diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Underground 150 Gower Street → King's Cross

This is the fifth of six inter-station walks along the original Metropolitan Railway. It's also the most well-known stretch - past Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross - with the 149.995-year old underground rumbling beneath. [map] [old map] [20 photos]

Annoyingly, depending on where you're going, the exit from Euston Square is at the non-Euston end of the platforms. Rail-bound passengers then get to walk along the Euston Road between two Portland stone-clad buildings. On the southern side is the Wellcome Collection, home to an extensive and always-interesting exhibition of medical curiosities. And on the northern side is NASA Headquarters, or was. 30 Euston Square was built as the head office of the National Amalgamated Approved Society - an insurance company, until nationalised in 1948 - and has very recently transferred to the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Euston Square Gardens aren't at their best in the winter. They used to stretch along both sides of the road, but Friends House (the Quakers' HQ) now covers much of the southern half. The frontispiece to Euston station is mostly grass and mud, plus a bus station and what looks like two small gatehouses. These are two of the four lodges which once guarded the Euston Arch, that is until British Rail demolished the latter to make way for a major 1960s rebuild. If the Euston Arch Trust get their way the 70 foot Doric propylaeum will be reborn at the front of the gardens, where the number 18 bus parks up. But until then only the lodges remain, carved with a list of rail destinations from Aberdeen to Wolverhampton, now serving craft beers and ciders to a small but discerning clientèle.

The Euston Road continues with interesting features unabated. An Arts and Crafts Fire Station, likely to see out its 111th year without ending up on the austerity hatchetlist. St Pancras New Church, a world away from the 4th century site of its predecessor in Somers Town. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women, now an outbuilding for Unison head office next door. A nasty lilac Premier Inn, whose restaurant appears to be named Pukes, except this turns out to be bad typography for 1 Dukes Road. Camden Town Hall, whose neoclassical heart is attached to a far less lovely annexe. The piazza outside the British Library, which is deemed so hazardous that risk managers insist on slapping warning signs on every step and pavement. And the British Library itself, which is a phenomenal treasurehouse where you can walk from the Magna Carta to the lyrics of Yesterday in 30 seconds flat.

St Pancras station remains a wondrous creation. So loved is the Midland Grand Hotel that you'll invariably spy several people with cameras aloft attempting to capture its Gothic beauty, especially when the sun's out. Getting inside the hotel is harder, unless you're a permanent or temporary resident, or fancy some five-star refreshment from the former ticket hall inside. Even a cup of tea will set you back £4.50, plus service charge, assuming you can find room on the comfy seats (and assuming the concierge will let you through). King's Cross used to be the ugly sister, but that's coming out of its shell now that the 1970s British Rail canopy out front is being removed. It's mostly gone already, revealing Cubitt's bold brick façade with two glass arches staring forward like an insect's eyes. By the end of this year a new public piazza should have emerged and the station's long transformation will be complete.

King's Cross station: St Pancras wasn't here when the Metropolitan Railway arrived. It opened five years later, so it might seem odd that the Metropolitan underground station is located almost directly outside. There is a good reason for this, which is that the current platforms aren't the originals. They were opened as recently as 1941, nudging the tracks outwards to create a central void for two platforms and a circulatory space. That central space has grown further in the last few years with a major revamp, although the platforms still feel a little narrow when the full commuter and suitcase brigade invade. Upstairs the ticket hall has insufficient ticket windows and ticket machines to cope with the full Eurostar/Inter City onslaught, so many tourists' first experience of London is a lengthy queue. At least entrance to the H&C platforms is relatively direct, rather than the devious switchback detour TfL use to divert deep-level passengers to their respective destinations.

But the 1863 platforms are elsewhere. They were located 450 metres to the east, on the opposite side of King's Cross station, past The Lighthouse. Here the Metropolitan Railway pulled the same trick as at Edgware Road and nudged their tracks out from beneath the road into the open. The original King's Cross station lay in a cutting between Pentonville Road and Gray's Inn Road, curving gently round to head onwards to Farringdon. It wasn't long before these tracks were doubled, allowing mainline trains to enter and head City-ward. Two platforms remained for underground trains while the other two are what (eventually) became King's Cross Thameslink. A new road was built where the footbridge has stood, this was named King's Cross Bridge and still carries traffic round the one-way system today. The King's Cross Cinema, now better known as The Scala, was built directly above the open platforms. Meanwhile a new station entrance was built on the opposite side of the road, which somehow still exists in a very rundown way, sandwiched between Royal Pizza and American Cosmetics.

And if you want to see the original Metropolitan platforms, or at least the early 20th century version, you can. Find St Chad's Place, a quiet sideroad just before the Travelodge, and walk down to the junction with Wicklow Street. A narrow cobbled street spans the cutting, and if you look over the edge through the wire fence the two railway lines are clearly seen below. The platforms you can see belong to Kings Cross Thameslink, labelled "Do not alight here" since 2007 when the station relocated, while the lines alongside follow the curve of the original underground. Look left towards the back of the Scala, and down, to see where westbound trains stopped until 1941. That's what a true heritage platform looks like - abandoned, uneven and mossy. The beating heart of King's Cross station has long since departed.

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