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A Tale of Three Stations

I have just returned from a short business trip to the UK. I left home last Sunday, walked to the end of my street and caught the 43 bus to the Gare du Nord and then the Eurostar to London St Pancras. Whilst in London I also had occasion to visit London King’s Cross station. Having been to these three railway stations I thought I would do a little research and then add some sound colour.

Paris Gare du Nord

Paris Gare du Nord is one of the six large terminus stations of the SNCF mainline network in Paris. It handles trains to Northern France as well as to various international destinations such as Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Measured by the number of passengers, around 180 million per year, it is the busiest railway station in Europe.

The first Gare du Nord was built by the Bridge and Roadway Engineers on the behalf of the Chemin de Fer du Nord company, which was managed by Léonce Reynaud, professor of architecture at the École Polytechnique. The station was inaugurated on 14 June 1846, the same year as the launch of the Paris – Amiens – Lille rail link. Since the station turned out to be too small in size, it was partially demolished in 1860 to provide space for the current station. The original station’s façade was removed and transferred to Lille.

The president of the company Chemin de Fer du Nord, James Mayer de Rothschild, chose the French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff to design the current station. Construction lasted from May 1861 to December 1865, but the new station opened for service while still under construction in 1864. The façade was designed around a triumphal arch and used many slabs of stone. The building has the usual U-shape of a terminus station. The main support beam is made out of cast iron. The support pillars inside the station were made at Alston & Gourley’s ironworks in Glasgow in the United Kingdom, the only country to have a sufficiently large foundry to do so.

Like other Parisian railway stations, the Gare du Nord rapidly became too small to deal with the increase in railway traffic. In 1884, engineers were able to add five supplementary tracks. The interior was completely rebuilt in 1889 and an extension was built on the eastern side to serve suburban rail lines. More expansion work was carried out between the 1930s and the 1960s.

In 1994, the arrival of Eurostar trains required another reorganisation of the rail tracks.

The Gare du Nord has served as a backdrop in numerous French films, for example in Les Poupées Russse.

In US movies, both the exterior and the interior of the Gare du Nord are seen in the 2002 film The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon and again in the trilogy’s finale, The Bourne Ultimatum, released in August 2007. It was also seen in Ocean’s Twelve in 2004, and Mr Bean’s Holiday in 2007.

The station is also mentioned in Dan Brown’s book, the Da Vinci Code.

I always find the Gare du Nord to be a lively place. Yes, it has it’s share of beggars and other malcontents and it can be fearsomely cold in winter, but it generally has a hustle and bustle about it which I quite enjoy.

This is a recording I made inside the Gare du Nord.

Gare du Nord

London St Pancras

London St Pancras train station has to be one of the most impressive railway stations in the world and it’s a station I always enjoy visiting.

It was designed by William Barlow in 1863 with construction commencing in 1866. The famous Barlow train shed arch spans 240 feet and is over 100 feet high at its apex. On its completion in 1868 it became the largest enclosed space in the world.

One of the most recognisable features of St Pancras station today, the red brick Grade 1 listed Gothic front facade was created as part of a competition in 1865 and became the Midland Grand Hotel designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and built between 1868 to 1876. As a note of interest, Gilbert Scott also designed the iconic red telephone box. In 1935 the Midland Grand Hotel was closed and the building became railway offices known as the St Pancras Chambers.

The station performed an important role during both world wars, acting as a meeting place for troops, a departure point for soldiers off to war, and to help transport children out of London to the safety of the countryside. During WWII the station was hit during the Blitz on London. Despite the devastation, London Midland and Scottish Railway engineers soon had the platforms working again.

The greatest threat to the station came in 1966 with plans to amalgamate King’s Cross and St Pancras. However public opinion had been sharpened by the demolition of Euston in 1962. Sir John Betjeman took up the cause to protect the station and in 1967 the Government listed the station and hotel as Grade 1.

The St Pancras Chambers were used as BR offices until 1985 before falling vacant in the late eighties. In the early nineties emergency safeguarding works were undertaken to combat roof leakages and general decay.

