King’s Cross – from derelict wasteland to caffeinated utopia

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection.

Shiny and new: the new Kings Cross Station is a far cry from its former grim incarnation. Photo: Getty
Shiny and new: the new Kings Cross Station is a far cry from its former grim incarnation. Photo: Getty

King’s Cross has been transformed from a grim commuter necessity, somewhere that had to be endured but was never enjoyed, into a place where you’d be happy to waste time. Sixty-seven acres of what was industrial scrub – disused railway hoardings and empty Victorian warehouses – are now home to, among others, Google and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The transformation shows the power of confident planning, long-term thinking and proper public transport. It should be copied elsewhere.

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Every minute spent waiting in the station, enveloped by grime, felt like a minute stolen from you. I cut each journey as fine as possible: better to have to run for a train than to kick your heels in the concourse.

Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection. It’s an opportunity to drink superior coffee while sitting in a free deckchair next to the Regent’s Canal and watching Wimbledon on a huge outdoor TV screen. If someone had told me 20 years ago that a flâneur would gravitate here, I’d have assumed that I was talking to a fantasist.

Coffee is a serious matter in the progress of cities. In South Australia, the stated aim of Adelaide’s redevelopment think tank is to create “a walkable, bikeable . . . [and] hyper-caffeinated city”. Nudging citizens towards coffee has a good history, as well as making good sense. In seeking to explain the rise of the west, Niall Ferguson argued in Civilisation that the English got lucky with their drugs. The arrival of Arabic coffee in the 17th century roused the English from sleepy alcoholism; the east got stuck with the lethargy of the opium den.

Indeed, this column began as a chance conversation with the two brilliant baristas who operate under a canopy between St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. An aimless chat over flat whites led to a full tour of the site by Robert Evans of Argent, one of the developers of the master plan.

The land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras – now being converted into 50 new buildings, 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets and ten public squares – used to be entirely disconnected from central London. No one, emerging on to the Euston Road, used to turn back on themselves, wondering what lay due north. Not only was there nowhere to go, there was also no easy way of getting there.

The sense of a void in one direction is subtly influential in creating a negative atmosphere. I learned that lesson by living in two different flats in London. Both were nice homes. But on leaving one flat, I always turned right: that was the only way to get to civilisation. Leaving the other, I turned equally often in either direction. Feeling connected all around influenced my sense of belonging. I was in the middle of something, not stuck out on a limb.

The same principle underpins the transformation of the land behind King’s Cross. The developers wanted to bring new residential areas into central London. That could only be done by creating public spaces: squares, parks, boulevards, schools and a university. If the site had been turned into luxury flats alone, like so many others in London, it would have remained wholly cut off from real city life. “It’s a public space,” Evans explained to me, freely admitting a long-term business rationale behind the plan. “Create the conditions for urban life and you create value. Because we focused on making connections with London and mixed-use diversity, it’s not just a series of buildings with asset values. It’s a place.”

Place influences people. As a cricketer, I noticed that there was less “sledging” (unprovoked verbal abuse) at Lord’s – the world’s most civilised cricket ground – than at other venues. People tend to find the level that is expected of them. Most of us don’t recognise that our behaviour is changing even as it is elevated. By the same process, there is little graffiti in the new Granary Square in King’s Cross and the deckchairs and tables have not been stolen or defaced.

There is nothing new here. The Ideal City, a 15th-century painted panel executed for the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, depicts urban life as a humanist utopia. “The city is like a great house,” argued the Renaissance architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, “and the house is in turn a small city.” The wonder is how that tradition was lost.

In the absence of aristocratic largesse on a grand scale, developing neighbourhoods today is more likely to rely on an urgent sense of purpose. And the engine behind the new King’s Cross could not be more historically appropriate: high-speed rail. It was the railway that first made the area important in the 19th century. Two rival businesses, the Great Northern Railway and the Midland line, competed for custom and kudos. Just as aristocratic families tried to build ever taller towers in San Gimignano in Italy, St Pancras was built in the Gothic style as a riposte to the simplicity of King’s Cross.

The railway has now helped to remake the area. I have no professional or personal stake in the environs at all: no business or property. Yet I travel by HS1 from Kent, so King’s Cross is necessarily part of my life. That necessity has become something more. In seeking distraction or just wasting time, I’ve met people outside my professional bubble, noticed different things and developed new interests. That’s how cities function when they work properly.

When HS2 happens – I write “when” in the spirit of optimistic faith – it could have the same effect on, say, the Leeds South Bank as HS1 has had on King’s Cross. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune (Bloomsbury, £8.99)