“The next station is Caledonian Road,” is one of the announcements I hear every day as I trundle into work on the Piccadilly Line. Then a few minutes later the doors open so a few people can get out and others get on. And in no time at all we are off again, with most passengers none the wiser to the richness of life above ground.
As tonight’s episode of the excellent Secret History of Our Streets series revealed, Caledonian Road, which stretches for a mile and a half north of King’s Cross station, really is a fascinating area and somewhere worth exploring.
Some would argue that today the area is grubby, unloved and generally a “shit hole,” but this is not a view held by all. Many people there are very happy, like those who enjoy sing alongs with Elvis tribute acts at the Prince of Wales pub on a Sunday afternoon.
Right from when it was established in the first decades of the 1800s Caledonian Road has largely been lived on by working people. The Victorian social explorer Charles Booth recorded on his poverty map that 125 years ago it really was a depressing, tatty and generally an “undesirable address”.
It’s ironic because the neighbouring Thornhill Estate, built speculatively a little earlier by the wealthy George Thornhill, was, and is today, very upmarket with the highlight being the lovely Thornhill Square.
To understand the history you need to turn back to when King’s Cross railway station opened and cheap housing sprung up for railway workers. The area became rundown, with prostitutes taking advantage of the inflow of passengers. They operated in large numbers on street corners.
The area also gained a reputation for the fencing of stolen goods. And the opening of a cattle market meant the streets were clogged up with smelly animals as they were moved from King’s Cross to the slaughter house.
Over the years, by some accounts, the area deteriorated further still as waves of newcomers moved into bedsits. When in 1970 the police station was besieged by 100 black youths Islington council felt that enough was enough and that the solution was to knock down rows of perfectly decent terraced houses.
As was the case in other parts of London and indeed elsewhere in the UK the 1970s tower blocks to replace the properties did nothing to resolve the problems – if anything anti-social behaviour increased. Then, as if the area hadn’t suffered enough already, the recession in the 1980s hit the area hard with many shops boarded up.
Yet what I took from the programme tonight is that in spite of its problems many members of the community have bonded together well to maintain Caledonian Road’s unique character. In contrast to the grime and crime, there were people who had grown up in the area interviewed on camera saying that you could leave your door open and not worry about people stealing valuables. And neighbours’ children happily played with each other, whatever their ethnic group.
Long-standing residents fought to make Caledonian Road and its surroundings a nicer place to live. They successfully campaigned for a tatty open air car park to be turned into a pretty communal garden. Then they famously fought off plans in the 1990s for properties to be pulled down so that the Channel Tunnel lines could be brought into King’s Cross. And later they beat off British Rail’s masterplan large parts of the area to be demolished in order to create a residential and commercial area.
Yet following the recent opening of the new King’s Cross station, the area is developing fast and new residential properties are being built, leading some to fear that the ‘rough around the edges’ character will alter. Of course, anything that improves the lives of people of people on the poverty line has got to be positive. Gentrification, where ordinary people are priced out of the market, is something quite different.
Walking the stretch of Caledonian Road today makes you realise just how the lives of people contrast. You have multi-million pound terraced houses just a stones throw from council owned housing and numerous tenants squashed into small flats. Tatty takeaways and pubs in need of a lick of paint exist near upmarket cocktail bars and antique shops.
I’ve thought before that there is a ‘posh’ end of Caledonian Road and a not so good part, but this is not simply the case. In reality, these ghettos just don’t exist – like elsewhere in London people can see how the other half live, they’re right on their doorsteps. This diversity is what makes the capital great.
“The next station is Caledonian Road.” Rather than letting the stop pass you by, this fascinating area that is worth exploring in more detail. Get off the Tube and walk the stretch to King’s Cross – you won’t be disappointed.