. It’s an important commission (for me), but the project has run into difficulties: permissions, citations, non-public domains: these words rattle around my brain, and I’m no longer sure I can write the report in the way I think it needs to be written. I must wait for the outcome of other meetings, further decisions taken and revisions demanded, before I can get on with the job.

The train makes its familiar way through stations where it doesn’t stop – Royston, Letchworth, Hitchin, Stevenage: all of them truly ‘destinations not of the heart’. Fog hangs over the passing fields like the fog enveloping my report, and by the time we are nearing the terminus, even Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has all but disappeared. With a couple of minutes to go we enter the tunnels on the approach to King’s Cross, much to the irritation of those travellers who’ve been on their phones all journey: ‘Hello?.... Still there?.... Can you hear me?.... Hello?.... Damn!’ But then, astonishingly, we emerge into bright sunlight and when we debouche onto the only station in the world to boast both a Platform 0 and a Platform 9¾, I can see blue sky through the glass roof.

In sixty years of arriving at King’s Cross I have never seen this before - the roof having recently been reglazed as part of the station’s restoration and redevelopment. Nor have I ever walked outside before and seen the view that has now been opened up. In December sunlight the huge double-arched frontage of the station is spectacular, every detail sharp and visible. Even the cleaned yellow gault-clay brickwork lifts the spirits. Let Network Rail be congratulated, for once! This whole area used to be a dire mess, somewhere to be hurried though; now people stroll and even sit in the sun to enjoy the exhilaration of great architecture. Brunel himself would have raised his high hat to acknowledge what architects and clients, contractors and Camden Council have achieved here. My one regret is the new glass and steel awning that runs the whole width of the façade, destroying the rhythm of the lower arcade; but no doubt one day I’ll be glad of its shelter.

I’ve written before about the newly created concourse between King’s Cross and the now revamped
Great Northern Hotel. Every time I’m here I admire again the modest but magnificent plaque commemorating the opening of the concourse. Most people, I suppose, simply miss it. But everyone should see this, for the lettering is beautiful, and the stone stele on which it is incised has its own story to tell.

Look closely and you’ll see that the text (itself hardly inspiring, I admit) is inscribed with letters of different sizes, phrase by phrase. Each letter has just the hint of a serif, and I love the way the letter ‘O’ – which appears twelve times if you count the nought of 2012 – always swells a fraction more on the right side than on the left. How neatly too the calligrapher has solved the problem of space by enfolding the letter O within the letter C, H within C, and E within L, even - so discreetly I have only just noticed this myself – by eliding the N and the E of ‘opened’! Rarely, if ever, can an erstwhile Transport Secretary (she’s since moved on to International Development) have been so beautifully marmorialised as Justine Greening is here. Some half-remembered lines from Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale chase away the last traces of my morning’s mental fog:

By process, as ye knowen everichoon,
Men may so longe graven in a stoon
Til some figure therinne emprented be.

Precisely. Carving this inscription must have been agonizingly slow work, one slip of the chisel sufficient at any moment to ruin it all. I like the way the text is all justified to the right, emphasizing the straight edge on that side of the stone, in contrast with the ragged edge on the left. But, if one looks more closely, the straight edge is not perfectly straight: the lower half is slightly concave. That’s because this slab was originally a tread on the staircase leading to the Great Northern offices, and over more than 150 years the step had been worn away by generations of railway clerks, dutifully keeping to the left as they headed up the staircase to their desks each morning. A hidden notice on the left- hand edge (you have to flatten yourself against the wall to read it) tells you this step also serves as a memorial to all these unremembered men.

You can imagine Betjeman on TV, talking about the newly restored King’s Cross and revelling in this tiny fact. I think he would have revelled too in the sight greeting him a little further to the left. For here is the sign for Platform 9¾, below which half a station trolley bearing a gilded birdcage is disappearing into the wall. And that’s not all. A giggle of young persons is queuing to be photographed: one by one they pose ecstatically, hanging onto the handle of the trolley and poised to dematerialise through the wall. A woman from the strategically adjacent Harry Potter Store supplies a Hogwarts scarf to complete the illusion. Into this store I venture nervously, amazed to see children buying Hogwarts kit (scarves, sweaters and ties) with an enthusiasm I never managed to muster when, as a pimply thirteen year old, I was marched into Gorringes to be fitted for my own school uniform.

I can’t afford the Harry Potter wands on sale, though I’d hoped a swish of a magic wand might get my report-writing back on track. But one thing I’m glad to have discovered in the shop is the Hogwarts School motto:

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus
      (Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon)

Now, with due deference to Justine Greening, wouldn’t that have been a text worthy the unknown stone carver’s art?

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) The restored façade of Lewis Cubitt’s 1852 King’s Cross station, and King’s Cross Square (architects: John McAslan and Partners); (ii) the commemorative stone in the station concourse: Photographs © the author

My previous blog about the new concourse is King’s Cross and E.M. Forster. I recommend Philip Wilkinson’s excellent  ‘English Buildings’ blog, and his November 2013 piece about the newly opened space in front of King’s Cross.


