The Betjeman Arms is located in one of my very favourite buildings in London.
St Pancras Station
St Pancras station is an eye-catchingly extravagant Victorian edifice designed by prominent ecclesiastical architect of the era, George Gilbert Scott.
During this era, there were a number of competing private railway companies in Great Britain, including Midlands Railway. A company based in the industrial heartlands, when Midland ran routes into London, it shared tracks belonging to other companies, coming into Euston or King’s Cross stations. However, increased traffic lead to clashes with the owners of those lines and Midland decided to create their own line instead.
In preparation, Midland began purchasing large parcels of land in the parish of St Pancras, which was then a poor district with notorious slums. For their new station, they chose a site directly between Euston and King’s Cross.
Midland’s directors, keen to impress, were determined to outclass the ornateness of Lewis Cubitt’s Euston, Brunel’s innovative iron and glass design at Paddington and John Hawkshaw’s single-span roof designs at Charing Cross. They chose William Barlow’s spectacular single-span structure for the trainshed and George Gilbert Scott’s grand Gothic revival designs for the St Pancras station buildings. Even with some financial squeezing, Gilbert Scott’s plans were implemented in suitably majestic form.
Despite problems with a sloping site, residential areas to be cleared, a graveyard containing coffined remains, the complication of dealing with local gasworks and even a city-wide cholera outbreak that lead to some major works on the subterranean River Fleet, St Pancras opened in 1868.
The extravagant Midland Grand Hotel, also designed by Gilbert Scott, opened between 1873 and 1876, amid some contention about spiralling costs. Not only incredibly luxurious and well appointed, the Midland Grand was also ahead of its time: it was the first hotel in the world to offer an alternative to stairs by way of “hydraulic ascending chambers”; guests could summon service using a unique electric bell calling system; rooms had flush toilets rather than the more common chamber pots and the hotel put minds at ease by boasting of a fireproof concrete floor construction.
The 20th century was not kind to St Pancras station. The Railways Act of 1921 forced the merger of Midland Railway and London and North Western into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) which chose Euston as it’s principal London terminus. The Midland Grand Hotel, once so ahead of the times but now far behind new competitors, closed in 1935, and became known as St Pancras Chambers when it was used for a period as railway offices. The station was bombed three times during the Second World War, but its robust construction meant it survived almost unscathed. A Manchester London Pullman briefly ran into St Pancras in the 1960s but was consolidated into Euston services when the station was rebuilt in the same decade.
By the end of the 1960s, St Pancras was seen as redundant and there was calls to have it demolished completely. A strong (and successful) opposition was led by John Betjeman, who later became Poet Laureate and he secured a Grade 1 listing for the building in 1967.
Over the next few decades, changes to the sectorisation of nationalised rail and then privatisation resulted in changes to routing and services, and the creation of new services such as Thameslink, which also came through St Pancras.
However, the old hotel was abandoned by British Rail in 1985 and stood empty and neglected for almost two decades after, used occasionally as a location for TV and film shoots.
The original plan for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link envisaged a King’s Cross St Pancras area terminus, however, the service launched with its terminus at Waterloo in 1994. It wasn’t until 2007 that Eurostar’s service finally switched into St Pancras, after a complex and expensive 7 year redevelopment project.
The old MIdland Grand Hotel was redeveloped into a new hotel and opened as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in 2011. Within it is the Gilbert Scott Restaurant and Bar, named for architect.
Sir John Betjeman
Poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture.
In 1972 he wrote “London’s Historic Railway Stations” in which he defended the beauty of twelve London stations. About St Pancras 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.”
He led a number of campaigns to save threatened buildings in London, some of which failed and others which succeeded. He called the plan to demolish St Pancras a “criminal folly” and campaigned strongly until plans for demolition were dropped and the building was listed with coveted Grade 1 status.
When the station re-opened after the Eurostar redevelopment, Betjeman’s role was commemorated with a statue of Betjeman created by artist Martin Jennings. The 7 foot tall bronze statue includes a slate roundel featuring selections of Betjeman’s writings.
