How King's Cross became London's new creative hub

In recent years, King’s Cross has been a blur of scaffolding and cranes as the neighbourhood transforms from a postindustrial wasteland into an arts and retail hub. Finally, it matches its status as a gateway to cities across the UK and the Continent.

By Nicola Trup
photographs by Rob Greig
Published 2 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
In recent years, King's Cross has been a blur of building work as it transitions from ...
In recent years, King's Cross has been a blur of building work as it transitions from illicit after-hours district and transport hub to a destination in itself.
Photograph by Rob Greig

“We’re almost like a microcosm of King’s Cross,” says Bruce Robertson, managing director of the recently opened The Standard hotel. “We have both the old and the new.”

I wander through reception and into the Library Lounge — a homage to the room’s previous purpose when the building was part of an annexe of Camden Town Hall. Shelves are stacked with books, categorised by the innocuous (sociology and psychology, philosophy and science) and the avant garde (chaos and order, hope and darkness. There are curved, spaceship-like windows and a red, bullet-like lift zips up and down the facade — all crowned by a stainless steel-and-glass extension. The interiors are a technicolour tribute to the building’s heyday, with nods to Stanley Kubrick in the hallway carpets (inspired by those in The Shining) and the white, sci-fi-like guest rooms, which smack of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It took a long time to transform a once-unloved ’70s brutalist block into a chic hotel. Bruce came on board as managing director in 2015, before the building spent four years cocooned in scaffolding, emerging last summer as the first foreign foray for Standard Hotels, the high-end US hotel brand known for its celebrity clientele.

Such lengthy reconstruction barely registered on the King’s Cross skyline. In recent years, this part of N1 has been a blur of building work, as it transitions from illicit after-hours district and transport hub to a destination in itself. Places to eat, drink and consume culture are opening up alongside glossy office blocks housing big-name businesses. In a show of confidence, the likes of Google and YouTube have moved in, with Facebook and Nike set to follow.

It took a long time to transform The Standard, a once-unloved ’70s brutalist block, into a chic London hotel.
Photograph by Rob Greig

When I was growing up in ’90s north London, you couldn’t say the words ‘King’s Cross’ without an ill-judged joke about sex workers; and nights out here often meant dodging a cast of shady characters. One of the clubs I frequented, Scala, was among the first to usher in change. Having operated as a cinema since 1920 (in its later years specialising in gory and sexually explicit screenings), it lost its licence in 1993, but six years later was revived as a club and gig venue, which still stands proud today on a corner of Pentonville Road.

From The Standard’s modern extension, I take in the views, looking out over Victorian terraces and mansion blocks that once housed railway and industrial workers. Across the street: the great heft of St Pancras station. The Victorian gothic beast was itself a major renovation project and finally reopened in 2007 after years of remodelling into the London home of the Eurostar and a sleek shopping and dining complex. In 2011, the station’s frontispiece — formerly the Midland Grand Hotel — was resurrected as the five-star St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

Inside the station, away from the hordes of travellers waiting for trains to Paris and Amsterdam, Loughborough and Luton, stands a memorial to Sir John Betjeman, a man without whom St Pancras would’ve been razed to the ground. The closure of the Midland Grand Hotel in 1935, bomb damage during the Second World War and changes to rail routes all contributed to the station’s decline. By the 1960s, there were plans to tear the whole thing down and repurpose the land. However, the poet — a railway and architecture enthusiast — led a campaign to save the station, and in 1967 it became Grade I-listed. Betjeman’s statue stands on the station’s mezzanine, holding his hat and gazing up at the spectacular vaulted ceiling. Around his feet are inscribed the words ‘Who saved this glorious station’.

Sir John Betjeman, a railway and architecture enthusiast, led a campaign to save King's Cross' iconic railway station.
Photograph by Rob Greig

From coal to conservation

I head north, between St Pancras and neighbouring King’s Cross station, passing another of the area’s Victorian railway hotels, the Great Northern Hotel. It, too, was revived; reopening in 2013 after standing derelict for over a decade. Each time I come to this area, I find the landscape has become more vertical as construction cranes drag it ever skyward. Beams, breeze blocks and panes of glass shape-shift into cafes, shops and luxury apartments. I wander between two slivers of development — one complete, one in progress — and across Regent’s Canal. In the 19th century, King’s Cross was a hub for transporting goods — wheat, potatoes, tobacco, timber — into the capital by rail. The former storage buildings are being dramatically repurposed.

In Granary Square, converted grain stores opened their doors as restaurants and bars in 2012, while late last year, neighbouring Coal Drops Yard began its own new chapter. This collection of old warehouses and viaducts takes its name from their original purpose, which, by the 1980s was obsolete. Instead, the buildings were serving as the site for illegal raves before they later morphed into landmark nightclubs The Cross, The Key and Bagley’s (later Canvas).

Today, with the sunshine glinting above them, the new curved roofs of Coal Drops Yard’s twin buildings resemble a pair of wings; an organic shape amid a sea of industrial angles. What sits underneath is a mix of designer chains and upmarket restaurants, yet some smaller brands are here too. In a mews-like space along the side of the building, punctuated by potted plants and a mishmash of furniture, I order a flat white at Redemption Roasters, a coffee shop whose beans are roasted at HM Prison Aylesbury, where inmates are also trained to be baristas. Nearby, the sound of soul music drifts out of Honest Jon’s, an offshoot of the legendary record shop that’s stood in the same Portobello Road location for the past 45 years.