High-speed rail arrived at St Pancras International on 14 November 2007 and all Eurostar services now operate to and from there. This followed a massive redevelopment of St Pancras at a cost of £800 million. The restoration work has seen the Barlow Shed completely reglazed and the paintwork taken back to its intended pale sky blue. Where possible the building has been restored by recycling the brickwork from the original building or sourcing clay from the original clay sources in the Midlands. The master plan for the extension to St Pancras was originally created by Sir Norman Foster, and has since been developed by RLE’s Chief Architect Alistair Lansley. The glass extension has been designed to house the extra long Eurostar trains in their new home.

The completion of St Pancras is just one small part of the £6 billion project High Speed 1 (formerly known as the CTRL) and just the beginning of the redevelopment and regeneration of the King’s Cross area.

St Pancras remains one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London with impressive Victorian Gothic architecture. The ridge and furrow glazing of the Barlow shed contains 14,080 glass panels, giving a total glassed area of nearly 10,000m2… Almost 2 football pitches – or 38 tennis courts. The bottom third of the roof is finished with 300,000 slates hand crafted and supplied from Wales.

The St Pancras Chambers is being restored into a 5 star Marriot hotel with luxury private apartments on the upper levels.

St Pancras International is the new home of some specially commissioned pieces of public art for the station.

The Meeting Place is a 9m high bronze of a couple locked in an intimate pose by the world-renowned sculptor Paul Day. The couple stand underneath the famous St Pancras clock at the apex of the Barlow shed.

Sir John Betjeman was responsible for saving both the St Pancras chambers and the station from demolition in the 1960s. In tribute to the famous poet and railway lover an 8 1/2ft sculpture by Martin Jennings has been designed to stand at platform level to celebrate the man and his poetry. The sculpture features the poet looking up in awe at the splendour of the Barlow shed whilst catching hold of his hat.

The famous St Pancras clock has been reconstructed by the original makers Dent, and now hangs high at the apex of the Barlow arch once more.

St Pancras actually combines three stations under one roof, the Eurostar station, the Midland station and the north-south commuter station.

This is a recording of  commuter trains at St Pancras.

Commuter Trains at St Pancras

London King’s Cross

King’s Cross has to be my least favourite of these three stations.

It was opened on the 14th October 1852. It replaced the temporary train station at Maiden Lane which was built by the Great Northern Railway in1850 and stood for two years, until Kings Cross’ completion. George Turnbull was the resident engineer for Great Northern Railway between 1846-49 and he drew up the first plans for the Kings Cross Station. Lewis Cubitt completed the designs and the station was built by the construction company of John and William Jay from 1851 to 1852. The station was built on the site of an old fever and smallpox hospital. The station opened in 1852 with 8 platforms.

The accompanying Great Northern Hotel was also designed by Lewis Cubit and it was opened on the 17th May 1854. The station was enhanced in the 1920’s and the current concourse and a travel centre was added in 1973.

In 1972, British Rail constructed an intended temporary structure at the facade of the station. The structure is still there and is seen by many as detracting from the original beauty of Lewis Cubitt design (which is Grade I-listed). The current redevelopment plan intends to remove the ‘temporary’ structure.

In 1973, the Provisional IRA threw a bomb into the booking hall of the station, injuring six people and causing much damage to the booking hall.

In 1987 a catastrophic underground fire occurred claiming the lives of 31 people in the Kings Cross St Pancras tube interchange. The fire was believed to have been started by a commuter throwing a match down the side of an escalator.

I find that the inside of King’s Cross Station has nothing to commend it at all. It is claustrophobic and very oppressive. It is always full of passengers, or do we say “customers” these days, standing because there is nowhere to sit down. There are more security cameras covering every aspect of the building than I’ve ever seen anywhere. I counted forty of them and then I stopped counting. The public address announcements are littered with security announcements saying that unattended baggage will be destroyed by the “security services”. Who exactly are these “security services” one wonders.

Unlike the Gare du Nord or St Pancras, King’s Cross is not a railway station that I would choose to visit unless it was absolutely necessary.

Here is an atmosphere recording I made inside King’s Cross.

King’s Cross