From Red-Light District to High-Tech Hub: A Journey Through London’s King’s Cross, Past and Present

© Seb Braun / Culture Trip
© Seb Braun / Culture Trip | © Seb Braun / Culture Trip

Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor

Industrial heartland. Red-light district. Clubland. And now, shiny-new tech and leisure hotspot. Culture Trip charts the transformation of King’s Cross and details what to see and do, from its top restaurants and hotels to Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾ and the revitalised Granary Square shopping and dining area.

In the course of a few hundred years, King’s Cross – a district of central London nestled along Regent’s Canal – has gone from being one of the the city’s most important industrial hubs to a graveyard of derelict warehouses to a red-light district and clubbing hotspot.

The last two decades have seen the area transform once again, with the Eurostar rail service having opened at St Pancras International in 2007, and the rebuilding of once-grotty King’s Cross station into a light-filled atrium servicing Londoners and wizards alike.

Now, as tech giants such as Google and Facebook, trendy shops and gourmet eateries all breathe new life into the area’s heritage rail buildings, King’s Cross has become a destination in its own right. Here’s our in-depth guide to the area’s most important sites.

King’s Cross and St Pancras stations

An incredible feat of Victorian engineering, King’s Cross station opened in 1852 as the home of the Great Northern Railway. It quickly grew to cater for suburban lines and was expanded several times in the 19th century, introducing regional services such as the Flying Scotsman, an express rail service connecting Edinburgh and London for the first time.

King’s Cross Station, London

In the 1970s, the station was redeveloped to provide electric suburban services, but in the ’80s, the worn-down building became known for its seedy character. A major redevelopment was undertaken at the turn of the 21st century, including restoration of the original roof into a magnificent dome made up of triangular glass panels, and the Harry Potter wizarding portal, Platform 9¾. Just outside the station sits the refurbished Great Northern Hotel, an upscale boutique hotel in a curved brick building.

St Pancras Station interior

Neighbouring St Pancras station, the terminal for Eurostar continental services from London to Belgium, France, and the Netherlands as well as UK regional trains, is a Grade I-listed building with the St Pancras Hotel, formerly the Midland Grand Hotel, on its façade. Between 2004 and 2007, the building underwent a £800m refurbishment and today the station, the hotel and its clock tower are celebrated as masterpieces of Victorian Gothic architecture.

Taxis outside St Pancras station

Pancras Square

Just outside the north-facing exits of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, beyond the nine-metre-high neon ‘birdcage’ – an art installation entitled IFO (Identified Flying Object) – and the German Gymnasium, England’s first purpose-built exercise-hall-turned-German-eatery (originally funded by the city’s German population), lies the newly built Pancras Square.

The ‘birdcage’, Pancras Square

With a cascading water feature at its centre, the square is surrounded by cafes, retailers and offices serving the likes of Louis Vuitton, Universal Music and – soon – Google, YouTube and Facebook, cementing the area’s reputation as one of the UK’s leading tech hubs.

An artist’s impression of Google’s new offices, as seen from outside King’s Cross station

Granary Square

Named for the tonnes of Lincolnshire grain brought into the city to serve London’s bakers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Granary Square sits at the top of King’s Boulevard, on the banks of Regent’s Canal.

The spot where barges once unloaded their goods is today brought to life with more than 1,000 fountains, while a set of smart, astroturf-covered steps serve as canalside benches. The main Granary Building – recently transformed by architecture firm Stanton Williams – is home to the renowned arts college Central Saint Martins, which counts fashion designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, singer Jarvis Cocker and painter Lucian Freud among its alumni.

Granary Square, King’s Cross

From Wednesday to Friday, Kerb street food market dishes out takeaway fare from dozens of pop-up traders, while restaurants including ever-popular Indian eatery Dishoom, contemporary pub The Lighterman and the eclectic Caravan restaurant, housed within a Grade II-listed Victorian grain store, dot the square’s perimeter. In the Midland Goods Shed, just off Granary Square, high-end supermarket Waitrose hosts a cookery school alongside its branch.

Kerb street food market on King’s Boulevard

British Library

The British Library’s collection includes some 150 million books, manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC, with highlights including the Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Located just up the Euston Road from King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, the library is classified as a Grade I-listed building for its architecture and history.

The British Library, London

King’s Place

Set along the south side of Regent’s Canal is King’s Place, a newly built music and visual arts venue combined with seven floors of office space, housing the editorial offices of the Guardian newspaper.

The Guardian newspaper offices

Coal Drops Yard

Directly adjacent to Granary Square and Regent’s Canal is Coal Drops Yard. Built in the 1850s to handle the 8 million tonnes of coal delivered to the capital each year, the cobbled streets and brick arches have hosted markets, served as film sets and been the stomping ground for many a ’90s clubber – for two decades, Bagley’s was London’s biggest rave venue.

Coal Drops Yard

Today, the warehouses and their arches have been reimagined as a stylish shopping and restaurant district. Designed by big-name British architecture and design practice Heatherwick Studio, Coal Drops Yard houses more than 50 shops, restaurants and cafés including east London grilled cheese experts Morty & Bob’s, Bermondsey-born Mexican eatery Casa Pastor, and retailers Cos, Paul Smith, Aesop and more.

Tom Dixon showroom, Bagley Walk Arches

The Gasholders

On the north side of Regent’s Canal, just beyond Coal Drops Yard and overlooking Camley St Nature Park are the towering gasholder structures. Originally built for the storage of town gas for Pancras Gasworks, the largest gasworks in London, the frameworks are made up of Gasholder No 8, and three smaller structures known as the Siamese Triplets.

The Gasholders as seen from Coal Drops Yard

After being decommissioned in 2000, the frames were dismantled, refurbished and returned to the site three years later. Today, Gasholder No 8 has been transformed into the public Gasholder Park, while lighting transforms the area into an events space at night. Meanwhile, the Siamese Triplets have been transformed into luxury flats.

The structures have been converted into luxury canalside flats

Camley Street Nature Park

Situated on the banks of Regent’s Canal, Camley Street Nature Park is a wildlife reserve and public park run by the London Wildlife Trust. Created from an old coal yard in 1984, habitats include wetlands, woodland and meadow.

Camley Street Nature Park

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