First class all the way

ANTHONY DENNIS
Last updated 12:23 11/02/2014
St Pancras Renaissance
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RAIL'S HEYDAY: The St Pancras Renaissance shows what it must have been like to have stayed in a grand railway hotel during rail's golden age.

The Midland Hotel
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UNDERSTATED ELEGANCE: The Midland Hotel is one of Manchester's most impressive buildings with well-appointed rooms and fine restaurants.

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The Brits would no doubt dismiss me as an "anorak", and, what's more, an antipodean one.

I've just arrived in London at the beginning of a rail journey around the British Isles - think of it as a kind of designer trainspotter's tour - staying at a loose network of revivalist railway hotels, revamped relics of an era that can be traced to the earliest days of steam.

And, on the day of my arrival, it's certainly perfect weather for an anorak, as everyone is digging out their wet-weather apparel.

There are dire warnings on the telly of "the storm of the decade" that's set to strike Britain overnight. By the next morning, the big blow has been little more than a powder puff. Yet, at Kings Cross and St Pancras Stations, it's near chaos. The most repeated word on the departure boards is "cancelled", due to a few fallen trees across tracks and train drivers unable to get to work to man their engines because virtually all of the services had been suspended overnight as a safety measure.

However, with the national railway system not due to return to normal for a day and a half, I have the perfect place to weather any storm: I'm staying at the Great Northern Hotel, designed in the 19th century by Lewis Cubitt, architect of Kings Cross Station itself - and the two buildings are attached.

In the century or so of the golden age of rail (dating from the 1840s), these hotels represented not merely places of rest, but ostentatious emblems of British prosperity and brilliance; bricks and mortar exemplars for the empire.

The British themselves might barely have even noticed it, but the restoration of both the grand railway hotels and some of the stations to which quite a few remain attached is providing a glimmer of a second golden age of rail.

KINGS CROSS STATION, LONDON, TO WAVERLEY STATION, EDINBURGH

The Great Northern Hotel

Derelict for a decade or more and revived only last year, the Great Northern - attached to Kings Cross Station with a stunning new glass and steel lattice-like roof structure, which embraces the building like a massive upside-down white spider - represents the earliest of the grand railway hotels.

Once billed as "the world's great railway hotel", the 91-room Great Northern Hotel, with its curved light sandstone facade, opened in 1854 during Britain's revolutionary steam age.

It has been transformed into a natty boutique hotel, pitched at discerning Eurostar travellers from the continent, with lots of lovely touches such as the small but well-designed timber-clad "couchette" rooms tastefully and subtly hinting at the classic Pullman sleeping compartment.

There's also a top-notch restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk, named, as any Anglo anorak knows, after the livery of an old British dining car. There is a modern culinary take, however; I seriously doubt they ate fillet of hake, chorizo and white beans in the steam age.

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Both the Great Northern and Kings Cross Station itself have undergone an astonishing transformation, to complement the adjoining, more magnificent St Pancras Station, the red-brick entrance of which I can see from my bedroom window.

The Great Northern and the much larger and grander hotel neighbour, the St Pancras Renaissance, are just two of a few dozen or more British railway hotels that have been restored in recent years.

Even though the British like to bemoan the decline of their railways, pointing to "before and after" maps of a diminished network, it remains a marvel for a visitor such as me from a hopelessly train-deprived nation.

A total of 125 million commuters pass through St Pancras-Kings Cross each year and today, at the beginning of my near fortnight-long tour, I'm one of them, bypassing the procession of black cabs outside the station and making my way in between the gridlock of wheeled luggage to the platform just metres from the door of the Great Northern.

By world standards, the longest train trips in Britain are blessedly short - railway rambles rather than true long-distance train journeys - with my passage to Edinburgh taking well under four and a half hours. But, on this small island, the length of track totals 16,116 kilometres, and that's not including Northern Ireland.

Aboard my inter-city train - all my connections are mainline services, since steam trains are for anoraks - sunlight is streaming into the first-class carriage.

Before the passengers can look up from their on-train Wi-Fi-assisted iPads and the odd printed newspaper, London is left well behind and we're plunged into classic English countryside.

