Why King's Cross is the most exciting area of London







It is one of London’s best known neighbourhoods, yet one that many would struggle to identify. 

An area that was once a byword for everything that terrifies the casual visitor to the capital – drugs, prostitution, crime, <otherness> – and yet also the place of arrival for people coming by rail from the north. King’s Cross: a destination, but one you didn’t want to hang about in. 

Over the last ten years, however, the area has changed dramatically. First there was the rejuvenation of St Pancras station (now home to Eurostar), then the growth of the Regent’s Quarter, that warren of little passages at the bottom of Pentonville Road, and finally the beautiful reworking of King’s Cross station itself and emergence of a new quarter behind it. A district so substantial it’s been given a whole new postcode: N1C. This is no small achievement. 

King’s Cross has been settled since London’s beginnings, and is thought to have been the site of a battle between the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca, and the more civilised Romans from nearby Londinium, hence its original name of Battle Bridge. Up until the early 19th Century, the area was farmland, dotted with houses and inns which grew around the roads from London to the country villages of Highgate and Hampstead. 

The area started to change after the building of the New (now Euston/Pentonville) Road in 18th Century and by the time the Regent’s Canal was completed in 1820 it was a place of small workshops and low rise terraced housing. In order to elevate the area’s reputation a statue of King George IV was erected at Battle Bridge crossroads in 1830, and though, after much ridicule, it was demolished in 1842, it gave the district a new name. 

With the purchase of land by Great Northern Railway in 1846 and the construction of both King’s Cross and St Pancras railway stations, the area’s character changed from one of industry to that of transience – a common feature of many areas around termini. Local communities did thrive on the goods yards and depots that supported the railways, but by the later part of the 20th Century, many of the original families had moved out, replaced by temporary residents, some involved with professions on the wrong side of the law. 

Today, though, King’s Cross is a very different place. St Pancras station is a jewel, an international hub to inspire visitors from continental Europe, while the removal of the ugly ’70s verandah on the front of King’s Cross station has returned the terminus to its original, proto-modernist glory. But it’s the mixed use development behind the stations that seal the area’s new found importance, and the resulting extension of London’s city centre. 

To say that this development is going to completely change the district’s character is a real understatement. Using the area’s industrial buildings and spaces as a starting point, the new quarter will be home to 2,000 new houses, 20 new streets, 10 public squares and 50 brand new buildings. Eventually, the 67-acre site will be a base for the 45,000 people who work, live or study in the area.

So far, the Guardian Media Group and Central St Martin’s college have relocated here, and soon they’ll be followed by French financial giant, BNP Paribas, plus countless other businesses of varying sizes. The developers stress that sustainability is at the heart of the area’s energy needs with buildings using techniques like orientation, solar shading and passive ventilation systems. 

In the past, King’s Cross was one of the most filmed parts of Britain, thanks to its iconic 19th Century gasometers (three of which will be used for housing in the new development) – it also provided the location for the classic Ladykillers film. With live performances regularly taking place in the area around Granary Square and a whole slew of creative young people attending Central St Martin’s, that link with the arts is maintained.

Something Umbrella is particularly pleased about is the slew of independent shops that are coming to the area, plus small cafes, boutiques and street food stalls. Though some high street names will have premises here, an out-of-town mega mall it most certainly is not. 

While Londoners will  get great value from this new development, the area’s position by St Pancras, King’s Cross and Euston stations means it can be used by people from more northern climes visiting London. For them to get the best out of this new quarter, some marketing spend should be targeted at both old and new media outlets in the likes of Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool and Sheffield. 

This though, is only a small concern. There can be no doubt that the transformation of King’s Cross is absolutely vital if London’s is to consolidate its place at the world’s top table. Judging by the progress so far, there will be no worries on that score. 


This story first appeared in Issue Eight of Umbrella 

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