It’s a bit like a fairy story where the princess is stolen from her parents and raised in poverty until her beauty and grace identify her as a true aristocrat. Only the princess in this case is a building; the present day St Pancras Hotel, which began life in 1873 as the Midland Grand Hotel, one of the most beautiful buildings in London, fell on hard times, and was triumphantly rescued by a prince in the form of the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman.
The story goes like this. The building was designed in the fashionable gothic style by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. It was huge (there were three hundred rooms) and gorgeous, with gold leaf on the walls and a grand staircase the like of which had never been seen. But the bad fairy had struck – it had been built without water closets and with shared bathrooms.
This unfortunate lack led to the closure of the hotel in 1935, when it was turned into offices for British Rail. Rooms were crudely partitioned, plastered and painted until the beauty of the building could no longer be seen. In the 1960s it was due for demolition until a campaign led by John Betjeman earned it a reprieve and a Grade I listing.
It was a reprieve but not a rescue – the building stood empty from the 1980’s, until finally in 2004 restoration work began and the beauty of Scott’s original building was rediscovered.
The jewel in the crown is the elaborately painted double arched grand staircase, constructed from stone supported on exposed and decorated cast iron beams.
Above is a rib-vaulted ceiling, where the original 1870s decoration survives. The spandrels to the vaults are spangled with suns and stars and filled with paintings of the virtues; humility, liberality, industry, chastity, temperance, truth, charity, patience and industry.
The arms of the Midland Railway appear over the rounded main arch. The arms show a wyvern (a sort of winged serpent) above heraldic symbols of the major towns served by the company — a deer for Derby, a castle and ship for Bristol, and so on for Birmingham, Lincoln, Leeds and Leicester.
The richly stencilled walls of the main corridor and stairwell have been recreated following the decorative scheme of 1901.
The carpet was specially woven to fit the stairs exactly.
If you’d like to get a look at this restored marvel for yourself, the hotel runs guided tours costing £20 per person. You need to book in advance.