Today (October 1) in London History – the finest railway station in Europe

The finest railway station in Europe opened on October 1st, 1868. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The thing about becoming more knowledgable – learning stuff that you were clueless about – is it deepens your appreciation of your ignorance. How vast and boundless it is.

Today’s a case in point. Today being October 1st. I’ve been around the block. I don’t even want to think about the number of days I’ve seen come and go. And as for curiosity, I’ve got it in spades. I’m on fire with the stuff. And I read voraciously. If you divide reading into two categories – what powers it, its drivers – and one of those categories, one of those drivers is hunger and the other is starvation. Mine would be the latter variety. Reading to me is what food is to someone who’s starving. 

So I get to this podcast – October 1st – and I’m like one of those Sri Lankan protesters who swarmed through the presidential palace earlier this year. “Will you look at this, good god, can you believe it, who would have thought, well, I never”… that sort of thing.

So I find out that several of the beads on the October 1st necklace are Independence Day – Independence from the United Kingdom. Blissful ignorance. Pig ignorance. I hadn’t a clue. And I find out that it’s International Coffee Day. Again, hadn’t a clue. And it was the first day of the modern World Series. Baseball we’re talking here. So it wasn’t world and since it happened on October 1st, 1903 God knows what mental contortions you have to go through to deem it modern. Sort of like bending a straight piece of wood to make a curved backrest.

And on it goes. October 1st is the International Day of Older Persons. Who knew? And in this country there’s royal stuff. When isn’t there royal stuff? Queen Mary I – Bloody Mary – was crowned on October 1, 1553.

My favourite though is the October 1st, 959 rollout. Should I repeat that? I didn’t say 1959. I said 959. On October 1st, 959 Edward the Peaceful became King of England.

Now listen up. Next year – 2023 – we’re going to have a coronation. 

You can depend on it, it’ll take place next spring or summer. If I were a betting man, I’d put a £50 note on its taking place on June 2nd, 2023. Why June 2nd? Because that’s the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. 

Now, are they waiting nine months or more for that anniversary to come round? No, not all. It’s a big deal, a coronation. It takes months of planning. In Queen Elizabeth’s case it took well over a year. She became Queen on February 6th, 1952. She was crowned on June 2nd, 1953.

16 months in the planning, the Queen’s coronation. That seem like a long drum roll? I’m here to tell you, it’s no time at all. Let’s get back to 959, back to Edward the Peaceful becoming King on October 1st, 959. And when was he crowned? I’m glad you asked. 973. Fourteen years after he became king. And here’s your takeaway, that coronation, in 973, forms the basis of the present-day British coronation service. Didn’t happen in Westminster Abbey, though. Westminster Abbey didn’t exist in 973. It happened in Bath. But that’s another story. Anyway, you see what I mean about learning stuff you were clueless about – how it deepens your appreciation of the vastness of your ignorance. Several billion people will watch that coronation next year. None of them will have the foggiest about Edward the Peaceful and what happened that day in Bath in 973 and its bearing on what they’ll be watching on, I strongly suspect, June 2, 2023.

 And all of that is just me hitting some fungos – to use a baseball metaphor.

The speck of gold I’ve spotted in the October 1st pan has got 1868 engraved on it. 

It’s the opening, that day, of St Pancras Railway Station. 

Let’s start with a great engineering factoid. The Regent’s Canal was just north of the station. They decided to bridge it. That complicated matters. Bridging it meant there’d be a steep incline to the terminus at Euston which in turn meant they had to raise the station to a high level. Now here’s the thing. St Pancras is arguably the finest railway station in Europe. What everybody marvels about is its soaring single span roof. It’s a 240-foot span – at the time, it was the largest in the world. So for sure, you go there you look up. What none of those travellers realise is that they should also be cognizant of what’s beneath their feet. Basically, raising the terminus to a high level meant room for a vast warehouse beneath the station. A warehouse in which could be stored, initially, thousands of beer barrels brought down from Burton. This tickles me no end. The designer of the station – William Henry Barlow, one of the greatest civil engineers this country ever produced – William Henry Barlow, the designer of St Pancras station, said, “in point of fact, the length of a beer barrel became the unit of measure, upon which all the arrangements of this floor were raised.” Raised indeed. I think all of us should raise a glass to William Henry Barlow’s roof and to what surely was the world’s largest beer cellar down below.

Now look, hand on heart here. The opening of St Pancras station on October 1st made it into an old chronology reference book. That’s where I found it. What I wasn’t expecting was what I found when I went back to 1868. Had them pull me a pint of the same deep draught of information that Londoners were quaffing the very next day. 

This opening line, for example, of the Daily Telegraph’s report that ran on October 2nd, 1868. 

“Yesterday, four new railways, or extended lengths of railways, having their termini in London, were opened to the public.”

Four of them. On October 1st, 1868. It must have been like being a cross-eyed boy at a three-ring circus. As for what it must have done to the heads of train-spotters, I’m lost for words. Well, not quite lost. Multiple orgasm, does that have some applicability? Or a four-way photo finish?

But when you think that to these mid-Victorians railway stations were their cathedrals – well, how could it have been anything other than a heady time for them. And if they were interested in these matters, October 1st is a day that would have got a three-line whip in their diaries. And I’ll bet there would have been a few beady-eyed types who would have looked knowingly at you and said, conspiratorially, “you do realise, don’t you, that October 1st is railway station day in London. Or at least it should be.” Whereupon you give your interlocutor a patronising look – which is what he hoped you’d do – because he slams the unreturnable winner right by you, “yes, it was October 1st, 1860 that the first part of Victoria Station was opened.”

There ain’t no nerd like a London nerd. 

A Today in London recommendation. Let’s go off-piste.

The UK’s most prestigious architecture prize is the RIBA Stirling Prize. The winner of the 2022 prize will be announced on October 13th.

On October 25th, in the evening, the architects and designers will tell the stories behind their buildings. And the winning practice will give an in-depth illustrated talk. Followed by some Q & A. And there’s a bar. Sounds fun. And different. Celebrating the best of new architecture. What’s not to like. Maybe I’ll see you there.  

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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