If there’s one thing more exciting than taking a journey from a great London train station, it’s spending the night before that journey in the station hotel. Their decor and sense of grandeur whisks you back to the heady days of early train travel – where a porter would whisk your suitcases away through the steam and you’d watch the world flash by the window from the comfort of your own compartment. Those sorts of train journeys might be long gone but there’s still a real magic in walking straight to your train from the hotel, an extra touch of luxury in not having to battle the traffic or the Tube to get there in the first place. Just savour your breakfast, amble a few yards and off you go. Here’s our guide to the capital’s railway hotels …
Great Northern (King’s Cross)
The daddy of them all. London’s first railway hotel opened in 1854, the work of architect Lewis Cubitt. He sound-proofed the building by filling the gaps between floors with clinker (a waste product produced when burning coal) – this also reduced the risk of fire spreading. The feature is commemorated in the name of Anthracite, the modern hotel’s bar, just as its restaurant, Plum and Spilt Milk, is named after the colours of the Flying Scotsman’s dining car. The Great Northern is curved, because it was built to follow the old Pancras Road, which in turn was curved because it followed the River Fleet (now buried underground). Each floor had one bathroom, at the end of the corridor. Of course now every room is en-suite, so the bathrooms have been converted into stylish kitchens, with complimentary newspapers, Nespresso coffees and – most exciting of all – Tunnock’s tea cakes.
Great Northern Hotel, Pancras Road, N1C 4TB
Rooms from £189
St Pancras Renaissance (St Pancras)
Enter the Renaissance through the Gilbert Scott restaurant and you’re stepping through history – the revolving door was the first one in Britain, personally installed by the device’s inventor, Theophilus Van Kannel. (Actually the door itself is a replica, but the spot is the same.) That was in 1899, when the hotel was still called the Midland Grand. There was further innovation with the Ladies’ Smoking Room, the first in Europe where women could light up. More recent girl power was supplied by the Spice Girls, who shot the video for Wannabeon the hotel’s ornate staircase. (The Renaissance are celebrating the band’s reunion tour this year with a selection of cocktails, including the ‘Bloody Scary’.) George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic landmark has also featured in Batman Begins, Ian McKellen’s Richard IIIand Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (as King’s Cross rather than St Pancras). In his 1988 novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Douglas Adams described the hotel as a ‘huge, dark Gothic fantasy of a building … its roof line a vast assortment of wild turrets, gnarled spires and pinnacles which seemed to prod at and goad the night sky’. Proving that they really get the point of railway hotels, the Renaissance offer a ‘Seat to Suite’ experience: fast-track boarding for the Eurostar, allowing you to lounge around in the hotel for as long as possible, as the concierge takes your bags through security.
St Pancras Renaissance, Euston Road, NW1 2AR
Rooms from £249
Amba Charing Cross (Charing Cross)
Run your palm down the main staircase’s handrail and you’ll feel the shrapnel dents that have been here since the Second World War. A few decades later the hotel was linked with another war: it was in the bar here that Andrew Gilligan met government weapons expert David Kelly for the drink that led to the now notorious Today programme item about the Iraq War. (Those drinks in full: one Coca-Cola, one Appletise, total cost £4.15.) Designed by E.M. Barry (son of Sir Charles, he of the Houses of Parliament), the Charing Cross Hotel opened in 1865. It proved so successful that an extension was built on the other side of Villiers Street, connected to the main building by an ornate pedestrian footbridge that’s still there today. Back then there was no running water – it was carried up to your room in buckets (hot water 6 pence extra). If you believe some people, an early user of the hotel was Jack the Ripper – someone signing themselves ‘Mibrac’ left a bag there and never went back to collect it. Could he have been Ripper-suspect James Maybrick?
Amba Charing Cross, Strand, WC2N 5HX
Rooms from £224
Andaz (Liverpool Street)
It’s hard to believe now, with dozens of hotels in the Square Mile, but until the 1980s this was the only one in the City. Opened as the Great Eastern in 1884, it occupied the site which for centuries housed the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric institution that gave us the word ‘bedlam’. The hotel (another creation of E.M. Barry, this time with his brother) was rather more refined. Each day a supply of fresh sea water was delivered by train for guests to bathe in. In the novel Dracula the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing rests his head here – these days guests include Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. In 1912 the hotel added its own Masonic temple: it’s still there, featuring an organ, Doric columns, a blue-and-gold domed ceiling showing the signs of the zodiac, and a marble floor that uses 12 different types of rare Italian marble and is worth several million pounds on its own. If you want to experience the spooky atmos for yourself, head along to the monthly Temple Cinema horror movie screenings (www.andazlondonevents.com). Next up, on June 27th, it’s The Shining. Meanwhile the hotel’s reception is designed around a classic railway theme, including a beautiful desk that looks like a stack of vintage suitcases.
