Revisiting St. Pancras
By Iqbal Ahmed, Travel Writer & former Concierge at London Marriott Hotel Regents Park
It has been over a year since I boarded a Eurostar train from St. Pancras in London to Paris. The journey was ominous as Covid-19 loomed large. What the pandemic would entail was anybody's guess. The estimated number of 20,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in the UK seemed preposterous.
It has taken many years and a lot of investment to regenerate King's Cross and St. Pancras. The Eurostar has played a vital role in the area's change of fortune. There was a time not that long ago when you couldn't hang out in this neighbourhood. But it became trendy when The Guardian and Google set up their offices there. However, the shift to work-from-home during the past year has posed a threat to its prosperity. Some people may find it easier to work from home but for many of us the WFH change has also put paid to a satisfactory work-life balance.
Many shops flank the concourse of the terminal at St. Pancras International. There are actually two great bookshops - Foyles and Hatchards - inside the station. An impromptu visit to St. Pancras evokes memories of happier days for me when I often cycled to The British Library. It even has a covered bike rack. In this respect, St. Pancras has always been more than a transport hub for me.
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, overlooking the Eurostar terminal, has also contributed in a big way to the regeneration effort. The imposing gothic-style building stood empty for decades before it was turned into a luxury hotel. Its current GM, Anne Legrand, is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. She had known me briefly as a concierge at a sister hotel and yet took the trouble of attending one of my book launches that I hosted there. I visited her hotel later and was struck by the beautifully intricate patterns on its ceilings, floors and walls. The St. Pancras Hotel offers fast-track check-in for guests staying in some of their suites. When I mentioned it to an elderly London-based couple, they decided to book a room in the hotel for a night before travelling to Paris just to experience this service. Anne is very well regarded in the hospitality industry yet she is an unassuming person. She regularly features in the Marriott International campaigns.
I had confused the name of Giles Gilbert Scott - the architect of Bankside Power Station which houses the Tate Modern - with that of George Gilbert Scott - the architect of the Midland Grand Hotel that was the predecessor of St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel - only to find out later that the two men were related.
I cycled to St. Pancras this week after a long interval to meet Komal, a friend and former colleague. In the past, I might have locked my bike in the stand outside the station and afterwards run an errand by Eurostar to Paris and back, before cycling home in the evening. This time, though, my bike ride took me through Highgate West Hill, past the childhood home of the poet John Betjeman. An ardent supporter of Victorian architecture, Betjeman led a campaign in the 1960s to save the Midland Hotel from demolition. This iconic building defines the character of St. Pancras.
I found designated bike lanes even along the back roads of Camden, which is a welcome change. And when I saw the black and gold wrought-iron gates of St. Pancras Old Church, I knew that I was very close to the station. There were just a dozen or so Black Cabs in the rank outside the station, whereas they were countless in pre-pandemic times. However, I wasn't entirely sure if Eurostar was currently running since I didn't see a single passenger at the security gates of the terminal. My French friend in London, Sebastian, had travelled to Paris just before the third lockdown and found it difficult to book the Covid test that is now a prerequisite for the journey. He had booked a slot at a Boots branch in Gatwick but I recommended a pharmacy in nearby Baker Street and he was pleased that they could promptly accommodate his request for a test. What a performance it has become even to hop on a Eurostar train these days. There were just a few people at the station and it looked utterly desolate compared to its former self. Komal, the friend I went to meet at the station, bought a drink from a cafe and we decided to go for a walk rather than sit in the waiting area of the station to have a chat.
I wanted to know what the other side of the station looked like nowadays. For many years I had known it only as a building site while cycling around it. As we walked through the station, I saw a big YouTube sign on a building but the sign of its parent company, Google, on the other side of the building looked comparatively discreet. The trees in the courtyard were in full bloom and water cascaded gently into pools. Komal informed me that fashion photographers often use this place as a backdrop for their photo-shoots.
An old building known as the German Gymnasium, which functions as a restaurant, still had its Christmas decorations hanging on its exterior since, due to the third lockdown, it had closed for business just as the festive season was getting underway. Nearby, the construction of a massive building was in full swing. Construction is one of the few industries that have continued unabated during the pandemic and it gives us a reason to believe that our city centres won't be abandoned in the post-Covid era.