Aah, St Pancras. I went to the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel for tea yesterday. And it was totally awful. Londoners – avoid, avoid, avoid. Having tea at Gilbert Scott’s Gothic nightmare hotel is worse than being beheaded at the age of 14, which is what happened to poor old St Pancras in Rome. Now my cakes have digested and my tea has gone down, allow me to elaborate…
I thought I had done so well following my mammoth 3,000 word description of Museum of London last week, that what I deserved was a cup of Earl Grey and a bloody lovely slice of cake. You know what I mean, readers, for this high point of high afternoon – full afternoon tea – is the English’s best invention. A carbo-friendly stop gap between luncheon and supper, a ritual that has no healthy items in it whatsoever and contains a three course meal in miniature. Some London hotels do this splendidly. Claridges is charming and laid back with a sumptuous collection of sofas and a harpist. The Ritz is brutally fussy and French and accompanied with no nonsense hard-backed, slightly padded chairs. There are lots of doilies. The Savoy I haven’t been to since it’s refit but was always a slight disappointment. The Soho Hotel in – well, Soho, actually – is a bastion of cosiness in London’s most racy district. In the winter, the wooden shutters are drawn, the fire blazes and tea and scones are served in a Georgian room that is as blissful as anything in Black’s Club in Dean Street. But Kings Cross is not the same as these places. Actually, it looks a little cleaner, a little better. It is now rather middle-class, friendly and exciting. The phrase “Kings Cross” is used less and less and the rather patrician, Latin sounding “St Pancras” is used more and more. This place which used to feature industrial wastes of York Way and random prostitutes sloping up and down outside the station wearing scowls and three inch heels is now a spanking new Eurozone with Parisian trains, an organic bakery on the lower concourse and London’s most antipicated hotel reopening. Twenty years ago, who would have thought it?
The St Pancras Renaissance looks splendid from the outside and is, as it’s name suggests, a rebirth. Or rather a revival. The Gothic movement was initially a Victorian revival, and now we’ve revived the revival, which is nice, if aesthetically confusing. They’ve taken out the darkness of the gothic and bleached everything with high glass windows and sunlight. It’s a bit like massive, glass-encrusted neo-Victorian pub. The inside reminds me of a hotel near Heathrow Airport where I sometimes used to go to watch my brothers play in four piece lunch-friendly jazz in the early 1990s on Sundays. It’s open, wide, characterless and non-nation specific. The grand red brick of the Victorian hotel has been sliced through with modern glass plates, and UAE-looking black marble floors. The door staff look distrustful and slightly bitchy. They seem to want to know what I am doing there. They are suspicious and graceless – but why? Okay, I was a slightly sweaty, cardigan and plastic bag clutching woman in four inch heels, grumpily lurching out from the Victoria Line, but not a child-catcher, terrorist or robber who has a thing for snatching hotel pillowcases.
So, from the Victoria Line into the Victorian Slime. Large leathery banquettes fill an atrium-sized room that looks like a very large changing room of a municipal swimming pool. To the right from the lobby is the Booking Office, part of the original building, which links the station to the hotel. It’s a lovely looking dark bar. It’s perfect for a post-work drink, probably in the autumn or winter, when the darkness suits the climate. This room does at least do something to excude the romantic idea of travelling by rail. We were told we could order afternoon tea here. We were given four menus – all wrong, all different – in succession, before being told there wasn’t a menu for tea. Honestly – I nearly got on a train for France. No tea? Scandal. “Yes,” our challenged waiter said, “we don’t do tea.”
It turns out they did, about seven feet away, in the vast swimming pool changing room bit where non-plussed old people sat about chewing stale bread. Victorian Gothic, whether it is to your taste or not, has atmostphere. But whoever designed the interior of the St Pancras Renaissance was not imbued with the confidence necessary to let this atmostphere come into it own. Slabs of modern furniture look like concessionary apologies, offensive in their inoffensiveness. It feels like a smart airport.
We sit down and are given another menu. And another. And then had to ask for another, our seventh. We get the right menu. The afternoon tea was £30.00, which is usual for London hotels, if at the very top price bracket of the high tea charts. What wasn’t usual was the “choose your own coz we’re too lazy” table in the middle which clearly featured leftovers from that morning’s breakfast. It must have, because you don’t serve croissants and pain au chocolat at tea time. Unless you’re a pervert. Or French. Or a French pervert, all of which were far too close for liking at the Eurostar terminal. Terminal was the level of boredom I engaged with when trying to place an order. We would, Mother Bluebird and I, have one tea to share. But – here’s the complicated science bit! – we wanted two tea cups. We are not so poor as to only afford to drink out of one. Mother Bluebird wanted soya milk in hers, because she is lactose intolerant. I wanted to hit something because I was Victorian Gothic-intolerant. I ordered Earl Grey tea with slices of lemon.