A first-class seat, pretty much like all railways, entitles you to second-rate coffee and food.

Everything is otherwise remarkably comfortable, as eventually the sun slips above the train as it adopts a northerly trajectory to Edinburgh.

The breakfast cutlery clinks every time another train shudders past us in the opposite direction; outside, church steeples, seemingly every few kilometres, rise almost arrogantly above the seemingly identical stooped drab-brick villages, tiny houses huddling together as if for warmth.

Each town gives way to meadows so luxuriant the word "verdant" fails to do them justice - then another town emerges, followed by another meadow.

"Full English? Full English? Full English?" a train attendant asks, squeezing along the passageway between the seats, distributing breakfast trays to passengers as he goes. "Times? Times? Times?" asks another a few minutes later, proffering a gratis newspaper.

"Roobish? Roobish? Roobish", says yet another attendant, moving through the carriage with an open garbage bag.

After two hours, we pull into York, the spire of the city's mammoth cathedral (partly sheathed in scaffolding, wouldn't you know it), towering above the stooped rooftops.

Further on, the track aligns itself with a steely grey sea as villages straight out of a Doc Martin episode begin to appear.

Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland is today known as "the last town in England", but it used to be the first town in Scotland, having changed hands from the Scots to the English in the 15th century. If next year's vote for an independent Scotland is successful, this part of Britain will become a more visible border and quaint Berwick-upon-Tweed a veritable frontier town.

"Thank you, waiter," a young boy in the carriage says to one of the rail staff. The boy's mother, in a slightly chastising tone, says, "he's a not waiter, he's a 'customer service attendant'."

"Dare say you're a Jack-of-all-trades," a man says to the attendant.

As we approach Edinburgh, the skies have become nearly as black as a railway cafe's coffee, the train's windows flecked with rain, and, in the diffused light, sheep rendered white cotton balls in almost luminescent lime-green fields. Further along the line, children burst from classrooms at a school beside the tracks, their parkas the only note of colour amid the cold autumnal murk.

I check my watch and note it's time for lunch and time, near enough, for Edinburgh.

WAVERLEY, EDINBURGH, TO QUEEN STREET STATION, GLASGOW

The Caledonian and The Grand Central Hotel

Many consider Edinburgh one of the most attractive cities not just in the British Isles, but in all of Europe. Certainly, Edinburgh's Waverley Station provides a magnificent introduction to the city, since passengers from the south, such as me, effectively arrive underground. It's not until they reach the top of the stairs (or rise in the new glass-walled lifts) from the platform that the full World Heritage-listed glory of the old and new towns reveal themselves. In the distance, there's the muffled soundtrack of a busking bagpiper on a corner somewhere on Princes Street.

In Scotland's second biggest city - the setting for the ironically entitled film Trainspotting - there's a choice of two grand railway hotels: The Balmoral or The Caledonian.

I've opted for the latter, affectionately known by locals as "The Caley" for a two-night stay, although you have to engage your imagination, since the railway stop, Princes Street Station, has long since departed.

The imposing Caledonian comes with oversized grey marble bathrooms fit for royalty and captivating views of the splendid Edinburgh Castle. There are also two fine restaurants, and the city's shopping district is just out the front door.

The hotel's de facto lobby, Peacock Alley, used to be the direct entry to the station and ticket office. The station closed in 1965, with Waverley sensibly becoming the main terminus.

It wasn't until 2012 that the American Waldorf Astoria brand embarked on major refurbishment of the hotel. In pride of place is the old three-metre railway station clock - famously set five minutes fast in order to hasten passengers lest they missed their trains - which was rescued from the erstwhile ruins.

CENTRAL STATION, GLASGOW, LEEDS CENTRAL AND MANCHESTER PICCADILLY STATIONS

The Grand Central, The Queens Hotel and The Midland Hotel

Edinburgh and Glasgow must be the most adjacent of any country's two largest cities, save perhaps for Tokyo and Yokohama.

You can do the trip between the two Scottish cities in well under an hour. The Trans-Siberian, my railway odyssey of Britain, it is not!

