I’ve often felt humanity can be characterised by the desire to slay its heroes, be they famous figures or cultural icons. Since the dawn of the Age of Steam, London’s emblematic top-of-the-tracks hotels The Great Northern – a sheer curve in beige bricks – and its fantastical neighbour The Midland Grand (now St. Pancras Renaissance), twenty years younger but centuries older in approach, have at various times been lauded, misused, lain derelict, and been threatened with the wrecking ball.
Against all odds, both were recently expensively and patiently revitalised. Designed, like the Grade I-listed station itself, by Norfolk-born Lewis Cubitt (Crystal Palace’s chief engineer), the Great Northern was the world’s first terminus hotel, and dates to 1854, opening nine years after the railway that gave it its name. Topped by a phalanx of chimneys, it takes the form of a series of quasi-Victorian villas whose arc echoed the shape of the main road. The road was re-routed when the Midland Grand was built, however, leaving it set apart, like an ox-bow lake. Today, that arc gives guidance of form to the spacious station concourse, crisp under a new USS Enterprise-style sparkling canopy.
When the Great Northern Hotel’s doors reopened in April 2013, interior architect David Archer, who specialises in rehabilitating listed buildings, had dedicated four years to realising the project, and his client, Jeremy Robson, had channelled £42m via his firm RAM into the renovation. When Archer first saw the shell, it had, he says, already been “gutted” by the lead developer behind King’s Cross Central. Floors had been lowered in line with the concourse and, meanly, some of the hotel’s internal space had been robbed to accommodate a three-sided arcade. This has left something of a warren within: a small but unintimidating reception operated by staff in piped jackets not unlike those worn by Wimbledon umpires, and a bar in which guests can escape the reverberating commotion of travel outside.
The wraparound bar-top, carved from nero marquina and Carrara marble, topped in pewter and lit by massive chandeliers, dominates the space. Here, inventive Kosovo-born bar manager Din Jusufi crafts cocktails including the Flaming Queen Boudicca (Martel Cognac, apple, honey, cinnamon). He begrudges the temporary presence of a coffee machine at the centre of the bar, however – a hint at the space’s all-day function – while Jeremy Robson isn’t convinced, he says, by the curiously unsexy framed Edwardian nudes on the mezzanine.
The building’s wider upstairs proportions allow for a much more tangible sense of grandeur. (As an intriguing consequence of this gradual broadening of the space, when you make your way back to the ground floor you find the stairwell growing tighter as you descend, as though compressed by gravity.) The name of first-floor restaurant Plum + Spilt Milk references the livery of dedicated dining cars once drawn by the likes of the Flying Scotsman, and the menu is authored by Mark Sargeant, food writer and known – for his bounce and flounce – as the Tigger of chefs. The smoulder of Calex filament globe lights overhead is refracted in the gleaming, cracked lava tables of which Robson is particularly fond.
Another floor up, and an end-to-end corridor finally gives me a real feeling of this building’s sweep. At one end of the corridor is a well-kept pantry, bulging with complimentary treats including Robson’s favourite confectionery, Tunnock’s Teacakes and Wagon Wheels. He tells me that a French friend of his managed to “disappear” no fewer than 14 of the latter during a brief stay. I can see this being a popular gimmick.
On my tour of the rooms, I’m accompanied by David Archer and Jeremy Robson themselves. As the two discuss some last-minute changes to the décor, whose current palette is gallons of Farrow & Ball olive, I wander to a window and look out to the major surgery taking place on the scaffold-bandaged King’s Cross Lighthouse building at the foot of Pentonville Road, then down on the renovation of the old railway station forecourt. “It could do with some Hermès orange, David,” Robson is saying behind me, “a chalky finish.” Archer agrees: “Retaliation against beige hotel rooms!” The fabled ghastly hive of bordellos, strumpets and pushers that was the old King’s Cross seems a very distant memory.
Archer and Robson are also proud of creative solutions to the problem of limited space, demonstrating in one compact “Couchette” room a mechanism that allows cleaners to effortlessly move the bed away from the window. “That bed can take 700kg,” Robson notes. “We mentioned that to one journalist, and she pointed out that could be a rugby team.” There are no pictures on the bedroom walls – not even Edwardian nudes – but instead a very large mirror, cousin to that on the ceiling of the bar downstairs, angled over the bed headboard. Maybe the sleazy spirit of Old King’s Cross lingers on after all.
Although it could never boast the grandeur of its intimidating (albeit creepy) neighbour St. Pancras Renaissance, the fresh, friendly, Great Northern has greater honesty. No additional, international footprint has been tacked on to it, annexe-like, and no rooms have been pre-sold off as flats (or “lofts”). Instead, the Great Northern feels authored, personal, functional, fun and a just a bit decadent. I only hope, now that it’s being lauded once more, the Great Northern Hotel doesn’t have to go through the old cycle of abuse, neglect and threat of demolition for at least another 159 years. C
Great Northern Hotel, Kings Cross St. Pancras Station, Pancras Road, London N1C 4TB
gnhlondon.com; 020-3388 0800