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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 01:44 GMT
St Pancras faced demolition ball
By Steven Shukor
BBC London

Barlow train shed

St Pancras is today celebrated as one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture and engineering, but it could easily have been a different story.

In the 1960s, the decade that saw the construction of London's Barbican (voted London's ugliest building in 2003) and the razing of Euston Station's Doric Arch, it is enough to say Victorian style was not exactly fashionable.

The demolishing of Euston's 70ft arch in the name of progress caused outcry among Londoners and sparked protests by the likes of poet laureate John Betjeman, co-founder of the Victorian Society.

Next on the government's modernisation hitlist was St Pancras and its towering neo-Gothic facade, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1868.

Originally opened as the Midland Grand Hotel, the structure was a triumph of style over functionality. But the hotel was unprofitable and closed in 1935.

It goes without saying my dad [Betjeman] would have marvelled at the new station. He would probably have said in typical fashion, 'let's open some bubbly'
Candida Lycet Green

By the 1960s, the building, renamed St Pancras Chambers, was home to British Railways (BR), and the floor plan was re-arranged with scant regard for the original features.

St Pancras might well have gone the way of Euston had it not been for a BR staff member who shared Betjeman's passion for conservation.

"It was only thanks to a leak from a British Rail staff member that my dad learned about the plan to demolish St Pancras," says the poet's daughter Candida Lycet Green.

"My dad then had the time to build up this incredible campaign to save the building."

When it came to conservation, Ms Lycet Green says her railway-loving father was ahead of his time.

"The Royal Fine Art Commission [the predecessor to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment] thought St Pancras was awful," she says.

A cast of the Betjeman statue
Betjeman said demolishing St Pancras would be a criminal folly

Betjeman argued it would be criminal to destroy a building whose name conjured up wondrous images of architecture and light in the mind of every Londoner.

He wrote: "What [the Londoner] sees in his mind's eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow's train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street."

St Pancras was given Grade 1 listed status in 1967 - the same level of protection afforded to Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle.

In choosing the design for St Pancras, its owners, the Midland Railway, wanted something spectacular to outshine London's other stations such as King's Cross, Euston and Paddington.

When completed in 1868, William Barlow's 100ft high, single span train shed was the largest enclosed space in the world.

But Betjeman's victory did little to reverse the station's decline into a sad relic of imperial grandeur inhabited by junkies and kerb crawlers.

Its beauty - the sky-blue iron framework, the brickwork, the mosaics and even the light - had long since faded underneath decades of soot build-up.

Betjeman honoured

The station was handed a lifeline when it was chosen by the government in 1996 to be re-developed to become the home of the new high-speed Eurostar service.

After a seven-year redevelopment costing 800m, involving 60 million bricks, 18,000 panes of self-cleaning glass, 300,000 new Welsh slate tiles, St Pancras is set to raise standards of rail travel.

A 7ft (2.1m) bronze statue of Sir John Betjeman, by Martin Jennings, will stand at platform level in recognition of his campaign to save the building.

"The piece is an image of him as if he has walked into the station for the first time and gazes up at the roof," says Mr Jennings.

"He's got a bag with his books and his coat is billowing up behind him as if in the wind of a passing express train."

Mr Jennings read Betjeman's biography and his poetry, watched footage of him and worked closely with his daughter.

Longest champagne bar

"The statue is wonderful," says Ms Lycet Green.

"It's staggering the way Martin has caught him and his stance when he comes into a great space like a cathedral or St Pancras.

"He would always look up and draw his breath in wonder at the ceiling."

What would Betjeman think of St Pancras today?

"It goes without saying my dad would have marvelled at the new station. He would probably have said in typical fashion, 'let's open some bubbly'."

With the station boasting Europe's longest champagne bar, he would not have had to wait long to raise a toast to this Victorian marvel reborn.

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