I was in London recently for a meeting. Inner London and not the north-west outskirts where I live. It's a place I sort of know. Usually it's a place you pass through to central London and out again or else bound for one of the gateway train stations linking to the Midlands and North or else France and the Continent and used by millions of rail travellers each year: Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras.
Opposite my appointment is a London landmark I've passed many times but never paid attention to until now. It's an incredible architectural Grade I listed building and once the second most expensive of its kind constructed in London after St.Paul's Cathedral in its time. Across from Euston and choking in the maelstrom of heaving traffic and London's regular push'n'shove it is only 'hidden' because everyone is too busy to notice it. It is the parish church of St. Pancras and I only just learned about it because I stopped by to take notice.
Odd name 'St. Pancras'. Turns out it's Greek and I guess there might have been some clues for me seeing that the building mimics ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens and I'm an Ancient History graduate. Pancratius was a 14-year-old Greek kid born of Roman citizens in the Empire. His mother died during childbirth and his father died when he was 8. Raised by his uncle in Rome, he converted to Christianity just in time for the murderous reign of Emperor Diocletian and his crackdown on the rapidly rising Christian 'cult'. He was beheaded for his faith in 304AD after refusing several times the Emperor's 'invitations' that he sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Cutting a little known story shorter, his only link to the UK was that parts of his relics were supposed to have made their way to England. St. Pancras Parish in the area around Euston, St. Pancras, Kings Cross and Russell Square are said to be among the first areas of Christian worship in the capital.
The church is not the original parish church (which can still be found hidden behind St. Pancras station). The 'new' parish church dates back to the 1800s and is a classic example of 'Greek Revival' architecture fashionable in northern Europe at the time. The magnificent entry portico is upheld by 6 impressive Ionic columns, again with a nod back to ancient Greece. The building is made of a mix of stone, Portland Stone and terracotta. Unfortunately it does not scrub up well amid the heavy traffic pollution of its surrounds despite several attempts. It was originally built to accommodate a congregation of 2,500.
The iconic star of the external architecture is the side porch looking onto Euston road modelled on the Temple of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. This stunning portico is unique among the buildings of the capital and while none of it actually comes from there it is a slice of the magnificence of ancient Athens here in London. An actual Caryatid (the female statues) from the Acropolis sits not too far away housed in the British Museum.
If you are ever at Euston, King's Cross or St.Pancras and massively early for your train (as I invariably am) a visit to this church is highly recommended. For a start, it will give you a tranquil place to sit and rest your feet, beating the distinct lack of seating in all three stations. Stepping into the church from the mayhem of Euston and you step into an oasis of peace and serenity. After post-war renovations, the number of pews was reduced and so the church today accommodates far less than the 2,500 it was originally intended to hold. The pews today are made of English Oak wood and are the really old-fashioned type that can be closed off by a door to the central aisle creating an almost private compartment. Originally this is what the pews were - private compartments that could be rented for a year by wealthy parishioners who always had their own same space to sit together on Sundays. I guess this is where the tradition of 'pew hugging' started that has been the bane of church life ever since.
Despite the distinctly 'high church' feel to it, there is a sense as you look around that there is a real worshiping community there today. Take note of the notice boards and see the faces of today's members. Note the collection point for the food bank donations right at the entrance, the play area for the children, the Hymn books and Bibles. There is also a feeling that the church reaches out to the public around it, Christian or not. Music recitals regularly take place at lunch times as does a 45 minute communal Bible Study on Tuesdays. The impressive crypt, entered via the Caryatid portico also supports local artists and regularly hosts exhibitions.
The church also supports the student Christian Union at the nearby University College London and is the venue for their annual Christmas concert.
Poignantly, St. Pancras New Church also became the focal point of local and national grief and floral tributes to the victims of the 4th bomb (the 'Bus Bomb') to explode on 7/7 just yards away from the church entrance down Upper Woburn Place 10 years ago this year.
Especially adding to the cool, dark reverence of the interior are the beautiful stained glass windows, though these were not part of the original plan. The original church was built with clear glass windows in the days when the folk inside would have looked out onto the fields of the now extinct English county of Middlesex, the land of the Middle Saxons (as opposed to the West Saxons in Wessex, the East Saxons in Essex and the South Saxons in Sussex). Only Essex and Sussex now remain among England's shire counties. The stained glass windows visible today were gradually introduced after 1866, some 40 years after the consecration.
As I looked around I was surprised to see on the walls a reference to my home borough of London way up on the north-west edge as being 'in the same county' at one time as the parish of St.Pancras. Again, this is a reference to Middlesex, which was subsumed into the hungry stomach of an ever ravenous and expanding London in 1965. Middlesex once stretched from here in Euston (or the borough of Camden as it is today) all the way north to the borders of Hertfordshire and my home town of Harrow.
Once you have had your time in the church and are feeling a little peckish (but still with plenty of time before your train) here's another little tip. Rather than head to the plastic shops and cafes of the stations, exit the church onto Upper Woburn Place, turn left and walk a few yards down the street. On your left you will soon find a small turning, which if you blink you will miss, called Woburn Walk. This tiny little tucked away oasis has a small clutch of cosy cafes for a lite bite and continental coffee, perfect in the Summer for dining al fresco and watching the world go by.