(james benedict brown) on the road

Le Pain Quotidien

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 4 March, 2008

My trip to London had to end soon after it had begun. Just two nights in the big smoke, this time, but they were two that were entirely well spent. Leaving Hackney early on Saturday morning, I caught a glimpse of the windswept point of interaction between two days. I watched the moon set over the buildings of Mare Street, firmly declining the offer made by an old man in a hat of a slightly used pair of headphones.

The number 30 bus took me towards the city, and on the Euston Road I alighted for St. Pancras International. This weekend had been my first chance to see the station after its multi-million pound refurbishment and reopening as London’s terminal of the Eurostar high speed train. A new dedicated line carries passengers at almost 300km/h from London to the continent, avoiding the tortuously congested and slow local lines over which the trains used to run into London Waterloo. Twenty minutes has been shaved off most journeys, but passengers arriving in London no longer enjoy the cityscape of the capital offered by the old route: ‘high speed one’ as it is optimistically named (I’m not a pessimist, but I doubt the UK will see a ‘high speed two’ for many years) now routes the trains underground for many of the final miles into the city.

The old station shed looks a treat. Years of idling diesel trains had turned the steelwork of the roof to black, and an intensive period of restoration has returned train shed structure to magnificent glory, with clean translucent glass mounted between thousands of light blue spandrels. The platforms have had to be extended to accommodate the Eurostar, and an unfortunately functional extension now covers the ends of those trains and the domestic intercity trains that operate up the Midland Mainline to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield.

I first saw the interior of St. Pancras several years before I moved to Sheffield. Seeking a bite to eat early one weekend morning with my father, we ventured across the road from our normal London terminus at Kings Cross (for our trains from Cambridge and west Norfolk) into St. Pancras. At the time, perhaps almost ten years ago, St. Pancras was in a sorry state. The grand station was barely being used to fifty percent of its capacity, with just a handful of platforms being used by shabby IC125 and piddling Turbostar trains. We ate a moderately mediocre pair of full Englishes and admired the scale and potential of the run down station.

Almost a decade on, and I returned for breakfast. With time to spare before my 07h25 departure to Sheffield, I explored the new lower level passenger concourse. The space occupied by two platforms within the train shed has been sacrificed to open up the lower level of the station. Eurostar check-in, customs, immigration and the usual obligatory retail fits in here, with largely transparent modern structures sliding in between the original cast iron columns that support the train tracks above. The tracks into St. Pancras are significantly higher than those at the neighbouring King’s Cross; the Midland Mainline leaves the station and passes over the Regent’s Canal while those of the East Coast Mainline from King’s Cross pass beneath it. At St. Pancras this height change between platform and street was used to the advantage of a midlands brewery, who used the station’s undercroft to store barrels of beer that had been delivered by rail from the Trent valley.

The ever expanding empire of M&S’ Simply Food chain continues, although in this case with little consideration for the early morning delivery processes. Countless delivery carts carrying fresh produce had been pushed up against the glass façade, concealing the interior and tempting early morning customers in with promise of on-board snacks that were ready for the taking.

But no pre-packed sandwich or greasy fry could distract me this morning. Under the beautiful brick arches on the outside edge of the new passenger concourse, I had a pleasant surprise. Le Pain Quotidien, a Franco-Belgian I first discovered in Marseille, has opened branch of their delightful café.

The last time I tasted the wonderful fresh bread selection of Le Pain Quotidien I had just arrived in the south of France after an overnight sleeper train ride from Strasbourg. In the brilliant February sunshine I ordered a perfect bowl of coffee and spread thick sugary tartines over slices of various gorgeous breads. The barrel vault of the St. Pancras branch recalls that of the Marseille outlet, in a tastefully restored warehouse on the city’s Place Huiles, just next to the Old Port.

The view leaves something to be desired: generic coffee shops, Eurostar check-in and departing trains, but it’s still by far the best place in eat breakfast in an English railway station. Be sure to make a diversion next time you have a hunger in St. Pancras International.


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