diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 21, 2008

return to: St Pancras

St PancrasIt's now six months since St Pancras station reopened. What a lot of publicity and bluster there was, most of it from Eurostar, rejoicing in the architectural splendour of the old Barlow Train Shed and revelling in the sheer decadence of a new luxury rail experience. But has the station lived up to the hype? Is this really "Europe's destination station", or is it just a lot of trains and a few shops selling sandwiches? I've been back to check.

Good news for the marketeers. There are still people gawping at the giant Lovers statue and taking photographs of themselves next to Betjeman. There are even a few people sipping bubbly at the world's longest champagne bar, although from a distance they look like they're sat in a very thin wood-panelled burger restaurant. But that's upstairs, under the lovely roof. If the station's commercial heart is to survive, then the shopping experience downstairs really has to work.

And it sort of does. Along the main arcade are all the sorts of retail outlet that a passing business traveller might desire. Greetings cards, knickers and flowers, obviously, plus dress shirts, fragrance and watches. There's a tiny Hamleys, in case you want to buy one of a handful of fluffy gifts for some distant offspring, and there's also a rather decent Foyles (where the best selling book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a nine quid history of St Pancras station). Plus tons of places to eat and drink (or, more accurately, to sip and graze). There's almost nowhere to sit down otherwise, so the Paris-bound are irresistibly drawn to join artificial cafe society. But this is nowhere you'd go out of your way to visit at weekends.

There's one main reason why central St Pancras is now buzzing. It's because there are an awful lot of people catching trains. The Underground arrives at the southern end of the station, while trains to Bedford, Leicester and beyond depart from the northern end. This means that thousands of commuters every day are forced to endure a forced daily route march past the Body Shop, Costa and Le Pain Quotidien. It's no wonder that some of them succumb and buy something.

Starbucks, St PancrasBut one newly-opened corner of the station still echoes with the sound of inactivity. It's called the "Circle", and it's tucked out of the way near the not-yet-opened farmers market. You could easily pass through the station without ever realising that its shops existed, which is why a series of giant advertising boards have been liberally scattered throughout in a desperate attempt to attract custom. It's not really working. The only people I saw in Monsoon and Vodafone were bored sales assistants. The shelves at the front of the deceptively large M&S were stacked with lunchtime sarnies that nobody had bought. Piles of newspapers in Smiths looked doomed to be pulped at the end of the day. And the chalked sign in front of the out-of-the-way Starbucks read just a little bit too desperately. Please come and join us!

Things will change when the tube station's new northern ticket hall opens in a couple of years time. Escalators will deposit passengers right in front of Starbucks' welcoming portal, and some might even notice the large Boots and Yo Sushi hidden behind. Until then the businesses represented in the Circle will probably wish they'd rented somewhere in a much more conspicuous location with significant footfall, far from this bypassed layby.

St Pancras. It's not so much a "destination" as a retail walkthrough with a nice roof. But hey, still hugely lovelier than the grim desert nextdoor at King's Cross.

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