diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 15, 2007

St Pancras, day 1

Day 1 at St Pancras InternationalSt Pancras is reopened. A train to Paris and a train to Brussels departed just after eleven o'clock yesterday morning, and the first arrival (from Brussels) drew in a few minutes later. Nothing ran late, which was just as well given the quantity of the world's media scrutinising proceedings. By evening there were passengers milling around the ticket barriers and fumbling for passports as if the station had always been open. Normality beds down fast.

St Pancras is packed. Maybe it's just first day curiosity, but thousands of Londoners have headed up to the Euston Road to see what all the fuss is about. They stream in from the street and up the steps from the tube station, past the handful of boutiques that have opened so far. Nobody can buy a diamond encrusted chronograph or an M&S Simply Food sandwich yet, not until the ribbonned wrappers are peeled off the remainder of the shop windows in the undercroft. But there are angora berets up for grabs in Accessorize and there's Pomegranate Shower Gel in the Body Shop if anyone's interested. Most aren't. There's so much more to see up the escalators instead.

St Pancras is gorgeous. Some of it is almost lickable, if you're of an architectural bent. The arched roof shines down with dazzling brilliance, day and night. Every brick gleams and every handrail shines. Arrow-straight tracks support impossibly-long trains in perfect parallel lines. Signage around the first floor of the station is kept to an unobtrusive minimum. There are no huge billboards advertising chocolate or underwear, just Victorian surfaces as they were meant to be seen. Structural integrity has been maintained.

Sir John Betjeman looks upSt Pancras is photogenic. Be it the grand vista of the station roof or the tiniest detail of Gothic brickwork, someone will have their mobile phone or camera lens pointing straight at it. Everybody wants to get their picture taken with Sir John Betjeman, or to peer up the skirt of the giant bronze woman at the end of platform six. They press "video record" as yet another yellow nosecone glides slowly up to the buffers. Police don't stop to give these amateur snappers a second look, they just walk on by and guide their sniffer dogs towards an alternative location.

St Pancras is sparkling. A crowd of willing wallet-emptiers has gathered at the trackside to raise a bubbling glass to its future success. The world's longest champagne bar turns out to be a very tiny square hut, with two long narrow seating areas stretching out for 40 metres in either direction. There's just enough room to sit in a booth or squat on a stool and gulp down a £7.50 flute of house champagne, or blow one quid less on a cheese and chutney sandwich. These drinkers are the people that the station's new shareholders want to attract back again and again, those who aspire to the international jetset lifestyle but prefer a low carbon alternative.

St Pancras is segregated. A long glass screen divides the public into the have-tickets and the stay-puts. Shopping and promenading around the perimeter are free of charge, but admittance to the departure zone costs. International travellers are confined behind a bombproof transparent screen where they parade around like zoo animals, dragging their suitcases behind them for the amusement of the watching spectators. Train passengers unlucky enough to be sitting in the window seats on platform 5 are stared at, right up close, by champagne sippers just a few feet away. They're watching you, do behave.

St Pancras is Betjeman's. His statue stands in pride of place above the undercroft, a few steps away from the old booking office. A pointy bronze overcoat flaps behind him in the non-existent breeze, as he tips his head back to stare in awe and wonder at the magnificent ceiling. A swirl of poetry spins around his feet, with additional lines and verses etched into the paving slabs nearby. He looks both delighted and startled to be here, as do we who follow in his footsteps. We wouldn't be standing here today without him. There'd probably be a ghastly identikit office block on site by now had he not stepped in during the 1960s and raised his voice for posterity. Thank you Sir! 21st century London will be forever in your debt.

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