Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Castle in London

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     It closed in 1935, outdated and ill-maintained, and was used after that as offices.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. 

   

51 comments:

  1. I'm so glad they didn't demolish it. The restoration looks magnificent.

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  2. It doesn't matter about the gold leaf, so long as that beautiful building wasn't destroyed.

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    1. Gold leaf always makes a place seem special... obviously.... but I do agree with you about the main priority.

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  3. What an interesting place, I think we've seen the outside of it and not known what it was.

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    1. Glad to have solved a little mystery for you! LOL!

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  4. That sky looks like the sky in our West, I'm sure, with all the forest fires burning. Great tour.

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    1. Yes, a romantic painting. Not fires, just sunset though.

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  5. Splendid! And indeed, how lucky you were to come across this particular member of staff! I would have expected to be politely escorted out of the building, too, but instead you got this fantastic tour. No chance to peek into any of the (not occupied) rooms, I suppose?

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    1. I didn't ask if we could look inside unoccupied bedrooms, but from the photos, it seems that they are fairly standard luxury hotel stuff. It has considerably fewer bedrooms than originally, Before restoration, my recollection is that they were all single rooms, or that is what I remember (maybe the double rooms were on separate floors, or maybe it was for moral reasons, this being the Victorian age!) There were bathrooms on each floor, but no ensuites. Simply having a bathroom was enough of a luxury in 1876. They also all had fireplaces, heating in bedrooms was also considered luxurious.So it all had to be changed, for obvious reasons. Some of the floors are in fact now luxury apartments.

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  6. A great building indeed!
    I had to deliver there long before they began restoration and even with the black, dank, dreary lighting of the time you could see the high standard of the building. I was told this was Scott's design for the Foreign Office but Lord Palmerston rejected it demanding a Greek inspired design and that is what he got. When the chance to create a hotel came Scott simply used that plan, moving the central tower to the end and creating this masterpiece.
    Impossible for photos to do this building justice but you had a good attempt.

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    1. Yes, it shows that you can't keep a good design down. It looks as if it must have been a real marathon of design, and Scott had to be reined in by the directors of the railway company because he was so extravagant. Makes you wonder what it would have been like if they'd given him unlimited cash!

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  7. Unexpected treasures are often the very best - now we all want to visit, Jenny!

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  8. Thank you, Jenny. I remember looking at the building and wishing I could go inside. How about that for a staircase?

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    1. Gives me a few ideas for mine - if only ! :D

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  9. Thank you Jenny. Great post
    The building is magnificent.

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    1. The guy was such an inspiration to be with too. Nice to see someone who loves his work.

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  10. What a beautiful piece of architecture and how fortunate that it was saved. How wonderful that you got to tour it with someone who loved and knew everything about this fabulous building.

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    1. Yes, it was a real stroke of luck and a wonderful encounter.

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  11. Amazing post! We have passed that building so many times going to eurostar, it was lovely to see inside and hear its history. Thank you.

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    1. Yes, Eurostar is about next door, or even in the same structure. They renovated the station at the same time, thank goodness!

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  12. Oh, Jenny! I am so glad this magnificent building didn't get torn down! Wow! Lots of history and such attention to detail in the restoration. That double staircase is stunning! Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. Yes, the staircase is probably the most eye catching one I have seen for ages. If not ever. Isn't it nice to see gold stars on blue, it reminds me of being inside a book illustration!

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  13. I love George Gilbert Scott's Midland Hotel, and thank goodness it was saved along with St. Pancras Station mainly, of course, through the efforts of John Betjeman and the Victorian Society.

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    1. I liked John Betjeman, at least from a distance, (I mean, I didn't know him personally). He was the reason that I got interested in Victorian architecture, and I'll always be grateful to him.

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  14. I loved this post, Jenny! Last year when we were in London we headed to the British Library, and were indeed stunned to come upon this amazing building. I was fascinated then, and seeing the inside and reading its story, I would love to go inside and see it for myself. Thank goodness BR did not succeed in demolishing this treasure/folly of a building. What a gorgeous niche, and ceiling in the smoking room, and totally wonderful staircase.

