Saturday, 6 February 2016

Feeling a bit King's Cross

King's Cross station in London has changed a lot in recent years. For the longest time, passengers were disgorged from the underground station into a grimy, frequently rainy, forecourt under a sprawling, utilitarian, and deeply unlovely awning. Pedestrians were squeezed between a wall of dull glass-fronted kiosks and the busy Euston Road. Inside the station, passengers huddled together, in a crowded and confused space before the train tracks, hoping to catch sight of their train listing on the display boards. There were few seats to be had, and the whole experience was, on the whole, pretty dismal and depressing.

Britain's railways, dating back to their early days, contain examples of some spectacular engineering and architecture. Following the decline of (and massive underinvestment in) the railways in the 1960s, however, the nation's railways and their buildings felt for many years like a coma patient in terminal decline (pun half-intended). Stations became grimy utilitarian spaces, where they had once been glorious statements of an expanding nation's self-confidence, and it felt like there would be no reversal of the relentlessly downwards spiral.

Then something happened, in relation to Kings Cross, at any rate. Between 2005 and 2007, a £500 million restoration plan was put in place, the old mess of buildings in front of the station was done away with and, on 19 March 2012, the new - glorious - station concourse, shown above, was opened to the public. It occupies a space to the left of the old station and, with its organic-looking vaulted roof, new shops and a mezzanine floor with restaurants, it now feels as if passengers are welcome to the station rather than, as was the case before, a regrettable inconvenience.

I arrived at the station early for my train, and wandered around the new concourse, utterly entranced. It does perhaps, speak volumes for the previous standard of railway travel in Great Britain, that a decent location warrants surprise and pleasure, but be that as it may, I found myself delighted. I pottered around the large airy space, marvelling at how sensitively the new merged with the old, each enhancing the other.

The original station offices, which I cannot recall at all from the old station, have now been repurposed (or, perhaps, returned to their original, logical, purpose) as ticket offices and shops, and the original yellow London brick buildings feel, if it is not too fanciful, to have a restored sense of pride. I was pleased, but not entirely surprised, to discover that in 2013 the restoration project had been awarded a European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award.

King's Cross is known to millions of Harry Potter fans across the world as the location of Platform 9 3/4, and the Harry Potter Store to one side feels appropriate, as does the luggage trolley disappearing into the brick wall. When I was there, a long queue of fans was waiting to have their photo taken, Hogwarts scarves flying, pretending to be about to join the Hogwarts Express. Elsewhere to my childish delight, a falconer was flying his hawk around the space to deter pigeons, and the station felt - as I like to imagine it might have felt when it was first built - like a vibrant and exciting place to start a journey.

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