Myths and legacy

The Romans loved their mythology and gods so much they even had a god of boundary markers. Terminus was also the protector of the limits of private property and of the public territory. He, of course, gave his name to the Latin word for boundary posts and the English word for the end of the (transport) line.

Up until quite recently Kings Cross has been a byword for London sleaze and grime. Back in the mists of time it was a village called Battle Bridge, the scene of a fight between the Romans and Boudicca’s Iceni. Which in turn gave birth to the urban myth that she’s buried under platforms 9 and 10. All in all, that’s a pretty crowded part of the station what with the Hogwart’s Express leaving from platform 93/4.

St Pancras Old ChurchThe area got the name it trades under today in 1835 when a property speculator slung up a cheap monument to George IV at the junction of Gray’s Inn, Pentonville and, what was to become Euston, roads.

The cross didn’t last long (and didn’t do much for the area) before the aforementioned Kings Cross station was completed in 1852. The name stuck though.

I think it’s fair to say that since then the area’s fortunes have risen or fallen according to the railways. It fell into steep decline after WWII and by the 1980’s was mostly associated with drugs and prostitution. But both mythically and actually there was always so much more to the place than that.

The railed-in space of Old St Pancras churchyard is eerily atmospheric and some sources claim it to be the oldest English site of Christian worship. It’s one of those strange places that seems broodingly close and much bigger than it really is both at the same time.

The air of serenity defies the physical reality of a slice of open space bordered by railway lines and a main road. And here’s just a snapshot of what’s here. There’s a memorial to the philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Mary wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman but is probably better remembered as the mother of Mary Shelley, who in turn went on to write the gothic horror novel Frankenstein. And it is said that she and Percy Bysshe Shelley planned their elopement during visits to the churchyard.

Dickens used the graveyard as the body-snatching location in A Tale of Two Cities. The Beatles had some of the Mad Day Out photos taken here. There’s the Grade 1 listed self-designed mausoleum of Sir John Soane that served as the inspiration to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott for his iconic telephone boxes. Not to forget one of London’s many Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts memorials. The jewel in the crown though is the Hardy Ash - a splendid tree surrounded by gravestones moved when Thomas Hardy worked here in the mid-1860’s. A fitting memorial to an area that was once part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex.

Beatles and St Pancras Old ChurchAnd if you follow Paul Simon’s advice and ‘slip out the back Jack’ you stumble on the Camley Street Natural Park. Its two acres was created from an old railway coal yard back in 1984 and it’s a delight. This thin sliver of land wedged in-between the literally, but not very imaginatively, named Goods Way and the Regent’s Canal really is a little green oasis in urban landscape.

Across the canal is the newly opened Granary Square. The Granary building, like Kings Cross station itself, was designed by Lewis Cubbitt. The Cubitt brothers certainly changed the face of London. The most famous, Thomas, (well he’s got a pub named after him) was the leading speculative master builder in the second quarter of the 19th century. His houses are all symmetry, functionality, straight lines and clean angles. Another brother, William, worked on canals, docks and railways and was the chief engineer of the Crystal Palace.

Argent, a UK property development company, is redeveloping this area, now called Kings Cross Central. It’s huge – 67 acres (that’s about 60 football pitches) – the largest current urban redevelopment in western Europe. Accompanying blurb characterises the proposals as mixed use space. And let me be clear about this, for the last couple hundred years it’s been single use – goods and transport – and entirely unavailable for public use.

When it’s finished it will be managed as a private estate of 10 plazas and parkland. It will join the huge swathes of not only London but other UK cities that are under private ownership and corporate control. Notwithstanding the Occupy movement, most of us seem very relaxed about this practice.

The developers make no secret of the fact that they favour ornament and a design that encourages high footfall for the retailers. And for those brief discouraged waking moments when we’re neither working nor shopping they provide plenty of restaurant options. At the same time local authorities have been repeatedly reminding us that the upkeep of public space is extremely, almost prohibitively, expensive. So is it any wonder that all today’s major redevelopments have some form of privatisation included in the price tag?

Granary SquareWhatever your feelings about this private versus public argument, and although it is opening a lot of London previously inaccessible, there is much that makes me feel uneasy, we better get used to it. As the 2012 Olympic glow fades we have a front row seat on how the snappily named London Legacy Development Corporation deals with the redevelopment of the Olympic Village.

And heading west, the Nine Elms project, covering an area larger than Hyde Park and housing the new US Embassy, is sprouting up before our very eyes. And guess what, it promises ‘improved public spaces’ as well as ‘a dynamic cluster of tall buildings’. However dynamic the tall buildings turn out to be it will be privately owned public space though.

Back to Kings Cross. The new look Granary Square, with its Cubitt building supplying a suitably dramatic backdrop and fountains peppering the piazza in the foreground is definitely worth a visit. Approaching via the Regents canal is best and a short self-guided walk during Get Walking Week 2014 would be ideal.

When all is said and done, if this is a benchmark, it bodes well for the rest of the development whoever owns it. A lot of attention has been paid to constructing something that is, as far as possible, in sympathy with the area’s heritage and the local community. You can’t help thinking that the Cubitt brothers would approve, not least because much their own individual work is showcased throughout the scheme and surrounding area but also because the heady aroma of grandiose speculation permeates the whole enterprise.

Watch this:

Beatles Mad Day Out 28 July 1968

Walking class hero’s playlist:

Terminus - Jah Wobble, Marconi Union
Terminus - Ralph McTell
Kings Cross – Claudia Brucken
Kings Cross Blues - Lindisfarne
Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money) – Pet Shop Boys
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon
Eat Sleep Rave Repeat – Fatboy Slim

Walking Class Hero is a regular blog contributor. Find out more about him, including his previous blog posts, and follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero.