John Betjeman. Christmas – 1955
“And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many steepled London sky”
The People’s Poet
As the saviour of the area’s most iconic landmark, St. Pancras Station, as well as being a genuine national treasure, John Betjeman was a natural contender to be our first King’s Cross Legend.
A north London native, Betjeman’s parents owned a business near King’s Cross, at 34–42 Pentonville Road, which manufactured Victorian-style ornamental furniture and gadgets. Beginning his career as a journalist, and ending it as one of Britain’s most popular poets with the Laureate title, he was also a much-loved television personality. His poetry and films celebrated and observed the minutiae of British life and culture, and displayed a passion for urban and rural topography. But perhaps a less well-known aspect of his legacy was his work as a conservationist, which included the preservation of some of London’s most important architecture.
With his renowned fondness for architecture, Betjeman was a founding member of the Victorian Society. He used his popularity to lead several successful campaigns which helped to preserve many buildings, including Holy Trinity on Sloane Street. Unfortunately some were less successful, such as the effort to save Euston Arch on Drummond Street, which was demolished in 1962. Perhaps Betjeman’s most high-profile campaign was to save St Pancras from the same demise; a plan he described as “a criminal folly”.
With the public’s renewed appreciation for Victorian architecture, it’s hard to believe that only 50 or so years ago the then decrepit St. Pancras building was seen as an eye-sore. It was dirty, old-fashioned and ghostly, and the Government planned to raze the whole thing. Its renovation between 2001 and 2007 included a restoration and clean-up of the red brick and gothic details, and the construction of a new roof. Once a dusty ghost of its former self, it has been restored to its full glory, and is now regarded as one of the most elegant train stations in the world.
Harking back to the golden age of train travel during which the station was built, the St. Pancras building now includes a hotel, shops, restaurants and cocktail bars. With the transfer of Eurostar services to here from Waterloo, it has become a true, bustling hub not just for London, but for Europe – it is the first point of entrance to the UK for visitors from Paris and further afield on the continent. Looking at the place now, the prospect of demolition seems like utter madness – but Betjeman had the foresight to understand its importance. His love of certain aspects of British heritage, while at first seeming conservative, can also be construed as having a truly egalitarian slant – he believed that good architecture should be enjoyed and valued by everyone in society, regardless of class or economic status. As apparently well-meaning the Government’s new plans for the area may have been, the ‘People’s Poet’ saw no reason why a utilitarian train station could not be an opulent palace, of sorts, for the enjoyment of the general public.
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.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the view, if we look amongst the buildings of the new, futuristic city that is rising from the former urban wasteland around King’s Cross from Pancras Road to York Way, without the monumental, red bricked tower and its spire peeking through. Like the steeples of the church among the clouds, described in Christmas, it centres and grounds the ever-changing landscape of the area.
By harnessing his two great passions – architecture and railways – John Betjeman was instrumental in saving the building. It is now Grade I listed, and as such is afforded significant protection. Thanks to Betjeman, it’s not going anywhere soon. So a statue of him within the station building, which depicts him looking up to the sky through the expansive new roof of the Barlow Shed, a perfect amalgamation of the historic and the modern, stands as a moving tribute.
But we can’t help but wonder what he would make of King’s Cross now? Well, we’ll just have to ponder that over a pint at the station’s John Betjeman pub.
It was December and we were feeling festive. So we simply had to play with Betjeman’s iconic poem, “Christmas”. The following stanza really resonated with us:
“And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many steepled London sky”.
As a result, we created an illustration which combined handwritten typography with small, cross-hatched illustrations depicting some of London’s most iconic skyscrapers piercing the marbled clouds. We felt the combination of the classic aesthetic of cross-hatching with the more current trend for hand-made brush painting type was a fitting way to celebrate the changing face of King’s Cross, which constantly looks forward but never forgets its past, thanks to the great wordsmith and his work to save a vital aspect of it.
Finally, with the recent charge on plastic bags, putting our design onto a trendy tote bag seemed the best thing to do: for the environment, our wallets, and to show off a King’s Cross Legend in style!