I was away from London for most of this year's Open House London weekend, in which hundreds of London's famous, infamous and secret buildings open up to the general public. Naturally, big queues form for some of the most desirable locations on the list, including 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) — a personal architectural favourite — and I only had a few hours on Sunday afternoon.
Instead, I decided to go on a tour that I could book and I picked a venue that I see from the outside almost every day — in fact, I can even see it from my desk at work: The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and St Pancras Chambers apartments. We met our guide in the hotel forecourt and learned a lot about the history of St Pancras station and the former Midland Grand Hotel, whose building is now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel and the apartments. It was a beautiful sunny day — perfect for a little Open House adventuring.
St Pancras station was built as the central hub for the Midland Railway, with the grand (some said too grand) Renaissance Hotel as its pièce de résistance. It isn't surprising that the neighbouring King's Cross station, home of the Great Northern Railway, developed something of an inferiority complex. King's Cross itself has smartened up considerably over the past few years, but St Pancras is still the more striking and elegant of the two. Although the Midland Grand Hotel, which opened in 1873, used to occupy the whole of the building, the Renaissance just takes up the first floor (with a separate, west wing that has further rooms); the upper floors are made up of offices and apartments.
First, our guide took us inside the Renaissance. I've been to the lovely Booking Office bar for cocktails a few times, but I have never explored the rest of the hotel. We walked over to the hotel's grand spiral staircase, which has been the setting for various TV shows and, most famously, for the music video for the Spice Girls song Wannabe. It hasn't changed much since then! I was more interested, however, in the beautiful hand-painted ceiling with its golden stars on a teal background. We didn't go upstairs but the view from the ground floor was still impressive.
Our next stop was to the apartments upstairs. Looking up at the ceiling from the ground floor, it is hard to ignore the influence of Islamic architecture — although the roof has a glass ceiling, the light streams through. The building is also designed so that the ceiling on each floor is a couple of feet lower than than that of the floor below. Naturally, the servants used to bunk down in any free space they could find on the top floor.
Our guide couldn't confirm the urban legend of the West Indies cricket team setting up nets in the long hallway on the fifth floor, but did tell us about some of the design constraints faced by owners and tenants in this listed building.
Finally, we visited one of the clock tower apartments on the fifth floor. We didn't get to go right up to the clock, but enjoyed looking at the period features (the wooden box that looks a bit like a wardrobe or a phone box used to house the clock's winding mechanism before it was automated).
The views through the windows out over King's Cross were pretty nice too.
Another tour group was right behind us, so we had to leave the apartment before I had the chance to take any more photos. It's such a beautiful space and you can even rent it out on Airbnb. I'm seriously tempted, even though I live in London. We filed back down the spiral staircase, stopping briefly to peep out at The Lovers (AKA Paul day's The Meeting Place) in the main hall of St Pancras station.
There are, of course, plenty of places worth visiting during Open House London, but I would definitely recommend the St Pancras tour. You do need to book early, though, as they sold out pretty quickly this year.