Imagine striding down a two-pronged marble staircase leading onto the grand central hall of a heaving station. Ionic columns and sculptures border the room, with light piercing in from huge windows streaming over decadent splashes of gold and granite. Chances are the words Euston Station haven’t sprung to mind, but if we rewind some 70 years, that’s what the chic terminal looked like.
Built in 1837, the old girl was more like New York’s Grand Central than its current fairly brutish, rather boxy form. In fact, it managed to retain its glamorous façade through two world wars and plans to merge it with St Pancras to create a conjoined US-style super terminal.
However, by the time the sixties swung around, the general consensus was that the future was in the car, not railways. Euston’s grandeur seemed decadent and unnecessary, and with pro-motorway Prime Minister Macmillan running the shop, it was time to transform it into a more functional, easier-to-navigate model.
Despite multiple protestations that its demolition was one of the greatest acts of post-war architectural vandalism in Britain, the station was swept away, replaced by the stark, utilitarian features cast in black polished granite and white mosaic we have before us today.
“It’s definitely a unique place,” says station manager Joe Hendry, who took the helm last year, having spent 12 years managing the likes of St Pancras, Gatwick Airport and, indeed, most the of tube map.
“It was glamorous at King’s Cross, a big open space, all metal and glass. This is much grittier, and more of a challenge, which I like.”
Hendry says its size is “tiny” in comparison to most concourses. “There are constant surges of people hopping on and off trains coming in from everywhere – we’ve got the overground, national services and even the Caledonian Sleepers heading up to Glasgow every night.”
On average, 150,000 people dart through Euston Station a day, making it the fifth busiest in the UK. “People don’t really come here to leave,” he says. “They interchange straight to the underground.”
As we stroll through the concourse at 10am, dodging people gawping up at the train board, Joe mentions that because there are no through platforms a lot of people wait around, anxiously looking at the board. “We announce everything so people can relax a bit more but that doesn’t seem to stop all of the star-gazing,” he says.
Despite the spatial restraints, there are over 50 retailers. “There has been a remarkable transformation over the last four years,” he says, remembering how not long ago it was a matter of grabbing a Harry Ramsden’s or Burger King before jumping aboard.Wandering past Gino D’Acampo, Prime, Paul Hollywood’s new bakery Knead and Leon, the choice is clearly there, but old habits die hard. “Burger King is still the most popular grub spot, surprisingly or unsurprisingly,” says Joe, smiling.
There are also a few newbies coming to the station this year, including a pub opening on the balcony and a donut stop. “We’re all going be twenty stone heavier,” says Joe, with a laugh. “With the range of food options and the draw to comfort food, I’ve easily put on a stone since I started here.”
“People have this conception that a station manager walks around like a Thomas the Tank Engine-style jolly controller, strolling about,” says Joe, “but there’s an incredible amount that goes on behind the scenes, to keep the place safe and make it functional.”
Indeed, Euston has a hundred members of staff looking after the physical building, alongside a huge security and delivery team, plus staff specialising in mobility assistance. “It doesn’t help that the station is fifty years old,” he says, “it’s creaking under the weight of all the passengers.”
According to Joe, everyday is “like playing a very hard game of Sudoku.” He has to calculate everything, and analyse the repercussions of every slight alteration to the station, be it closing an entrance, changing the signage, organising feeding the homeless on Christmas Day, or preparing for HS2. “Everything is planned to the nth degree,” he says.
With work already underway for HighSpeed2 – which won’t launch for another eight years – Joe is aware that the operation has to be slicker than ever. “We’ll be losing two tracks, and the clearing in and around the station is in full-flow. All Bar One is about to go, as is Oliver Bonas,” he says, as we walk past a file of removal vans outside offices and boarded-up buildings on the outskirts.
“We haven’t made any of the decisions regarding the implementation of HS2 but it is for the greater good,” he says. While he can see both sides of the debate, his job is about “getting people to places. Anything that helps do that is a good thing.”
The upcoming development is a new addition to an already complex jigsaw puzzle, and Joe and his team are determined to make it work. Negotiating their way around the space they already have, slotting the additions in as seamlessly as possible means – unfortunately for avid architecture fans – there ain’t no glass, grandeur or granite heading Euston’s way anytime soon.
All above images including main photo by Danny Burrows © London Belongs To Me