Five minutes later, our waitress (over-starched, under-trained and – quite frankly – in the throws of a tea-based nightmare) said, did I mean I wanted a lemon and ginger tea bag in my Earl Grey tea? No, I said. It was enough to make me want to get on a train to France. “Is the afternoon tea everything listed here?” we asked. There were at least four cakes and lots of different kind of sandwiches. She looked totally shocked and went off to speak to the Manager. Of Tartlets. Or someone. She came back. Yes, she said – it’s everything.
“Everything” turned up twenty minutes later, and was four finger sandwiches, two tiny slices of apple and walnut cake, an unhappy chocolate macaroon and a stressed oblong of French patisserie with three tiny raspberries on it, that looked like a pastry contemplating ending it all and committing suicide. The scones hadn’t arrived at all. Honestly, by this point I was half way to getting a train to France, or even bounding out of the door, onto the platform and going to Lille. Not that I know where Lille is, but it has to be more fun than this over-inflated hellhole, even if it’s in somewhere monstrous like Belgium. This was supposed to be my birthday tea and it was a bag of shite. What to do? There were in total, 8 items for £30.00. I worked out that was about £3.50 per item. The roast beef in the finger sandwich was full of gristle and decidedly creepy. The bread for sandwiches was cut half a day earlier. The staff were being marshalled by very strange looking managers in very cheap, shiny suits who glared at us all with guarded suspicion and who would have been more at home as managers of those shops in the Tottenham Court Road where they unlock stolen mobile phones. There are two things the English do very well when it comes to customer service, and unfortunately they are the only two things : provide a sumptuous English afternoon tea, and serve it using excellently attired butler-type professional waiters in London’s five star hotels. That’s it. The rest of English customer service is a fruity mix of rudeness, class resentment and laziness. Five star hotel teas are really all we have. A good waiter knows how to be graceful, deferential and to imbue your experience with that vital air of luxury. The staff at the St Pancrap Renaissance know nothing of this. They don’t understand what they are doing or how to do it.
We wanted our scones (pronounced sconnes, obviously, not scohnes). “Where are our scones?” we said. We were ladies. Having tea. In the centre of London. In England. It cannot be. IT CANNOT BE THERE ARE NO SCONEWORTHY SCONES. The Gods simply wouldn’t allow it.
“We were waiting for a sign. You have to signal,” said our waitress. Signal? I know it’s a station but I don’t work on the railways. What kind of signal? Should I stand up and burst into the chorus of the “Wichita Lineman”? Or hold up a gold embossed sign stating “Scones required here, please deliver forthwith”?
“Sorry?” said Mother Bluebird. She hadn’t been this perplexed since John Lewis refused to deliver a chair and she gave them a stern telling off over the phone, featuring words like “I’ve been a cardholder for thirty years, you know”.
“Yes, we like to receive a signal, after you have finished eating everything else, and then present the scones to you, warm,” said the white jacketed lady waitress.
Is this as depressing to read as it is to write? When did English afternoon tea become so laboured and awful? It’s not performance art. Nor is it fine dining from the 1980s, for God’s sake. Surely the high bastion of high tea is impervious to such tomfoolery, I thought. Then I realised. Most of the people sitting around us were either OAPs or Russian oligarch OAPs. This was an idea of English tea but it wasn’t the right one. It was someone else’s idea of afternoon tea, and that someone else must be a parsimonious, precious sadist. The idea is if you pay £30.00 a head for tea you get £30.00 of pompous service, which is stupid. What you want is £30.00 of food. What a bunch of fools. “SIGNAL” we both said, somewhat abruptly. Our scones came, and they were wonderful. But they are supposed to come before the pastries, not as a digestif.
There was a one year old on the table next to us. Quite chirpy she was. When she ordered her tea, along with her parents, she received a 1,000 monologue on the tea, what kind of cakes there would be and whether she liked milk with her Lapsang Souchang. And she was only one. We didn’t get a speech. The staff were slow, sycophantic, yet ineffective. No one knew what they were doing. Honestly, I nearly threw myself under a train to France at this point. It’s English tea gone mad. Even Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter Tea Party made more sense than this.
We were a bit annoyed so went off round the hotel to look at things. Ernst & Young were having a meeting in a room ostentatiously titled “The Ladies Smoking Room” which put me in mind of a series of 1920s flappers sitting about in funny hats with massive cigarette holders. We found the loos, which were dead classy, but around every corner there were intimidating men in cheap suits, looking at you funnily as if you were trying to steal something. We went to have a look at a staircase which looked like a Gothic nightmare someone had thrown up. We felt we couldn’t hang around looking at it for as long as we would have liked due to the heavy who was clearly guarding the hotel from further acts of architectural and design vandalism. We sloped off. It was all very unpleasant.
If you find yourself in Kings Cross do pop into the Booking Office bar for a quick drink, but only if there’s a train to swiftly carry you away somewhere else. This hotel is a hollow, ordinary and downright silly place. It is nothing but daft.com. And if you are unfortunate enough to be staying there in a room, remember that they have recently discovered that the station announcements for arrivals and departures are audible through most of the rooms,and you don’t want to be disturbed at night by the information that the 14.52 to Edinburgh Waverley is about to leave. Or by the pitiful cries of ladies screaming for their scones.
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