I spend an awfully large amount of time in transport hubs, both rail and airports. These are massive structures encompassing huge areas but rarely do they have a personality. A noteworthy exclusion to this is St Pancreas station which has, through clever additions, become quite an affable place. There is a beach scene with deck chairs set up in one location, a very pleasant departure from benches that is always busy. It would seem that the good-natured humour affects everybody, I was most entertained recently to watch the police dispatching two homeless people from the deck chairs. The homeless residents had enjoyed a picnic on the ‘beach’ and were sleeping soundly in deck chairs. The police were very gently rousing them and suggesting that they departed, none of the traditional approach well you can’t evict people from a beach can you?
The other interesting addition is two pianos for public use, I listened this morning to some excellent music. You would think that buskers or children would rule the pianos and I don’t doubt that there is some surreptitious policing of them but it is never visible. I guess that few people in London have the space for a piano and so the result is that some very talented musicians just sit and play. The design of St Pancreas or St Pancreas International Terminal (SPIT) as it is known in the industry, was never ideally suited as a modern railway station. In its redeveloped state it is a genuinely relaxed hub, probably helped in part by the international station but I think also by the scattering of pianos.
This reminded me that railways are such a mine of hidden treasures and delights rarely seen by those who use them. As we rush from point to point we know very little of the secrets behind the scenes and care for them even less. Let me share with you a couple of the secrets that I know and one day when you’re passing you may just remember reading this. I shall start with Liverpool Street station. Have you ever wondered why the shop on the circle line platform is so busy, or why you feel peckish having crossed to the Westbound platform? If you concentrate you will notice that along with the familiar odour of the metro there is a scent of food. You will always smell cooking at this point and it is the familiar scent that causes the shop to trade so well. The origin of the smell is not some clever commercial manipulation to assist the fast food stores sales. In a disused tunnel spur alongside the eastbound line lies the staff canteen, a windowless facility built into available space its vents dispatch cooking odours to everyday commuters.
Those that used Waterloo station will have passed an unnamed door on the western tunnel exit. The door is deliberately plain and has nothing to tell you what lies behind, this in itself is rather unusual for a railway environment. The door is unlocked for some 18 hours a day and if you were to enter it you would be quickly asked to leave by security officers that stand just inside. If you have the correct identification then you will be allowed down the stairs into the cavernous vaults of tunnel 224. This tunnel is an ‘in use’ tunnel in a complex that includes the 30,000 square feet that was opened in 2010s the Old Vic tunnels, sadly closed three years later. The use of this particular tunnel? Another canteen, although when i was last there this was a much more affluent affair due to the presence of the Eurostar and South West trains corporate offices.