Had a good afternoon on Friday. We met up with an old friend of T's, and had lunch in the Diwana Bhel Poori near Euston station. It's been my favourite Indian lunch buffet since I was... well, about 18, and it wasn't new then. Despite the curious decor, it has the best vegetarian buffet in London and it's always full at lunchtimes.
Then we strolled on to the British Library, and continued our chat over coffee. When our friend left to get home before the rush, we decided to go next door to take a peek inside the Midland Hotel.
In case this information doesn't mean anything to you, the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras is the big Gothic building you can see in this Victorian picture.
The picture romanticises it - but not that much. It really is the kind of place you gasp at. It's hardly surprising to me that its architect, the celebrated George Gilbert Scott, felt it was his masterpiece.
It was designed to be spectacular, with its gold leaf decorations, all the latest mod cons and no expense spared - even though G.G. Scott felt the directors of the company ought to be spending far more on it than they eventually did.
It was magnificent when it was complete, but it had only a few decades of glory. It was hard to modernise it, and by the 1930s the management couldn't afford enough staff to carry all the chamberpots (the Victorians hadn't thought of en-suites), stoke the coal fires which graced each bedroom, and so on. It closed in 1935, outdated and ill-maintained, and was used after that as offices. Eventually British Rail decided it was ugly and old fashioned, and fought to demolish it for years, keen to replace it with one of the Brutalist grey slab buildings they favoured at the time.
Luckily they failed, but restoring the Midland Hotel was a massive job. I visited when it was empty and disused in about 1995, and couldn't think how anyone could even start. But, amazingly, it was done, in 2011 the renovated Midland reopened.
I'd only caught glimpses of the interior since then, so on Friday I finally walked into that arched portico you can see on the left, went down a spectacular looking corridor.... took a photo ... and was approached by a member of staff asking if he could help. I was sure he was going to freeze me out, but instead he asked, pleasantly, if we'd like to see around. Of course, I said yes!
And what a stroke of luck. It was clear that he truly loved the building. Castles were his passion, he said, and this was as near as anyone could get to working in a castle in London. He knew a lot about it - such as that the carpet on several storeys of that grand staircase (below) was woven all in one piece, and that all the door furniture had been individually designed.
The walls of the hallway are painted with scarlet and gold fleur de lys, backed by a group of gigantic windows. Although you can't see it in my photo the staircase splits into two and goes up either side of the building.
Here's part of the towering vaulted ceiling, with courtly knights and armorial shields. It apparently represents the Virtues, although I couldn't quite see how.
This beautifully painted niche from "The Romance of the Rose" is large enough to shelter a large statue, but had been whitewashed over when the building became offices - what vandalism! As you see it has been uncovered and restored.
Below is the ceiling of the Ladies' Smoking Room, which daringly offered Victorian ladies the chance to relax together and have a puff after dinner, never thinking about the effect of their nicotine on the elaborate paintwork with its gold leaf. These days, of course, there is no smoking.
I took a snap out of the window, which shows the length of the building.
Finally, we returned to the front hall, and our guide concluded with a little musical recital. This very up to date version of a reproducing piano stands in the hall. Its keys seem to play by themselves, just like in the old pianolas - but instead of a paper roll whirring round, it is linked with a recording. It looked eerie, playing all by itself, but I dare say there are plenty of ghosts haunting this place. In fact, I expect that G.G. Scott is floating around somewhere, complaining that they haven't applied enough gold leaf this time around.
We were very grateful to that charming member of staff, delighted by how proud he was of the building, and pleased to have this unexpected encounter with a stranger in the middle of the big city.
If you want to read more about the history of the building, this is a good site.