By John Keyes and Anne Garber
Meridian Writers' Group
LONDON - When the Eurostar began zipping between continental Europe and England through the tunnel beneath the English Channel in 1994, it irked those French who care about such matters that the Paris terminus for the train was the Gare du Nord, a politically neutral appellation, while the London terminus, south of the River Thames, was at Waterloo Station, named after the final defeat of Napoleon by the English at Waterloo in 1815.
Half-hearted entreaties by French bureaucrats that the station might be renamed were rebuffed by the Brits, while the London tabloids gleefully mocked such Gallic sensitivity. On Nov. 14, 2007, the issue was finally rendered moot when the London terminus for the Eurostar was switched from Waterloo to St. Pancras, in the north end of the city. If they wish, the French can now think of it as London's very own gare du nord .
Linked to new high-speed rail lines that shave 20 minutes off the old London-Paris run (the trip now takes a mere two hours and 15 minutes) and capable of handling as many as eight Eurostar departures and arrivals per hour, St. Pancras now spans the 19th and 21st centuries. With its restored 1867 train shed and capacious 2007 extension, it is a state-of-the-art iron-and-glass facility, sunlit by day, gloriously illuminated by night, a far cry from the original neo-Gothic pile of bricks that nearly succumbed to the wrecking ball in the 1960s and was largely derelict in recent years.
The landlord, London & Continental Railways, spent £800 million restoring St. Pancras, hoping in part to make it a place that makes travellers happy, even eager, to be routed through it because there are so many amenities to enjoy. Better still, the new station has also become a shopping and dining destination for King's Cross and Islington, nearby districts of London sorely in need of pizzazz.
Several prestigious retailers have been persuaded to set up shop under this grand roof: Foyle's, the world-famous, multi-storey independent bookstore on Charing Cross Road, has a branch in the retail concourse, as does Hamley's, the legendary Regent Street toy store. So does Neal's Yard, the artisanal cheese maker whose fine fare would otherwise require slogging through the crowds in Covent Garden or Borough Market. For something to put that cheese on, there's an outlet of Paul, the French boulangerie. Other shops include a brasserie, a gastropub, a sushi bar, fashion boutiques and a pharmacy. The local press has made much of London & Continental's decision not to allow a fast-food vendor like McDonald's onto the property.