Andaz London Liverpool Street, 40 Liverpool Street, EC2M 7QN
Rooms from £169
‘Almost a little town under one roof.’ That was how The Builder magazine described the Grosvenor when it opened in 1860, a vast collection of bedrooms, dining rooms, smoking rooms and function rooms, all served by ‘ascending rooms’, or lifts as we know them today. The hotel was the first in London to have them – they were powered by water pressure. ‘Little town’ gets across the excitement of a great railway hotel, linked as it is to a train station where all human life is to be found. Though one aspect of life the Grosvenor wouldn’tentertain was the oldest profession – they turned away noted Victorian courtesan Cora Pearl, who once dyed her hair blue and her dog to match. (But they celebrate Pearl’s memory these days by having a suite named after her.) Another visitor was Count Alexander Stavropulos, a rich businessman who stays at the hotel in Biggles and the Gun Runners. The Grosvenor is currently being renovated in preparation for a relaunch in the autumn as the ‘Amba Victoria’ (it shares the same owners as the Charing Cross Hotel).
Grosvenor Hotel, 101 Buckingham Palace Rd, SW1W 0SJ
Rooms from £129
The Great Western Royal, as it was known back then, lost out by just 23 days to the Great Northern in the race to be London’s first railway hotel. It was commissioned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel – his dream was that guests could be conveyed to New York entirely by the Great Western Company, first on its train and then on its ship. (Sadly it never came to pass – the ship idea was scrapped before the hotel was even finished.) Designed by architect Philip Charles Hardwick (son of the man who designed the legendary Euston Arch), the Great Western also featured sculptures by the unfortunately-named John Thomas, who also worked on Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. The hotel, which boasted ‘proper persons always in attendance to receive and carry the luggage’ of guests arriving by train, was opened in 1854 by Prince Albert and (for some reason) the King of Portugal. A few years later another toff was to be found there, though for Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the hotel was something of a comedown. He had been forced to sell his Somerset estate because of bankruptcy – one biography called him an ‘inveterate womaniser and keeper of louche company’. He lived out his final days at the Great Western, dying there in July 1861.
Hilton London Paddington, 146 Praed Street, W2 1EE
Rooms from £132
The Landmark London (Marylebone)
How can you resist a hotel whose roof originally featured a cycle track so that businessmen guests could take exercise? The Landmark London’s manager Andrew Batchelor says he might reinstate the track – though sadly his cheek shows a hint of tongue as he does so. (He’s still recovering from the £100,000 it took to fix three panes in the hotel’s famous glass roof, after seagulls dropped stones onto them to attract mates. The Landmark London now employs a hawk handler to keep the gulls away.) Batchelor is fascinated by the hotel’s history, and keen to commemorate it. The restaurant has been renamed the Great Central, in honour of the train company that opened the hotel in 1899 to serve Marylebone station over the road – the covered walkway joining the two buildings is still there, keeping you dry as you move from breakfast to train. In 1908 the hotel hosted a meal for Emmeline Pankhurst and other Suffragettes to celebrate their release from Holloway jail, while during the Second World War it was where MI9 debriefed British soldiers – including Airey Neave – who had escaped from PoW camps. Neave already had fond pre-war memories of the hotel: ‘I liked the brass bedsteads, the marble figures on the stairs and the massive afternoon tea. Outside this refuge my young world was threatened by Hitler. Inside, I could pretend that I belonged to a safer age.’ After the war the building became British Rail’s headquarters, known to staff as ‘the Kremlin’. It was here that Dr Beeching had his office, and ordered all those line closures. Thankfully the Landmark London is fonder of rail travel: in the restaurant, the little folder your bill comes in is a reproduction of the Great Central’s timetable cover. ‘Rapid Travel in Luxury,’ it boasts. ‘Each Express is Vestibuled and has a Buffet Car.’ Those were the days.
The Landmark London, 222 Marylebone Road, NW1 6JQ
Rooms from £280