As regular readers of this blog will know, it has been a fairly turbulent time for me health-wise, but thanks to our wonderful NHS I’m now very much on the mend and am looking forward to the warmth of spring – if ever that arrives. I planned to write and publish this post sometime in the first week of March, but then various things out there in the real world of rain, mud, sheep and finally urology intervened – and nothing happened. But I did take some photos, which I quite like and which I still want to share with you. So if you don’t mind the slight delay, here’s a truncated version of what I was planning (I think!) to say.
The ‘official’ months of British meteorological winter (December, January and February) had been cool and wet, but 2017/18 had certainly not been a ‘hard’ winter. Snowdrops had appeared a little bit late, but we had had very few sharp air frosts (when the air temperature drops below zero C) and everything looked set for a bright spring. Then something odd happened in the upper atmosphere and in the first week of March we were treated to a week of bitterly cold weather, borne in by penetrating easterly winds, from off a cold North Sea. The Press dubbed it ‘The Beast from the East’ and I was very surprised they didn’t blame it on Putin or Remoaners (as those of us who think Brexit is insane are insultingly dubbed). We didn’t have a deep accumulation of snow – maybe 3-4 inches – but the nights were bitterly cold, as were the penetrating east and north-easterly winds. New spring growth on roses and other shrubs was ruthlessly burnt off and will certainly affect next year’s flowering. I also lost several broccoli plants that were actually blown out of the ground – and then were frosted. What made it so frustrating was that the succulent shoots were just starting to grow, but were still too small to pick.
I took two photos of the ‘Beast from the East’ snow on March 3rd. The first view is of the front garden, the second is of the main garden at the back of the house, taken from an upstairs window. Normally by early March the hawthorn hedges are starting into leaf, as well as a few trees. But not this year. Oh no: spring won’t be coming for at least another month.
And now for something completely different. My latest book, Paths to the Past was officially published by Allen Lane (the hardback originator of many Penguin paperbacks) on March 1st and I had to do various promotion events in London. Very often these events require me to speak about the book for half-an-hour, or so, before we start the serious business of buying and signing and providing me with the pension that makes the £700,000 paid every year to Fred the Shred Goodwin by the Bank (RBS) he nearly destroyed, look like the immense fortune it is. But I digress – or rather, I start to. Anyhow, I was going through my digital slide collection when I realised I didn’t have any pictures of my two favourite London buildings: the neighbouring stations of King’s Cross and St. Pancras. And as they are the subject of Paths’ final chapter I decided I’d have to put this right ASAP. I took several pictures on the overcast, gloomy days that have been such a feature of the winter and I rejected them all when I saw them on a larger screen, at home. They were dead, lifeless. Then on the day I did a signing in the Parcel Yard pub at King’s Cross (February 22nd, 2018), the sun came out and I got the views I wanted. And I hope you’ll agree, they really are pretty special.
The first two show the main approach to King’s Cross, now that Lewis Cubitt’s superb southern front has been largely cleared of extraneous buildings. The station opened in 1852 and the simple, two-arched façade, with the modest central clock tower, looks as good as it did back then. I think it’s the most elegant, dignified station building anywhere in the world. The Great Northern Hotel, which opened just two years after the station, and was also designed by Lewis Cubitt, can be seen to the left (west) of my second, more wide-angled, picture. The station and the hotel go splendidly together and it’s great that they can now be appreciated as a pair of buildings. I also love the new concourse, which opened in 2012 and was designed by John McAlaslan and Partners. It’s suitably innovative, with a superb and huge-span (52 metres!), cellular roof. A Guardian review at the time said it was a shame that it ‘sits so uncomfortably among neighbouring buildings.’ I couldn’t disagree more strongly. No, it respects and sets off its neighbours and comes as a delightful surprise to anyone who didn’t know of its existence. For me, the new concourse represents the ultimate in modern architecture: it has the self-confidence to deliberately seek-out a less prominent position, yet it still impresses and delights. Sorry, Guardian, I don’t often disagree with you, but you got it COMPLETELY wrong!
Finally I took my camera round to St. Pancras, because I knew the superb single-span roof (like the new concourse at King’s Cross, the largest of its time) would look good in low winter sunshine. And I was right.
When you stand alongside the statue of John Betjeman and look up at the vast curve of St. Pancras’s roof, it is almost impossible to imagine that in the 1960s many leading politicians wanted to tear it down. They were still flushed with the sense of pride they derived from the destruction of the Euston Arch in 1962 – surely Britain’s greatest tribute to the Railway Age it had just created. But thanks to Betjeman, their myopic ambitions were thwarted. Today, they’d doubtless suggest having a referendum on the subject. Grrrrrr….
The actual station at St. Pancras, technically the train shed, was designed by William Henry Barlow and it opened in 1868. It was a challenging project, as the design had to cope with two levels of tracks and a working canal just a short distance along the line. The completely over-the-top brick-and-stone Gothic-style front contrasts wonderfully with nearby King’s Cross, and while I’ve never been a fan of later Victorian Gothic (as opposed to the delicate Strawberry Hill style ‘Gothick’ of a century earlier) I have to concede that George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Hotel (now the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel), which was added to the front of the train shed and opened in 1873 – some five years after the station itself – has loads and loads of confidence. Maybe if I didn’t have memories of similar, grim, Victorian red brick Gothic buildings at school I’d be less intolerant. Maybe. But do take a walk around the area. It’s a fine example of how the old and the new can thrive when they come together – with respect and, yes, love.