From Glasgow, readying itself for the qualified excitement of this year's Commonwealth Games, it's possible to take a side trip up to Fort William and on to Mallaig on the West Highland Route, one of the most scenic railways in the world and a location for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter series of films. But that, literally, is another story.

It's easy to miss the Grand Central Hotel, it is so well incorporated into the solid 19th-century fabric of Glasgow Central Station.

After falling into disrepair the hotel reopened five years ago, the recipient of a £20 million ($37 million) refurbishment.

Just like St Pancras, the Grand Central boasts its own champagne bar overlooking the equally grand train station into which it is built. And while not nearly in the class of the St Pancras Renaissance, it has hallways wide and long enough to drive a steam train down.

The Grand Central oozes history. On May 24, 1927, Scotland's John Logie Baird, ensconced in his office, transmitted the world's first long-distance television pictures to his assistant, Benjamin Clapp, in the fourth-floor bedroom of the Central Hotel. Logie Baird could surely not have predicted that a television set would be a mandatory feature of any decent, and often indecent, hotel room.

Between Glasgow and Leeds, there's the opportunity to travel along one of Britain's most cherished routes, the Settle to Carlisle Railway, rescued some years ago by rail enthusiasts and now a major tourist attraction, as well as a regular train line. I'm doing the trip in reverse from Carlisle to Settle and on to Leeds.

The construction of the route through the Pennines presented a formidable challenge to the 19th-century engineers, since it required the building of 20 major viaducts and 14 tunnels. Sadly, from the train, you don't get to see the full extent of the most spectacular piece of engineering, the Ribblehead Viaduct, which consists of two dozen arches 32 metres above the ground.

Deep in anorak country, I spot the headlights of a parked vehicle with a figure alongside securing the postcard shot of the train passing over the viaduct at dusk.

We pass through Midsomer-like villages and lovingly restored stations, full of wrought-iron formwork on footbridges painted red and cream, stopping only at a few platforms to collect walkers and day-trippers who crowd the already crowded Sunday night train. By the time I reach Leeds, it's nightfall and the station is full of weekend commuters squeezing the remaining hours from their two days off work.

The Queens, a 215-room, art-deco hotel built just a few years before the outbreak of World War II, dominates Leeds' City Square. It is physically attached to Leeds Railway Station. The refurbished railway hotel seems to be the recipient of a little less love than its grander, older counterpart belonging to the same group in Manchester down the line.

After a few nights in Leeds, mostly spent in the self-styled "Knightbridge of the North" shopping district, where Marks and Spencer originated, it's time to move on to Manchester, although not before a lightning visit to York, one of England's most attractive cities and home to the National Railway Museum, a veritable shrine for anoraks, just across from York Station.

The next morning I travel to Manchester and check into the elephantine red-brick and brown-terracotta 312-room Midland Hotel, with its giant gold signage.

There's a plaque at the entrance: "The Honourable Charles Stewart Rolls met Frederick Henry Royce in this hotel on 4th May 1904, a meeting which led to the formation of ROLLS-ROYCE".

The Edwardian hotel, built in 1893 as a counterpart to the St Pancras in London, was opened in 1903 by the Midland Railway Company to service the passengers of the old Manchester Central Railway Station, which closed 50 years ago and has since been converted into a convention centre. In its first year of operation, the Midland checked in more than 70,000 guests.

So handsome is the building, it is claimed Adolf Hitler coveted it as a possible Nazi headquarters following his imagined invasion of Britain.

In its heyday, the Midland boasted a palm court, concert hall, winter garden and Turkish and Russian baths. The baths might have gone, but today there is a resident Michelin-starred chef, Simon Rogan, in charge of its two main restaurants.

The Midland's afternoon tea in the lobby, as big as a ballroom, is renowned, although it is hard to imagine Hitler genteelly tucking into tea and scones.

MANCHESTER PICCADILLY STATION TO EUSTON STATION, LONDON

St Pancras Renaissance

I am on the short homeward run between Manchester and London, having left a few thousand kilometres behind me, if I include that side trip to the Scottish Highlands.

