How beer shaped the Eurostar

London new and old - a 19th century brewery influences your 21st century journey

The reason London continues to be such a great city, the reason it still captures people's imagination, is the way it marries the new and the old. A perfect example of this is the story of how the Eurostar boarding lounge at St Pancras station owes its layout to Victorian beer barrels ...

How beer shaped the Eurostar

When St Pancras was being designed by Henry Barlow in the 1860s, the Midland Railway Company decided to build a rather cunning feature into the plans. They knew the Bass brewery in Burton-upon-Trent would be using Midland trains to send their beer down to London - so they asked Bass if they'd like to store that beer at the station itself, ready for its distribution around the capital. Great idea, said Bass. So St Pancras's undercroft was constructed with its supporting iron columns exactly three beer barrels apart. (The big barrels, that is, not the little ones you see behind bars in pubs.) In this way the falling-down liquid could be stored between the columns ensuring that the station didn't fall down.

As you can see in the photo, those columns (which were hardened, incidentally, by being soaked in horse urine) are still there today. Except now, instead of beer barrels between them, there are Eurostar passengers sipping lattés from Pret as they wait for their train to the continent. (Which will of course pass through the Channel Tunnel, that feat of engineering that stole the title of ‘world's longest railway tunnel' from the stretch of the Northern Line between Morden and East Finchley).

I mentioned this in a letter to the Spectator the other day, responding to an article about London and how it's cut off from the rest of the country. In a word: nonsense. In a few more words - the capital has always been tied to the rest of Britain, if only because so many of its residents originally came from there. People have always flocked to it - and even those who live elsewhere, I tend to find, like to visit (however occasionally). Resentment at ‘that there London', in my experience, is a relatively rare phenomenon.

And when people do visit the capital, and dig a little into the trivia of its history, they see how buildings like St Pancras were literally shaped by the rest of the country; its famous red bricks are that colour because they're made from Nottinghamshire clay. But more than that, they see how London's past continues to shape (again, literally) its present. A 19th century brewery (still going today) and 21st century Eurostar passengers. New and old together. Something to think about as you wait for the 12.37 to Paris.



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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.