  1. Magic, Adrian, magic. Can't help thinking of Larkin's 'Here' and Frith's 'The Railway Station', not forgetting Peter Needham's Latin transaltion of the first volume of Harry Potter: 'Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis'. The 'letters of different sizes' reminds me of the fact that Chaucer was first printed by William Caxton, the importer of Gutenburg's invention of moveable type into England, a printer and writer that my professor at Sheffiled University, the late Norman Francis Blake, specialised in. But you don't need a wand to write your report, you already have one, probably a Conway Stewart, 'swerving east'.

    1. Your thinking of Larkin is absolutely apt, Garry. The last stanza of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ brings the poet to King’s Cross; by the same token, the journey described in ‘Here’ will have begun at KX, though not on what are now the rather smart-looking Grand Central Trains.

  2. Adrian - I'm glad you've found a way to celebrate the developments at Kings Cross. It was one of the least pleasant London termini to use (the old Liverpool Street was pretty grim, the new-ish one a missed opportunity).
    As you face the station, to the right over York Way is "Camino" in Varnish Yard - a good stop for a couple of plates of tapas and a sherry. Further up York Way is the modern home of The Guardian, next to Kings Place, a fine concert venue, art gallery with a nice restaurant on the canal.
    Between Kings X and St Pancras, to the back of both stations, is a mass of construction and then Granary Yard. Here is St Martin's College (of "Common People" fame), and next to it the Grain Store restaurant and café, and Caravan, both attractive new establishments. On most days of the week there are 4-5 food trucks as you head up to Granary Yard, serving well sourced, inexpensive and proudly produced food for the lunching workers and knowledgeable travellers.

    Both stations host one of that dying breed of "bricks and mortar" shopping experiences - an actual book shop. St Pancras has a branch of Foyles. Next to platform 9 3/4 is a branch of Watermark Books.

    There have been some casualties resulting from refurbishment of the area. Mole Jazz was one of the few specialist jazz record shops, when records where minted in vinyl and sourcing a particularly rare recording was a day-long crusade, rather than a quick search on a tablet device.

    I love Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and the outside of what was the Victoria Terminus in Bombay (now the Chatrapati Shivaji terminus - but I side with the locals and continue to call the city itself Bombay). But I cannot think of a city anywhere that has a number of major railway stations of such quality as London offers. Certainly there is nothing quite like St Pancras or perhaps Marylebone, Euston could do with a facelift. But these stations are functional, well serviced, unintimidating and not places you feel compelled to hurry away from.

    If Kings Cross and St Pancras are setting a new standard for major railway stations, we hope that the quality of London's other famous termini will be raised even further.

    1. It’s certainly heartening to see the regeneration of the whole King’s Cross area proceeding apace, as you have just described. I think Liverpool Street’s restoration may not have been a completely missed opportunity: it was the first restoration project to envisage a whole, newly opened-up concourse on two levels. This pattern has since been adopted at Paddington and spectacularly at St Pancras and, in the new, adjacent concourse at King’s Cross. The most dramatic and wholly new overground station I have arrived at is the TGV station at Avignon.

  3. Lovely blog, Adrian. I confess that I have never seen the commemorative plaque. I must seek it out – blog in hand as reference to all the fine details you have described. It was highly imaginative to use the staircase tread, and I am glad that Justine Greening is recorded ‘in perpetuity’ before being unceremoniously relieved of her post . . .

    I remember my history teacher at The Working Men’s College drawing our attention to two aspects of Victorian culture exemplified by St Pancras and King’s Cross: Romanticism and Utilitarianism. Both stations are now woven into a single highly imaginative architectural whole, and the former grime and sleaze of the area happily swept away. (Anil is right about Liverpool Street: all of the original labyrinthine filth (!) has gone, but somehow it fails to inspire.)

    How lucky you were that Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium had all but disappeared in the fog! A controlled demolition of this eyesore would greatly please me . . .

    1. I entirely share your views about the view of the Emirates stadium as seen from the railway, Peter!

  4. This is entirely irrelevant to the present discussion but I do miss the Victoria Station in Nottingham which probably crops up in D.H. Lawrence or Allan Sillitoe. I was a young boy then, taken across the bridge with gaps in between the boards and steam and smoke rising through them. They've built a shopping centre over it since then but have kept the clock tower and you can still see the tunnel entrance and the black bricks lining the walls built by Irish navies from the mulit-storey car park. I'm old enough to remember train journey's as magical as the ones in Harry Potter. And when Larkin's train finally arrives at its destination there's the heart-stop as the sea comes into view, a thrill you can't imagine. Not unless you're a Midlander. Lawrence expresses it beautifully in 'Sons and Lovers' when they stay in Mablethorpe. Ah, the East Coast, the East Coast, oh to be on the East Coast!

  5. Thanks for pointing this out. I must have a look on my next, all too rare, visit to London. This eliding of letters and the enfolding of one in another is reminiscent of the work of CFA Voysey and Walter Crane. Voysey frequently renders 'honourable' as 'HONB.' with the E nestled in the L (as in the plaque above) but with both sitting above the full stop, see:

    1. I fully agree with you about the similarity with Voysey, Crispin. Eric Gill, too, is keen on eliding letters, and I keep seeing examples (though usually quite crudely done) on inscriptions on 18th C. gravestones and 17th C. memorials.