St Pancras International … a Destination in its Own Right

There was a time, as any number of East Midlanders and Northerners will happily tell you, that London's St Pancras Station was very nearly the last place in the capital you would have chosen to spend any time at all. Indeed many would prefer to shiver outside in the cold of Euston Road rather than step inside its gloomy confines. But how that has changed!

Once a dark and, frankly miserable, place that had long since seen better days, it has been transformed into the London hub for the Eurostar rail service after an £800 million restoration and redevelopment project. And 'rebranded' as St Pancras International, as befits a hub offering more than 20 trains into mainland Europe every day. It links with domestic services across the UK it has become lively, busy and, most importantly of all, a destination in its own right.

It might seem slightly off-beat to take a day trip to a railway station. And I wouldn't begin to suggest that anyone spend would want to spend an entire day there, although undoubtedly you could wile away a couple of hours. But I do recommend that everyone take a look inside. Because, far from being a boring transportation terminal, it's swish, glamorous and just a little bit romantic.

One of the things that was always such a disappointment about the old St Pancras was the way that the gorgeous Victorian architecture had been allowed to fade away, as if the station, and its passengers no longer deserved such a grand gateway to the capital. It was such a pity because when the station had opened in 1868, it had always been the intention of the Midland Railway, to impress. Modern passengers were very lucky to have even the faded grandeur to admire because the station had only survived the 1960s thanks to the intervention of the poet Sir John Betjemen (now immortalised in a statue at the revamped station).

Travellers have much to be grateful to the late poet-laureate because the spectacular roof of what was once the Barlow Shed, now restored in all its glory, is the most perfect sight to greet anyone arriving in London, whether they've come only from Leicester, Derby, or Sheffield, or  from Brussels or Paris. The entire structure of the roof has been reglazed and, spanning 243 feet across and 689 feet long with a height of 100 feet at its apex, it once formed the largest enclosed space in the world. And, waiting there, whether for a train to the north or sipping champagne at the long bar that overlooks the Eurostar service, it is a spectacular and romantic experience.

But it is beneath the rails, in the old undercroft, now opened up for countless boutiques and food outlets that the real surprise of St Pancras lies. The Arcade seems a world away from a railway station and yet each of the arches that now provides homes for the businesses down there was once a cellar, used mainly for grain storage and for that of beer, barrel after barrel of which had been collected by the Midland Railway from its station at the brewing town of Burton upon Trent near Derby for distribution in the capital. Legend tells that the cast iron pillars that hold up the undercroft are precisely three beer barrels apart to make for easier storage.

And how well the outlets make use of the warm-tinted brick walls! All manner of businesses … gift emporiums, jewellers, beauty boutiques, book shops and fashion stores line up with bakeries, chocolatiers and cafes. And there is even a new shop selling merchandise for the forthcoming 2012 London Olympics, after all many of those arriving for the games will do so via Eurostar. More shops and eateries lie around the corner in the Circle and there is even the fabulous Sourced Market where prepared food, baked goods, fresh fruit and vegetables and fish are sold daily. A pub - appropriately named the Betjemen Arms - and several high-class restaurants have a home at St Pancras too.

Now St Pancras International is a place, not just to arrive or depart, but to remain, to linger and to enjoy. And it's become a popular meeting place too. But it's not just travellers and tourists who have rediscovered this Victorian gem. Television and film productions have discovered it too. Indeed you can rarely pass through the station without seeing one film crew or another setting up. From popular dramas like spy thriller Spooks and the much lamented The Bill, to films like the Harry Potter series and countless advertisements and magazine fashion shoots inbetween it seems that everyone wants to be, and be seen, at St Pancras, and that's no surprise.

So, the next time you have to go to London, and find some time to spare, why not take a look? And if you're lucky enough to find your London-bound train terminates there, be sure to put some time aside to take a proper look around before heading back 'up North'!