My half-empty commuter train scoots through the countryside, passing canals with hundreds of forlornly moored long narrow tourist boats that are waiting out the winter, along with yards packed with rows of campervans.

I arrive at Euston Station and walk the short distance to the most anticipated hotel on my itinerary. It is the St Pancras Renaissance, its red-brick bulk dominating the local skyline, and it provides a taste of what it really must have been like to have stayed in a grand railway hotel during the epoch of travel by train.

I've never encountered a romantic airport hotel but, as far as railway hotels are concerned, the St Pancras has more romance than the entire Barbara Cartland canon. It is, quite simply, the railway hotel par excellence.

Select rooms at St Pancras Renaissance have spectacular views of the magnificent vaulted glass ceiling of the station with sleek Eurostar trains slipping in and out of the platforms.

Horse and carriages used to arrive from the street directly into the heart of the hotel, where the busy atmospheric lobby is now located. The dark old ticket hall is today a little-too-well-patronised bar, located just metres from the tracks I overlook from my suite.

For those who cannot quite afford the heady nightly tariffs, there is an excellent and affordable guided tour of the hotel, as well as a range of facilities open to the public.

On the last night of my journey, an hour or so before leaving for Heathrow to partake of a less compelling and charming means of travel, I succumb to a mandatory St Pancras Station experience.

I take a seat under the vast vaulted glass ceiling of the station, which reveals classic grey London sky, and order a glass of bubbly at the Champagne Bar right next to a stationary Eurostar train waiting for its next trip through the Chunnel and on to France or Belgium.

Sitting here, 10 days after I first left Kings Cross Station, and six classic railway hotels later, I reflect that if this is what it means to be a modern-day anorak, then, well, I am more than content to be dismissed as one.

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Britain, Railbookers and China Southern Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING AROUND

Railbookers tailors rail holidays throughout Britain. Their new Great British Rail Journey starts in London and travelling to Edinburgh, Fort William, Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester, via historic train stations and stunning countryside from the Peak District to the Scottish Highlands.

Prices start from A$2795 ($2970) a person including 11 nights accommodation in landmark railway hotels with breakfast daily, first-class train travel and seat reservations. See railbookers.com.au or call 1300 550 973 for more details. If you book before February 28, you will receive a 7.5 per cent discount on the cost of your trip.

MORE INFORMATION

visitbritain.com.

SIX OF BRITAIN'S CLASSIC RAILWAY HOTELS

GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL, LONDON

An outstanding and welcome transformation of a forgotten London landmark. Doubles from about £150 ($302) a night, including taxes. Kings Cross-St Pancras Station, Pancras Road, London. See gnhlondon.com.

THE CALEDONIAN, PRINCES STREET, EDINBURGH

Beautifully located in the heart of Edinburgh, being adjacent to the castle and the New Town district, the hotel has been faithfully restored. Doubles from about £165 ($333) a night, including taxes. See thecaledonianedinburgh.com.

GRAND CENTRAL, GLASGOW

Perhaps not Glasgow's best hotel but this landmark establishment is certainly one of the city's best-located with the railway station just outside the lobby doors. Doubles from about £79 ($159) a night, including taxes. 99 Gordon Street, Glasgow. See www.grandcentralglasgow.co.uk.

THE QUEENS, LEEDS

An art deco gem that could pass as a Gotham City pile, this hotel is part of Leeds Central. Doubles from about £58 ($117) a night, including taxes. City Square, Leeds. See qhotels.co.uk.

THE MIDLAND, MANCHESTER

The Midland, which turned 110 last year, is one of Manchester's most impressive buildings with well-appointed rooms and a couple of fine restaurants. Doubles from about £89.10 ($180) a night including taxes. 16 Peter Street, Manchester. See qhotels.co.uk.

ST PANCRAS RENAISSANCE HOTEL, LONDON

The railway hotel that best evokes the romance of rail's heyday, the St Pancras was the recipient of a stunning restoration in 2011. Doubles about £228 ($460) a night, including taxes, Euston Road, London. See marriott.co.uk.

- The Age

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