The hotel now standing...

By Nigel Lewis, Daily Mail

Last updated at 16:48 25 March 2002

Railway hotels, with their luxurious and historic style, have become popular again - certainly more popular than the railways themselves.

The Great Western Hotel, attached to Paddington Station in London and built by Brunel, reopened last week.

It cost £60 million to restore its art deco interior but, the new owners insist, it is an accurate reflection of its railway heritage.

It is now known as the Hilton London Paddington and charges £120 a night at weekends for a room.

The Hilton Group's takeover is the most recent twist in the long history of railway hotels.

In the 19th century they were a bold, aggressive confirmation of the authority and importance of the railways. But as rail travel declined, so did the hotels.

Until nationalisation in 1948, the 100 or so surviving railway hotels had been run successfully by the different railway companies.

But under British Rail, many fell into a state of genteel seediness before being sold off again by the Conservatives in the early Eighties.

Wander round any decently maintained or refurbished railway hotel and you can see how their architects, often followers of the Romantic or Gothic architectural styles, indulged themselves.

This means exotic and foreign interior and exterior design influences from classical Greece, France, Spain, and Italy, including Doric and Ionic columns, sweeping staircases, highly decorated ceilings and intricate facades - sometimes almost to excess.

Consequently today these hotels are not cheap to maintain, as the Thistle group, which recently took over the Charing Cross Hotel in London, found.

'Until we got the builders in and spent £25 million on doing it up, this hotel was in a pretty sorry state,' says general manager Alistair Sandalls.

Other railway hotels getting similar facelifts include the Royal York Hotel (now Le Meridien York), the Queen's Hotel in Chester (Le Meridien Chester), and the Palace Hotel in Manchester (Le Meridien Palace).

Recent buyer the Le Meridien chain last month announced it is to spend a fortune doing them up - including £10 million spent on Le Meridien Palace.

Each charges between £50 and £65 per person per night depending on when you stay.

That pales into insignificance compared to the £70 million recently spent by the Conran Group turning the Great Eastern Hotel in London into a shrine to 'modern classicism'.

If you have the £200 to £545 per person per night the hotel costs, go ahead.

If not, try the cheaper option and drop in for a meal at one of its public restaurants and enjoy the architectural feast.

The most anticipated railway hotel refurbishment is that of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, London.

This titanic building is a one-off and a striking example of Gothic architecture, designed by one of Britain's most famous architects, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

Despite being one of the most luxurious hotels in the Empire when it opened in 1873, the hotel closed in 1935.

But in 2006 it is due to open again as part of the Marriott chain and will also house a restaurant and bar complex - all part of a new Channel Tunnel rail terminus at St Pancras.

Other examples worth visiting include the Thistle Victoria, London; the Westin Turnberry Resort Hotel, Ayrshire; the Station Hotel, Perth; the Queen's Hotel, Leeds; the Royal Station Hotel, Hull; the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool; and The Landmark hotel near Marylebone Station, London.

Here are two first-class overnight sleepers I recommend:

* Thistle Charing Cross, London ( tel: 0800 181716).

Four Star Deluxe, 238 rooms, opened in May 1864): If you're after a good example of restored railway hotel quality at its best and most traditional, this is it.

Big bucks have been spent refurbishing its classical renaissance architecture inside and out. Rates? A twin or double room costs £120 per person per night, including breakfast.

* Le Meridien York, formerly the Royal Station Hotel ( tel: 01904 653 681).

Four Star, 166 rooms, opened in May 1878): York's railway hotel looks more like a private mansion than a hotel.

In 1878 a room cost 14 shillings (70p) a night - equivalent to about a week's wages for a labourer.

Rates today? A standard double or twin room tariff is £69 per person per night.

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