Published: 9 June, 2011
by DAN CARRIER
EUSTON Road has long been the bane of urban planners, a dual carriageway that strangles the south of Camden. The Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone employed architect Sir Terry Farrell to look at how it could be improved, and as researchers measured traffic flow, they discovered a strange blip in their figures: it seemed at one stretch of the thoroughfare, traffic inexplicably slowed to a crawl.
The number-crunchers were at a loss to work out why, and called for more research. It had nothing, they said, to do with traffic lights or street lay out, yet there was always a jam by Camden Town Hall.
The answer became clear when they began to watch drivers carefully.
They discovered it was due to the breathtaking beauty of a Gothic building, the Midland Grand Hotel, long since left empty, that was catching the eye of those going past.
Now this famous landmark is back to what it was originally designed to do. Built in 1865 and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the Midland Railways group, the renamed St Pancras Renaissance Hotel has opened again after decades of gradual dereliction, its peace disturbed only by film crews using it as a ghostly location – and the footsteps of a security guard who as he patrolled its empty corridors became the expert on the history of the place.
Royden Stock is Mr St Pancras: now the in-house historian, he fell in love with the building 15 years ago and his passion has meant when the £200million restoration was complete, the owners drew on his knowledge and have given him a job.
Mr Stock was working as a security guard in the 1990s on film shoots when, one day, he was told to meet at the hotel.
“I grew up nearby and had seen it so many times,” he says.
Yet its Gothic facade had horrified him as well as piqued his curiosity. “I remember as a child being sure it was where all the world’s witches lived,” he says.
By 1996, it had been closed for eight years, after British Rail decamped offices elsewhere.
“I still remember what it was like to go in for the first time,” says Mr Stock. “It amazed me that such a beautiful building was hidden from the public.”
Then came a chance meeting during the shoot in one of the long, dusty, corridors that would change Royden’s life for ever. A British Rail employee who was on site saw how he was thrilled by the building, and gave him a book by architectural historian Jack Simmons on its history.
“She had seen the glint in my eye and said ‘I have something that may interest you’. I went away and devoured it,” he says.
Then, a couple of months later, he was back with another film crew and they met again. This time he could rattle off facts and figures about the history of George Gilbert Scott’s work.
“I gave her a master class,” he reveals. “She was amazed.”
She asked Royden if his firm did security for buildings, too – they didn’t, but this uncomfortable fact didn’t stop him saying they could – and the BR employee suggested he should look after it.
It meant he suddenly found himself with the run of a 250,000 square feet Gothic masterpiece.
“I enjoyed working there at night,” he recalls. “Most guards would find a corner and have a sleep. But I would explore, and do a spot of ghost hunting.”
Royden would bring in a sound system place it on the grand staircase and blast out Mozart. “The acoustics are incredible,” he says. “It would echo right through the whole building.”
During this time, the Spice Girls used the central staircase to film their first video, and the Harry Potter franchise also turned the building into Hogwarts.
Royden even inspired the film-makers. “I have a rather vivid imagination and I one day came up with this image of three skeletal female violinist playing on the stairway,” he recalls.
This tale was recounted to American director Stacey Harrison, who used the building and Royden’s story in her Indie hit Gorgeous Labour of Love.
“She got a violinist to play there and then used stop motion animation to turn her into a trio,” he recalls. This had a further twist. Royden’s research into the building revealed that in 1934 and 1935, an all-female quintet had actually had a residency to play their violins in the exact spot he had imagined them playing.
Now, after many years of restoration, the building has re-opened, and Royden believes Sir George would be happy with how the 189-bed hotel has been finished. And naturally he has an idea of which room he would most like to claim as a personal suite.
“Those facing the front are the biggest – but I’d go for one on the other side,” he says. “The views over the station are extremely special. It is stunning to be able to look out over the Barlow train shed from this masterpiece.”
• St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, NW1, 020 7841 3540, www. stpancrasrenaissance.com