Tributaries to the Euston Road, the river of traffic which divides the agreeable banality of Bloomsbury from the wilderness which spreads beyond the train sheds of St Pancras and King’s Cross, come from north, east and south. Of these, St Pancras Road, snaking between the two stations, is least clear about where it is going. Walk up it and you are drawn into the dark slot – not sure whether it is a tunnel or a bridge – which pulls traffic off, under the St Pancras railway tracks and out to the north-west, to the down at heel respectability of Camden Town and the glistening stucco terraces of Regent’s Park. Or you are diverted to the east, pass by the gasometers, and head along Goods Way, into railway land.
By day this walk is dismal, but at night it takes on a Piranesian grandeur: not the Piranesi of imaginary prisons and endless staircases, but the archaeological Piranesi, the Piranesi of the monuments of ancient Rome.
London is not tolerant of ruins; nothing unused is abandoned long. The old is made clean. Developers pounce on grime, rust and broken glass like cats on a rustle in the grass. Yet here, along St Pancras Road, in a pause between dereliction and transformation, the monuments of past ambition can be seen as Piranesi saw old Rome. He showed temples infested with houses as those houses might be with wasps’ nests, beggars and mountebanks lounging in the shadow of fallen stones, vegetation blurring and breaking ancient entablatures. Pass up beside St Pancras Station at night and the life of the arched cellars below the station (the tracks had to come in high to pass over the canal; the cellars were to store beer from Burton on Trent) presents the same contrast of scale: old structures offering shelter to little enterprises. Look down one tunnel and you see a black cab passing through a car-wash. A shop will sell and cut a sheet of glass to any shape you like. A second-hand furniture store has chairs of a kind you cannot remember having ever seen new. You can buy fish and chips. In the car hire firms and car repairers petrol mocks the grandeur of the palace of steam above. The beggars and streetwalkers are behind you now, but not far away, drawn to the brighter lights and brisker trade of the Euston Road. Cross the road and look back and you see the arch of W.H. Barlow’s St Pancras train shed reaching up into the yellow-stained night sky. From inside the station it looks fine; from here, at night, it has the presence of a Roman baths.
At the dividing of the ways you identify the bright girders, which you glimpsed as you left the Euston Road: the derelict gasometers have been floodlit. The effect is truly Roman for, lit from within, the three-storey circular frames of columns and lattice trusses are like the ghosts of amphitheatres. The orders are superimposed: Tuscan on the first storey, Doric on the second, a simplified Ionic at the top – an industrial Coliseum. Reaching up, beyond the buddleia and razor wire – our surrogates for ivy and owls – these structures are both grand and poignant.
What will become of them? Because they are old, as gasworks go – they were built in the 1860s – they are listed (although with permission to dismantle). If they are preserved, what is sad and sublime will go. For the moment, garish in the footlights, they stand, along with a few other industrial embarrassments like Battersea Power Station – too good to knock down, hard to find a use for – as impressive industrial memento mori.