Camley Street Natural Park was once a coal drop, reclaimed by nature when it fell out of use. Today, it's a haven for London's wildlife.
Photograph by Rob Greig

I wander along the canal towpath, where a trio of Grade II-listed Victorian gas-holders has been repurposed as luxury flats, their florid cast iron frames encircling the cylindrical edifices within. Across the canal, I find Camley Street Natural Park — two acres of woodland, meadows and wetland. “The foxes have moved out, but I’m sure they’ll be back,” manager Karolina Leszczynska-Gogol tells me as we walk. Like so many of its neighbours, the park is a work in progress — a new visitor centre is currently under construction. The work may have unsettled some of the wildlife, including the foxes, and increased light pollution has disturbed the local pipistrelle bat population, but the park remains home to a number of other creatures. The occasional kingfisher and chatty warbler can be seen here, as well as toads, frogs, newts and various species of invertebrate.

Camley Street Natural Park was also once a coal drop, reclaimed by nature when it fell out of use; overgrown, it became a haven for wildlife. When there was talk of the site being redeveloped, the London Wildlife Trust successfully campaigned to turn it into a nature reserve — a “green oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle”, as Karolina puts it. 

“We strongly believe everyone should have free access to nature,” she explains, waving to a group of volunteers busy creating a new wildflower meadow. The park runs workshops and educational programmes, but it’s also just a lovely place for a woodland walk.

Red-light legends

For all of King’s Cross’s smart new bars and restaurants, there are still a few proper old-school boozers. I end my day at the southern end of Caledonian Road, at The Scottish Stores, whose overtly contemporary signage does it a disservice. Inside, you’ll find the Platonic ideal of a pub. There’s wood panelling and William Morris wallpaper; real ale and jars of nuts. 

For all of King’s Cross’s smart new bars and restaurants, there are still a few proper old-school boozers.
Photograph by Rob Greig

“You see those? They’re original,” says Gerard Oliver, a cheery South African who’s managed the pub since 2018. He’s pointing to a series of cartoon-like drawings of huntsmen and beagles, inset into the wood and preserved behind glass. Before the current owners took over the pub, these illustrations were lost behind layers of grime and cheap paint.

The Scottish Stores was originally an inn, offering rooms to traders — many of them Scots who’d come to King’s Cross by train — but it gained a reputation as a rather insalubrious hangout for sex workers and criminals and was notorious for bar brawls. In the 1980s, at the height of the neighbourhood’s red-light infamy, it became a strip bar.

“It was grimy and dark, the windows were blacked out and the wood was nicotine-stained,” Gerard tells me. “I came in once back then, and I remember thinking ‘this place has so much potential.’” Eventually, the pub’s current owners spotted that potential too, restoring and reopening the place in 2015.

Of course, characterising King’s Cross’s recent history as a phoenix-like rise from squalor to respectability doesn’t tell the whole story. Alongside the prostitution, drug abuse and illicit nightlife, the post-industrial enclave provided workspaces for artists.

“It was pretty ropey, but of course studio space was cheap,” says visual artist Michael Pinsky, who’s lived and worked in the area since 1996. “The Cubitt studio complex – before it moved to [nearby] Angel – had a community that included Turner Prize winners. It really was quite high-level,” he says.

Michael’s view of those days, however, certainly isn’t rose-tinted. “I prefer it the way it is now,” he tells me. “The King’s Cross development is quite upmarket, but that being said, the area where I live – between Caledonian Road and York Way – is still quite run down, given how central it is. It’s not completely turned around yet. But it will be in another 10 years or so.”

In late-2018, Coal Drops Yard started a new chapter, morphing from an area of old warehouses and viaducts to landmark nightclubs.
Photograph by Rob Greig

Q&A: Zoë Jeyes, deputy managing director, Kings Place  

What's the focus of Kings Place? Why King's Cross?
We wanted to create an arts centre where culture and commerce sit side by side. Our founder, Peter Millican, looked at a few potential sites, all near transport hubs, but King’s Cross — with its unbeatable links and canal-side location — was always first choice. We’ve always had a world-class programme of music and spoken-word events, and over the past 11 years it’s become more adventurous as we’ve grown up and adapted to our surroundings and new audiences.

How has the area changed?
I joined Kings Place in 2008, about four months before we opened, and back then we felt very out on our own. People couldn’t understand why our main entrance faced a street where there was nothing but a petrol station. Of course, we knew what was coming, and looking over the road now at the incredible redevelopment, it really is unrecognisable.

Do you have any local tips?
I love to end my working day on the Rotunda terrace. Outside space is at such a premium in London and it’s one of the most tranquil and beautiful spots. The free exhibitions and events at the Wellcome Collection [a museum and library] are another personal favourite, and I also highly recommend Rockaoke at The Star of Kings pub [held on the last Friday of the month]. If you’ve ever fancied singing Common People or Total Eclipse of the Heart with a live band, this is the night for you. I may have done both.

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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