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    1. I hope you get the chance to return. The British library is also a building I love, but it could hardly be more different, eh? The niche was an eye opener for me because when I visited before - when the hotel was in an unrestored state 0 the niche was still painted-out and nobody knew it was there. Imagine whitewashing that!!!

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  15. Thanks for the tour - I never tire of poking around old buildings. Warm regards, Elizabeth

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  16. It would have been such a shame for such a magnificent structure to have been completely razed. Modernism holds no appeal to me.

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    1. I like some modern buildings, but so often they're designed with only money in mind, and are mean and cramped. At least, they are in London.

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  17. Your posts are always interesting, Jenny...accompanied by wonderful photos. And this one lives up to your usual standard. :)

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  18. I've never been inside the Midland Hotel. It does look rather spectacular. And indeed, how wonderful that it was fully restored and not demolished and replaced by some crass concrete monstrosity. It looks so amazing that it's hard to see what difference any extra money would have made.

    My Jenny used to go to Diwana Bhel Poori a lot, when she was working at the MIND office close by. I went there a few times myself. I remember the absolutely delicious food.

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    1. Jenny must have gone many years ago as you say you have been settled in Belfast for so long! Yes, I think that the Midland hotel was just in time.... a few years beforehand and BR would have got its wish.

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  19. How very special to have such a great guided tour! I can imagine it must be quit pricey to stay there, but wonderful all the same!

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    1. Yes, I think the cost of a room is more than I would normally want to pay but it was not totally stratospheric. The restaurant looked pretty nice, but also quite expensive.

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  20. For some reason I never thought of ladies having a smoking room; always thught it was a gentlemens’ thing. It’s a beautiful building in any case, and in this case I thing Gothic works.

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    1. It was, we were told, the very first smoking room for ladies in the world. So it was very enlightened. Right on, you could say! :)

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  21. Now THAT is a hotel! How fabulous -- and how fun to be there at just the right time. Oh, that staircase and ceiling -- and the view from the window is wonderful. I've been reading Deborah Crombie mysteries and the one I just finished was around St. Pancras (which is also the site of some of the Bryant and May mysteries) so it's fun to see something in the neighborhood. I wonder if the Midland will ever show up in one of their books?

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    1. I wouldn't be surprised, Jeanie! I haven't heard of Deborah Crombie mysteries but I do like mysteries which all take place in the same area. The area around there used to be quite evocative, although a bit seedy - now it is a bit of a hotspot cultural corner!

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  22. Hello, Jenny. I can imagine the grandeur of the hotel at its completion but it’s a shame that it had only a few decades of glory, then again it was fortunate not to be demolished. Even if the design is classically beautiful, modern utility need to be installed to make the hotel business constantly running. The renovated Midland hotel is so classy and fashionable. I like your idea, the spirit of G.G. Scott floating around somewhere in the hotel. Nice seeing you on this blog. I also got back to blogging after two month break.

    Yoko

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    1. Thank you Yoko for your comments. Yes, the hotel wouldn't have been practical to use without renovation. Originally the bedrooms were all single rooms, with a bathroom at the end of the corridor. That was standard in the 1870s but not acceptable today. The main public rooms are what most people like to admire. I am very glad to see you are back to blogging now!

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  23. Diwana's? Was that there in the 1980s? If so, I went there regularly for a while, when I lived in N London.

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    1. Oh, definitely there in the 80s, if not in the 60s. Or perhaps forever. If you were to return I doubt you'd find it much different - they've kept the standard up.

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  24. Dear Jenny, it was interesting to learn about Midland Grand hotel, I attentively read the site of Midland hotel and its history. Amazing! What a historic and abandoned building!
    Thanks for sharing this place, your photos show us beautiful interiors ans staircase there.
    Happy weekend!

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    1. Thanks, Nadezda - the article is very interesting, isn't it? I'm glad you read it and liked the post.

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  25. I've always loved that building. Especially after the recent refurbishment in the area. :-)

    Have a great weekend.

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  26. What an amazing restoration. I want to stay there!!

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  27. Wow - that's an amazing building! Great photos of it.

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  28. Certainly an incredible building!
    Love your header pic too. Cheers :D)

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  29. Hi,again Jenny.
    The building is so gorgeous both outside and inside. I am pleased to see that grand piano made by Yamaha I like.
    Nice day to you!

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