Behind the hustle and bustle of King’s Cross station, a huge swathe of waste land is being transformed. Developers are turning what was once a dirty, industrial area into a new district that will house 6,000 residents and 30,000 office workers.
At the heart of King’s Cross Central, a 67-acre development, will be the new European headquarters of Google. The internet giant is relocating staff from Victoria and Holborn in 2016 to a million-square-foot office complex in what is the biggest property deal of the 21st century.
Google’s arrival at King’s Cross is likely to prompt other digital companies to set up shop in the surrounding area, creating a new technology hub with start-ups that will hopefully come up with the competitive edge in ideas in years to come.
This transformation from heavy industry to hi-end innovation, mirrors what we are trying to do as a nation in shifting to the sectors that are deemed the most are profitable.
It’s easy for people today to turn their noses up at the polluting industry that once populated King’s Cross, but two centuries ago what took place in these parts would have been seen as forward-thinking and ahead of their time. The likes of Pancras Gasworks, opened by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company in 1824, and other polluting businesses like paint manufacturers and refuse sorters, were the Googles of their day.
Until the 18th century the King’s Cross had been made up of small settlements that Londoners passed on their way to the fashionable country inns and spas of Hampstead, Highgate and Kentish Town. The area was known as Battle Bridge, a corruption of ‘Broad forge bridge’ which crossed the river Fleet here. And legend has it that the Romans defeated Boudica, queen of the Iceni here (she has been said to have been buried under platform nine or 10).
But the completion in 1756 of what is now known as Euston Road and the Regent’s Canal in 1820, providing a link to the industrial cities in the north of England, stimulated the transformation of turning this largely rural area into a thriving rural hub of commerce.
And then came the railways. The Great Northern Railway opened King’s Cross station, which is currently being lovingly restored, was designed in 1852 by Lewis Cubbit on one side of the canal on the site of a fever and small pox hospital. And they developed land on the other side into a goods area and locomotive depot.
Grain from East Anglia was stored in the Goods Yards Complex, before being delivered across the London. The splendid Victorian Granary, which formed one part of this, is now a campus for University of the Arts London, housing 5,000 students and staff.Walk inside the building and you’ll find an airy space with a popular, trendy café that blends seamlessly with a modern extension including lecture theatres, a library and other amenities. The public square outside, which overlooks the canal and once was where railway lines ran, is symbolic of the fact that this will be a pleasant place for people to spend their leisure time – the developers aren’t trying to cram in as many buildings as possible. Nearby, the Coal Drops (built in the 1850s and 1860s) are being restored and converted into shops, restaurants and a market place. High-level railway tracks once passed over these cast iron and brick structures. And as wagons passed over them, coal was dropped into storage hoppers below and then loaded into carts for use transport across the capital. For fans of industrial architecture, there is so much to see here – including the Midland Goods Shed which was originally built as a temporary passenger terminus for the GNR before King’s Cross station opened. And an events space is being created under a canopy built in 1888 to provide a covered area where fish bound for Billingsgate market was unloaded.
Transportation of freight by rail fell into accelerated decline network after World War Two and industrial buildings became derelict as businesses closed. By the 1980s, when many of the remaining tracks in former goods sidings were pulled up, the area had a seedy reputation – and one that was popular with prostitutes and drug users.
Re-development from the 1990s brought new life into the area and the arrival of the Eurostar in 2007 cemented the importance of St Pancras and King’s Cross in bringing people to and from the capital. And rather than just being a place of railway stations I think this is now a district that has a beating cultural heart – you’ve only got to look at the fact that the British Library is here (opened in 1997), and there is also the equally fascinating London Canal Museum.
Right now, King’s Cross Central is a building site, but once complete there will be 20 new streets, public squares, modern offices and 1,900 new homes. King’s Cross is well and truly set arrive in the modern world.