A tour of Kings Cross / St Pancras

One of the sessions at Science Online London this year was about “offline communities in online networking“.  There are all kinds of groups around that either started as online groups or that use online tools to organise themselves and gain new members. One group that I am on the fringes of is LIKE – the London Information and Knowledge Exchange – which is a group on LinkedIn with several hundred information professionals as members. They have a monthly meeting and each summer they organise a walk. 

In July LIKE put on a walking tour of the Kings Cross/St Pancras area. I have started taking an interest in that area – the Crick Institute is now being built just next to St Pancras and if I’m lucky I will be moving there in about four years’ time.  I was also aware vaguely that there is a great deal of regeneration work going on round the back of the stations, and thought it’d be interesting to see how far it’s got.

The walk was guided by Rachel Kolsky. She is an information manager at an insurance company but she has a sideline taking small groups on walking tours in London

We started outside the Renaissance Hotel, at St Pancras Station. Rachel outlined the history of the area, mentioning that it has had unsavoury connotations for a few hundred years. It has been home to a smallpox isolation hospital, an enormous mound of rubbish and a red light district. The New Road (or the Euston Road as it is now called) was built in 1756 and created a new northern boundary for London. When the railways were built all the termini were located just to the north of the New Road, well away from any respectable areas.

The architectural history of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations is interesting; two more different styles of building you could not imagine. Inside St Pancras we admired The Meeting Place – the giant sculpture of a couple – and the statue of John Betjeman, who played a key role in saving St Pancras from demolition.

Next to St Pancras we saw the great building site which will eventually be the Crick Institute. There’s not much to see there yet, so we had to use our imagination. The Crick website has information about the progress of construction, and you can even register to receive their monthly update if you want to. A week or so after our walk took place the Crick Visitor Centre opened, and its exhibition is open for viewingtwice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays). The Crick are trying hard to engage with the local community, who are understandably nervous about this enormous research centre being built on their doorstep. The building will also house a “Living Centre” for the community that will offer “services to help improve people’s health and wellbeing”.

Rachel pointed out other buildings nearby – the British Library and the German Gymnasium building – and said a little about their histories. We then walked up Pancras Road to the Old St Pancras church. This is a fascinating church and churchyard – a real haven of peace and quiet. Apparently it is one of the oldest Christian sites in the UK.  In the churchyard there is an attractive memorial to Angela Burdett-Coutts, a 19th century philanthropist. A famous photo of The Beatles was taken in 1968 that shows this memorial in the background. The churchyard also contains the tomb of the architect John Soane, which seems strangely familiar. The design of his tomb influenced Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the red telephone box. Leaving the churchyard we noted the St Pancras Cruising Club (not what you think – it is an association of boat owners) with its listed water tower, and the Camley Street Natural Park. This urban nature reserve lies along the banks of the Regents’ Canal and is a sanctuary for wildlife.

The back of St Pancras

The back of St Pancras

We then came to the area that is undergoing the most change just now, the hinterland between the mainline stations and the Regent’s canal.  A few years ago this area contained famous nightclubs (I have attended one or two in the past)  and run-down warehouses. Any day now the University of the Arts will move into one of those warehouses – the Grade II listed Granary Complex – and Granary Square will become a huge public space with fountains and steps leading down to the canalside. A number of residential, commercial and retail developments will complete the transformation of the area.

We finished by walking to Kings Place, home to the Guardian newspaper and an interesting small arts centre, and then along the canal to a pub which was the end of the walk.

I had an urge to request that we walk on to Crinnan Street and pay homage to the famous Nature Publishing Group headquarters, but I overcame it. Maybe next time.

The hinterland of these two great stations, Kings Cross and St Pancras is a bit of a mess right now, because of all the construction underway. Rachel said she took an interest in regeneration around old stations – for instance the attempt to turn the Paddington area into something better.  She said that everything she had seen made her think that the Kings Cross/St Pancras scheme is going to be a success.  It has a richness that other areas do not have: the British Library is already well established there, Kings Place opened a few years ago, the new University is opening now and a bit later the Crick Institute.  It is clear that quite soon this is going to be a fascinating new quarter of London.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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10 Responses to A tour of Kings Cross / St Pancras

  1. rpg says:

    I love The Meeting Place statue. I didn’t know that Betjeman had anything to do with St Pancras—other than the pub of the same name, of course.

    Can’t wait to see the Crick being built. May have to wander up and have a look myself. Maybe install a time lapse camera somewhere (I wish!!).

  2. Frank says:

    Richard – Betjeman has always seemed a bit stuck in the past, but I guess that’s what we love about him. And he saw the beauty in Victorian architecture before it became fashionable again. This news item has the story about him and St Pancras.

    A time lapse of the Crick would be good. I saw an animated simulation of the projected construction process but the real thing would be better. I’ll ask them.

  3. rpg says:

    What a lovely story, thanks Frank!

    You can ask them that? It’d be wonderful!

  4. This sounds great! Maybe I should get myself organised to go on one of the Vancouver Police Museum’s tours, which sound somewhat similar (although with more of an emphasis on murder and mayhem than on other aspects of local history).

    My main connection with St. Pancras is as the alternative universe (or something like that) version of Valhalla in Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. The last time I was in the area (to meet a certain crox-wearing Cromerite, in May), I was therefore thrilled to see a robed and hooded monk outside the station, although I’m not certain that he was electric*. Later that day, when I met up with you and assorted other OTers, Stephen commented that we were meeting on the 10th anniversary of Adams’ death…

    I’m sure this was all a sign of something or other.

    *Yes, I know the electric monk was in the other Dirk Gently novel, not the one with all the Norse gods in it. It was still cool.

  5. KristiV says:

    Love this post (!!eleventy11!!), and so envious of your walking tour, Frank!

    Betjeman is a favorite poet of mine, and so of course I had to take photos of his statue when I was in London in 2009. I think a few of his poems mention trains and stations: in particular, of course, The Metropolitan Railway.

    They felt so sure on their electric trip
    That Youth and Progress were in partnership.

    Perhaps Youth and Progress are in The Meeting Place statue?

    Anyway, the best Betjeman poem, IMHO, is Hunter Trials, but naturally I think that because I’m an equestrian-type person. 😉

  6. Frank says:

    Cath – Murder tours can be interesting. I used to know a policeman who would research various gruesome murder cases from history and make up a tour of the various sites.

    Kristi – At school we studied Betjeman and Ted Hughes. Betjeman’s verse seemed like fun and, to my unsophisticated poetic taste, more easily assimilated. I think he is still popular but not particularly fashionable. I will have to go back to his statue and see if I can find Youth and Progress there.

  7. rpg says:

    “At school we studied Betjeman and Ted Hughes.” And Causley? London board?

  8. Frank says:

    Richard – Yes! And R.S. Thomas too. Causley was good but Betjeman appealed more to me. I am woefully ignorant of poetry.

  9. KristiV says:

    I should like Hughes, because he writes about nature a lot, but unfortunately his poems usually make me want to remove my eyeballs with a crochet hook and feed them to the neighborhood crows.

    Crow, crow
    Pluck out my eyeballs
    and off you go.

  10. Frank says:

    Kristi – Haha, yes you’ve nailed it! Strangely I don’t think that poem was in the book we studied … The only Hughes poem that I even vaguely remember was Pike. Looking at it again, it’s actually rather good.