In the days of steam, King’s Cross and St Pancras represented bright new technology – stations beautifully built for the noble engines of the Great Northern and Midland Railways. King’s Cross, a decade older than the other station, was austere and impressive with a façade dominated by two great arched windows reflecting the shape of the train shed roofs; St Pancras on the other hand hides the railway entirely behind what looks like a fantasy medieval castle, all turrets and pinnacles.
Behind the stations, though many of the old industrial buildings have gone, there’s still a rich hinterland to be explored – including the Regent’s Canal, the transport network that the railways eventually replaced (London Canal Museum, housed in a former ice warehouse nearby tells the story). If you want to, you can wander the towpath as far as Camden Market, or further to Regent’s Park and London Zoo. Closer to home, there’s Camley Street’s little nature reserve. You can even spot kingfishers there sometimes, bright orange and blue, flashing across the canal; and there’s also Old St Pancras Churchyard, where soaring plane trees shade the gravestones.
The Victorian granary complex has now been refurbished as the University of the Arts London, with neon-lit fountains in front of it, with the Coal Drops which supplied the railways currently being restored as retail space. And though the gasholders which dominated the area have gone for the moment, there are plans to re-erect them for use as housing and public space.
But these grandiose industrial buildings aren’t all King’s Cross has to offer. Go east from the station, up Pentonville Road or along Caledonian Road, and you enter a world of tiny Italian delis, old bookshops, little pubs and Hare Krishna charity shops. There’s even an Ethiopian restaurant (which advertises its beef dishes as ‘raw, medium or well done’; at first I thought the first word was a mistake for ‘rare’, but a friend tells me Ethiopians have a taste for uncooked meat). There are streets of Victorian terraces; my favourite, Keystone Crescent, is a perfect tight semicircle of greyish brown brick houses.
King’s Cross has even become a cultural quarter with the installation of both the London Sinfonietta and the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as residents at King’s Place. The gig list includes more contemporary sounds too, such as percussionist Talvin Singh, and jazz with the Westbrook Trio. If you prefer clubbing to classical, just head for the Scala – once the grubbiest cinema in London, now a spick and span nightclub.
To the south of Euston Road, more streets of Georgian terraces are mixed together with the massive buildings of the University of London. A five or ten minute bike ride gets you to Coram Fields, a little haven of greenery in the middle of the city, and then to the British Museum. That’s one of the delights of King’s Cross – it’s easy to get anywhere from here, whether by foot, Boris Bike, or tube (the Piccadilly, Victoria, Metropolitan, District and Circle lines all come through the station).
The jury may be out on the transformation of the area. It’s certainly lost some of the grubby unconventionality that gave it its character twenty years ago – the go-kart tracks, the rows of B&Bs, the Italian caffs, the gasometers. But on the other hand it’s gained a new lease of life. And King’s Cross Station, long the ugly duckling of the railways, now has a new sparkle. Walk into it these days and you’re in a wonderful lobby under a roof like a palm tree or an upside-down waterfall, with light pouring down from above – a new building that’s every bit as spectacular as the Gothic turrets of St Pancras next door.