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Rise, fall and return of London’s railway hotels.

by Andrea on November 12, 2010

The frontage of magnificent St Pancras station is shared with the historic Midland Grand Hotel which is soon to be revived with the new Renaissance St Pancras: is this the dawn of a new era for London's famous railway hotels? (image credit below)

London’s railway hotels were one of the wonders of the High Victorian age.

The best known was the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, a Gothic wonder more like a baronial castle than a hotel building; but each of the London termini once had its own hotel, from the GWR at Paddington to the Great Eastern at Liverpool Street.  What on earth has happened to them?

Somehow the great ambitions of Victorian progress faded and by the 1970s station hotels had become seedy and in some cases derelict.  No one wanted to be next to a station – I remember staying in the Victoria hotel one night and being kept awake all night by the station tannoy.

Station hotels with their cavernous rooms and long corridors of identikit rooms were cheap and cheerful at best, cheap and nasty at worst.

The Great Western Royal Hotel had the grandest name – suiting its position at the terminus of the GWR (said to stand for ‘God’s Own Railway’!).

Alas it headed downhill until it was sold off in the 1980s – ending up in 2001 as the Hilton Paddington.  It’s a decent enough hotel (and there aren’t all that many good hotels near Paddington to compete with), but I’m somehow underwhelmed by its attractions – it’s rather bland despite the Art Deco styling.  And not currently rated among the best Hiltons in London.

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The Hilton Paddington still carries a few echoes of its railway hotel origins as the Great Western Royal Hotel

The Great Eastern on the other hand made a bigger change in becoming the Andaz Liverpool Street (it’s sad, I think, that all these hotels have lost their railway-connected names… that’s a little piece of London’s heritage that has disappeared).  The Andaz has been extensively covered on this blog, not least as a gateway to discovering the secret East End.

Symbolic of the change of style is the lack of check-in desk – all staff have laptops and so check-in comes to guests, not the other way round!  It’s currently doing nicely in the top 25 London hotels on TripAdvisor.

Check the best rate for the Andaz Hotel from 30+ hotel booking sites

The gorgeous glass dome above the 1901 restaurant at the Andaz is one of very few nods to its railway hotel roots (converted from the Great Eastern Hotel)

Rooms have a contemporary feel, with strong colours and simple design – though I’m glad to note that the excellent 1901 restaurant has kept its original feel with its heraldic stained glass and is looking even more splendid than it did before thanks to a vigorous refurbishment.

The Charing Cross Hotel is another former railway hotel which has recently undergone major renovations.  The public areas were always good looking and I used to pop into the bar from time to time, but it does look to have improved these days under Guoman Hotels’ ownership.

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The Charing Cross Hotel by Guoman retains a certain grandeur evocative of the glory days of the railways

Still needing improvement though is Victoria’s Grosvenor Hotel (formerly the Victoria Thistle).  And it’s getting a refurb, apparently – also under Guoman, which is spending £18m to update it.  It really could be a grand hotel, but the 20th century wasn’t kind to it and it currently struggles on TripAdvisor.

Let’s hope it manages to recapture the glory days of the railway era now that someone’s decided to spend a bit of money on it.

The Great Northern at King’s Cross is also being revamped.  With Eurostar now decanting its passengers at St Pancras next door, King’s Cross is suddenly an interesting destination rather than the seedy district it used to be.  The Great Northern will be a boutique hotel opening in early 2012.

But the one I’m eagerly waiting for is not any of these hotels, but the Midland Grand at St Pancras – not an Italianate palazzo like the Grosvenor or Charing Cross but an amazing Gothic confection in multicoloured brick, with turrets and pinnacles and gloomy great halls and staircases.  It’s as if Walt Disney had met Cruella de Vil and opened a hotel!

£150m is being invested to transform the impressive Victorian Gothic building by Gilbert Scott into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel - due to open May 2011 (image credit below)

The Midland Grand closed in the 1930s – and spent more than 70 years as a sleeping beauty or an eyesore, depending on who was looking at it.  It actually faced demolition at one point – the poet Sir John Betjeman was one of the people who fought for it, and there’s now a statue of him in the station (a nice little statue which captures his bumbling charm perfectly).

Now, Marriott and Manhattan Loft Corporation are converting this antique hotel (built before water closets came into general use, it famously had less than a dozen bathrooms for 300 guest rooms!).

It’s expected to open in May 2011 as the Renaissance St Pancras (a very appropriate title given its history!).  There’s an interesting sneak preview which you can access via the London Hotel News website.

When I started researching this post, I initially felt that London’s great railway hotels – with one exception – were on their way out.

But I’ve revised my view.  Although they may have changed their names and are not all emphasising their railway roots, I get the impression they’re very much on the way up again.  And they’ve definitely been sorely missed.

As for that annoying station tannoy, it’s amazing what triple glazing can do!

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Photo credits: Andaz Hotel, Hilton Paddington Hotel, Charing Cross Hotel, amandabhslater’s photostream, amandabhslater’s photostream.

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