St Pancras Station seen from Pancras Square, outside King’s Cross
Dear Readers, for as long as I’ve lived in London, King’s Cross has had a dire reputation. When I was working just off Gray’s Inn Road, groups of cadaverous teenage girls used to gather outside the post office, drinking cans of Special Brew and shivering while they waited for their next client, or their next fix. When I caught an early train to Luton airport one morning, the women on the opposite platform were chased by a junkie wielding a needle and threatening them with AIDS. And my husband was once asked if he was interested in ‘business’ by a young woman while he was taking photographs of the gas holders at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But gradually the area has been ‘cleaned up’ (which means that people have been moved on, to Euston and to Camden), and now it’s much more of a destination. Whole areas have been demolished, shiny new office buildings and restaurants have opened, and I heard from a friend that some areas have been made much more wildlife friendly. So, I took myself and my camera off to explore.
The station itself is an extraordinary melange of Victorian ironwork and twenty-first century post-modernism.
The Victorian station
The New Concourse
There is no doubt that this is an improvement over the old station building, which was always overcrowded and had a pervasive smell of pee. But I was more interested in what was going on outside.
There are some fine big pots with bee-friendly plants, such as catnip and salvia. I am intrigued by the way that many of the flowers on the Hotlips salvia below have lost their red ‘lips’. The bees don’t seem to care, however.
‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee
There is a series of fountains, and indeed water is a prevailing theme of the area.
And of course there’s a helicopter overhead. On my trip down on the bus, I passed a group of twenty policeman standing around a poor motorcyclist who was holding an icepack to his bloody nose. I suspect he was a victim of yet another attempted moped theft, there’s been a plague of them just lately, and some of them have involved acid.
In the very top pond, there was a cream-coloured waterlily, caught in a sunbeam.
And then I crossed the road into Granary Square, passing a fine flotilla of swans en route.
The big draw of Granary Square is the collection of dancing fountains. Parents were gathered on the benches, ready with big bath towels, while small children (and the occasional adult) ran through the water, squealing and dripping. There was also a very over-excited pug, who must have run about three miles while I was watching. It’s one of the few free things here that could be used by local people – the coffee bars and restaurants are expensive, but there’s room here for a picnic (on the steps down to the canal, or on one of the green spaces). Islington has less green space than any other London borough except for the City itself, so this is sorely needed.
But I wanted to see what else was going on. There’s a new square being built in one of the old warehouses, and in the photo below you can also see the top of a gas holder that’s being converted into flats.
There are more fountains here, though they are less ambitious than the ones in Granary Square.
Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.
But outside there is a fine lawn, edged with lavender and Mexican fleabane, and thronged with bees and the occasional butterfly.
However, it’s just around the corner from here that a real effort has been made with the wildlife planting. Each plant seems to have been chosen for its pollinator benefit, or to attract birds, and it seems to be working.
Lots of lovely nepeta
A flock of sparrows are feeding on the seeds. I always love it when birds do what they would do in the wild and find natural food.
There is a shallow river running right the way through the garden, ideal for birds to drink from and bathe in, and probably suitable for insects in the places where it runs most slowly.
The selection of plants is inspired. Below there are Michaelmas daisies, ideal for hoverflies and honeybees.
The hemp agrimony variant below is also a great late-summer plant for all manner of pollinators
I love this bed with another variant of Michaelmas daisy, plus some kind of Cow Parsley. Great for hoverflies, those underappreciated insects.
And there were even some wild strawberries for the humans (and the thrushes)
And here’s another view of the Gas Holder flats, and some pleached lime, which makes great cover for the sparrows.
However, in case the sparrows or other birds want a different home, here’s an interesting use of old CCTV camera boxes, which have been converted into nest boxes or places to roost.
So, I was very impressed. My one worry, from the pollinator point of view, would have been how much sunshine this spot receives, what with all the buildings towering around it, but it appears that some wasps weren’t bothered, because they’d made an underground nest right against the edge of one of the beds. For people who think that wasps are aggressive, please note that I took this short film from about three feet away, and they were much too busy to bother with a mere silly human.
I have been meaning to do a separate post on some of the other London wildlife hotspots around King’s Cross – the Camley Street Natural Park is a definite must-see, and so is the canal. But I didn’t really have time to do them both justice today, so they will have to wait for a future visit. However, I did take a short stroll along the canal to get another look at the blooming gas holders, with which I am obsessed. After negotiating a very bouncy temporary wooden walkway, and just about avoiding being mown down by runners and folks on Brompton foldaway bikes, I came to the old lock.
And here are the gasholders. Two of them have been converted into flats, and one of them is just a skeleton covering a park, which hunkers down in the shade of the buildings all around it.
Gas holder as flats
Gas holder as park
For anyone who is intrigued as to how a big round area can be converted into luxury flats, here is a link to the developer’s website. I imagine the prices will be way above the reach of the folk who used to live in the little houses and council estates around here.
On the way back, I passed the swans again, and they were in a very irritable mood. The adults hissed as I passed, and I thought they were complaining about the fact that I hadn’t brought them an offering, but actually they seemed to be fed up with their offspring, chasing them off when they got too close. I suspect that many human parents will be feeling the same way after six weeks of constant contact with the younger members of the family. I wonder if the swans are trying to tell their cygnets that it’s time for them to move out and find a pad of their own?
And then it was back to King’s Cross, which has one of the nicest, most space-age entrances to an underground station that I know.
And incidentally, the two people making their way down the corridor are two of my lovely neighbours H and L, which just goes to show that London is a much smaller place than everyone imagines.
In his book ‘London: A Biography’, Peter Ackroyd speculates about whether King’s Cross, a shabby and dangerous area for its entire history, will ever be able to cast off the stain of its past. It certainly looks shiny and happy at the moment, though the canal was always a dangerous vein through its heart, a place of dark acts even to this day. King’s Cross was previously an area favoured by creative people, because housing was cheap, and there was a great tolerance for the ‘eccentric’. The fact that St Martin’s School of Art is here, in Granary Square, gives me hope that this tradition will survive, at least. But will the tattered soul of King’s Cross survive the arrival of Google and the £3 artisan coffee? That remains to be seen.
Inside King’s Cross station