The Betjeman Arms
Part of the Geronimo Inns group, The Betjeman Arms is located within the main St Pancras building, with external entrances to Euston Road/ Pancras Road and internal ones directly onto the station concourse, close to colossal bronze statue, “The Meeting Place”.
Inside, the pub is much bigger than I’d imagined, though the space is divided into a number of areas including the main bar with seating area, two regular dining room areas, a boardroom (for business meetings and lunches) and the terrace, on the open concourse out back.
We’re in one of the dining rooms, decorated with a travel theme, as befits the location. It’s contrived, yes, but nicely done with displays of luggage and the normal selection of Old Things that are used to decorate new pubs. I particularly love the enormous arched windows which flood the rooms with light.
The menu separates Starters and Nibbles, though some of the nibbles work well as starters. Mains are divided between full priced Mains, Sandwiches and a recently added section called The Great British Lunch (priced at £8).
A word on the beers: the pub prides itself on offering a range of real ales but seems to sell only three – Sam Brooks Wandle, Sharp’s Atlantic IPA and a third labelled as Betjeman’s Ale, which is allegedly a rebadge of Sharp’s Cornish Coaster.
For my starter, I order the black pudding scotch egg (£4.95) from the nibbles menu. When it arrives, it looks beautiful, sat on a wooden board with dressed salad and a pot of brown sauce. And it’s enormous. However it’s served cold, which robs it hugely of flavour. The black pudding has some taste, but the egg has none and the whole thing would be lifted immeasurably if cooked to order and served hot.
Pete’s starter of smoked chicken, avocado, pepper and cherry tomato salad in lemon mayo dressing (£6.95) is the best dish of our meal. Super balance of textures and flavours and visually very appealing too.
I order from The Great British Lunch section, choosing baked aubergine stuffed with minted lamb (£8). What I’m served is tasty – nicely spiced lamb and peas in a soft aubergine half on a bed of tomatoes – but it’s very oily. When we speak to the manager after our meal, I suggest it might be nice to serve a green salad or side vegetable alongside.
Pete cannot resist the Betjeman beef burger with brioche bun, mature cheddar cheese, bacon and chips (£12.50) with onion rings (£1 extra). When it comes, it looks impressive, presented with steak knife upright holding the onion rings above the burger. However, it suffers from two flaws – it’s way too large to be eaten as a burger and the beef patty is very dry indeed, not to mention lacking in flavour. A shame because the bun is one of the nicest we’ve come across and the chips and condiments are also good. And the onion rings are excellent.
After our lunch, we sit and chat to pub manager Gary Digby.
Of course, we discuss our thoughts, good and bad, about the dishes we ordered for lunch; always refreshing to do so with a restaurateur open to constructive feedback.
Gary also tells us that he’s just signed off plans for a refurbishment of the pub, scheduled for September.
But his main focus at the moment is on preparing for the Olympics. Located at a major transport hub, he knows they’ll be very busy indeed, and has been working towards this period for several months. The Javelin train service between King’s Cross and Stratford will depart from the platform right by the pub’s concourse terrace, so he’s been working with the various station authorities, not to mention his staff and suppliers, to ensure they can serve the long queues expected to pass through – he’s been given figures of 1000 passengers every 10 minutes. The provision of drinks and snacks via ice cream carts and usherette trays has already been signed off, as has a Moet and Chandon bar in the terrace area. Gary’s still hoping he might get permission for a small stall selling hot food too. The pub is also extending its opening hours, trading between 6.30 am and 1 am from Sunday to Wednesday and 6.30 am to 3 am from Thursday to Saturday. The pub have signed up to the Fair Pricing Charter, and will not be raising their prices at all.
Although the pub gets a lot of business from passing travellers, Gary is proud that over 35% of their business is from regulars, most of whom live or work locally.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of The Betjeman Arms.