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Remembering old Kings Cross

The regeneration of Kings Cross and St Pancras. . . . . . . .

A busy platform at Kings Cross Station: 1955-1957 Henry Grant

It’s a bracing morning in Camley Street, with some winter sunshine but a cold wind. Not that the school shildren fishing around for wildlife in the pond noticed, nor their teachers - more concerned to catch any youngster about to fall in.

Camley Street might be thought of as a scrap of waste land though, being in the middle of what is now ‘Kings Cross Central’ development, to say it’s waste land would seriously misjudge its value. Take a walk down York Way, sandwiched between Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, past the Google offices and the Eurostar terminal and you will find Camley Street Nature Park, (re)opened in the autumn of 2021. The site was once part of the coal drops alongside the Regents Canal and from the site you can make out Kings Cross itself, as well as the Eurostar lines out of St Pancras and, beyond, the famous gasholders, now part auditorium and part housing, set into the metal structure itself. It’s quite a place in London now, and a far cry from my London days when the Kings Cross area was almost ‘no go.’

It’s a story well told, I think, an interesting take on how the railways from the north reached London. Kings Cross was first designed by the Cubitts in 1852 for the Great Northern Railway. The common story, which goes the rounds, is that Boudica, the queen of the Celtic Brits had an altercation with the Roman’s at Battle Bridge, a crossing of the river Fleet. She lost and her bones are now somewhere under platforms 9-10. ‘A ghost appears…’ Yes, I know, it’s the usual tourist stuff but at least it’s an alternative to Harry Potter. That’s how the patrons of ‘The Parcels Yard’ pub see it, smack in the middle of the modern Kings Cross. To start with, the GNR allowed the Midland to use Kings Cross but things were getting out of hand and so William Barlow set about building St Pancras, opened in 1868. Barlow’s masterpiece of a train shed is matched by George Gilbert Scott’s Italian Gothic ‘Midland Grand Hotel’ which now stares across York Way to the GNR’s own ‘Great Northern Hotel’.

The Regents Canal has a history of its own but it got tangled up in the designs of the railway companies around Kings Cross, leaving an indelible mark on the area which even a casual viewing from Camley Street makes clear. Kings Cross tracks went under the canal and into the Gasworks Tunnel, soon after the station’s throat. The tunnel was not a prospect to delight footplate crews, faced with lifting a heavy northbound express out of the station and straight into the tunnel with the locomotive working hard. All kinds of stories tell of crews trying to stop the locomotive blowing off in the tunnel, or worse still, slipping and stalling, making footplate conditions tolerable.

Photograph: Mauritius Images/Alamy

Over at St Pancras Barlow opted to have the tracks come in about 12 – 17 feet above ground level and alongside the canal, resulting in today’s slightly elevated station. I interviewed Albert who remembered the approach to St Pancras from his days firing on the Midland line in the 1960’s. ‘It was really run down by then. We were always pleased to arrive, preferably on time, to see those gas holders, but then the dark station. Jimmy (his driver) didn’t like people much and used to fiddle about polishing and adjusting things after we arrived. I used to lean on the cab with a fag, getting my breath back and watching the girls go by, coming off the train.’

Taking a walk around Kings Cross now, so much has changed; a wonderful restoration of St Pancras with a new station added on, that amazing multi-lit, web-like concourse of Kings Cross, and the whole area around Kings Cross itself. Leaving St Pancras, it’s still easy enough to see parts of the old railway, the cuttings and crossings that trace the route out past the site of the old Kentish Town shed but, at Kings Cross, it feels hemmed in now by tall, modern buildings, standing where once steam engines paused, waiting for a path onto their train or through the tunnel and up to Kings Cross ‘top shed’.

My Camley Street visit led to a stay in London, and a real treat, staying at the Great Northern Hotel, now a ‘boutique’ hotel. I thought we might also try the ‘Plum and Spilt Milk’ restaurant which, I suppose, sounds better than the railway term for the livery of those 1950’s BR coaches. It wouldn’t sound so good inviting customers to dinner in the ‘Blood and Custard’ I suppose.

But to me and to many others, the area is a place of memories, of a time well before the regeneration started that would turn Kings Cross into one of the most desirable places in Central London. Our hotel room window looked out towards St Pancras and to the clock tower of the now ‘Renaissance’ Hotel. It was a late night of damp drizzle and chilly air but the street below wasn’t entirely empty – the odd taxi, the commuter hurrying to catch the last train home, and that light shining from the clock face onto the street below. It was so atmospheric I took a photo through the window glass, giving the view a vaguely hazy but otherworldly feel, a bit like how I feel about modern Kings Cross.


John Swanwick

Camley Street park and the late night view of St Pancras from my Kings Cross hotel

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