A Tour of Kings Cross

With social distancing continuing but lockdown easing now is a great time to explore London on foot. It is a great way to explore the city at the best of times but now is great as it is a fantastic socially distanced and low cost activity. Last week I took myself on a photo walk around Kings Cross. See Some of my highlights below and try it out for yourself. Click here for a labelled map.

Kings Cross Overview:

King’s Cross used to be called Battlebridge, named after a battle that may or may not have involved Queen Boudicca and the bridge over the river Fleet. However, it changed its name to Kings Cross in honour of King George IV. A significant geographical feature of the area are the railways. There are numerous stations along the Euston Road due to parliament not allowing major stations within the city of London. This resulted in the area being a key industrial area responsible for storing goods transported to London along the railways and canals.

Despite the supposed royal connections, Kings Cross has not been a royal area. It was the power house of London’s Industrial revolution and has a deep industrial, radical and music history. The industrial connection meant that it was the location of the Victorian Great Dust Heap made up of ground horse boas, coal dust and other deberie. This subsequently lead to cheap housing attracting artists, radicals, prostitutes and criminals; making the area an incubator for counter culture.

A photograph of Coal Drops Yard
Coal Drops Yard

Stop 1: Coal Drop Yard:

Begin the walk at Coal Drops Yard. This area probably symbolises the gentrification of Kings cross more than anywhere else; the luxury clothing stores and expensive food. However, the toilets are clean and there are tables that you can eat your own packed lunch at if you don't want to fork out £9 for a sandwich.

As the name suggests the warehouses here were once used to store the coal which once powered London after it had been transported down on the railways and canals from the North of England. The large arches needed to be big enough to house the train carriages whilst also allowing for air to circulate to clear the dusts. The yards could hold 15,000 tons of coal, the size of the operation reflecting the growing city's hunger for fuel.

Later the arches were transformed into warehouses. One of these warehouses was used by Bagley's, a Yorkshire firm which made glass bottles and decorative items and did well from the inter-war demand for inexpensive art deco domestic glassware. Later the warehouse was taken over by a film company, the name carried on and early raves were advertised as at Bagley's film studios. By the 1990s it was the biggest London rave venue.

A photograph of Granary Square
Granary Square

Stop 2: Granary Square

Next to Coal Drops Yard is Granary Square. Again as the name suggests the Granary building was mainly used to store Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers. Granary Square, was once the unloading ground for goods carried by canal. The goods yard’s former buildings have been converted, some into restaurants and bars and others into the Central St Martins campus, part of London’s University of the Arts. This area is great if you want to sit along the canal and have a picnic or a drink. However, much of this area is not actually public land. It is really a pseudo-public space meaning that the land is owned privately and have private security. If you want to protest here, take professional pictures or even fall asleep you will find yourself being moved on by security. Much of London is the same and is a threat to democracy and has a huge impact on homeless people in London.

Caledonia Road sign
Caledonia Road

Stop 3: Caledonia Road:

Once you have finished in Caledonia Road head eastwards towards Caledonia Road. This road was named after the Scottish workers who lived round this. Many of them worked as navies building the canals, railways and roads. Continue south down Caledonia Road until you reach Charles I pub.

Stop 4: Charles I pub:

Many radical movements and revolutionary thoughts have been facilitated by a boozer. King Charles I pub is no different and is a great example of local, grassroots activism. When the pub was threatened with closure 15 regulars bandied together to buy it.

Housmans Bookshop

Stop 5: Housmans Books:

Continue down Caledonia Road and you will reach Housmans Books. It originally opened on 26 October 1945 when writer and playwright Laurence Housman wanted to open a bookshop to promote ideas of peace, human rights and a more equal economy. However, it was not until 1958 when they opened at number 5 Caledonian Road. In the years that followed the bookshop has continued to be involved with protest movements. For example, both CND and the Gay Liberation Front operated from the premises whilst the shop has also raised funds for the miners strike in 1984 and the Stop the War Coalition in 2003. Check them out below.


Photograph of Big Chill bar
Big Chill

Stop 5: Big Chill - The Bell

Take a left at the traffic lights and head toward a pub call The Big Chill. This bar was once called The Bell and was a legendary LGBT pub. Solidarity meetings between the gay community and the miners during the miners' strike (1984-5) were held here. The creation of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was a turning point for gay rights as it begun ties with the trade unions. The Bell raised double the money (£1500) than any other venue for the campaign.

Stop 6: The Scala

Retrace your steps and stop outside. It originally began construction before WW1 but was used to manufacture aircraft parts and then was used to station demoralised troops. It finally opened as a cinema in 1920. Through the ages it has shown art house films, adult movies and music. Famously in 1972 it hosted the only UK concert by Iggy & The Stooges. All photographs featured on the album sleeve for 'Raw Power' were taken that night. Also the cover shot for Lou Reed's Transformer were taken here. Today the Scala is one of London's great music venues and have had some amazing nights here. The list of musicians who have played here are endless and included Foo Fighters, The Killers and Gorillaz to name a few.

Stop 7: Lighthouse

On the main junction overlooking Kings Cross station is The Lighthouse. A strange sight for the centre of London and a landmark shrouded in mystery. Apparently it was built to promote Netten’s oyster bar, which occupied the ground floor. Apart from why it was built, no one actually knows when it was built and the dates most frequently referenced are 1884 and 1875. During the 1980s, when much of this area was seen as London’s red light district, heroin was apparently sold, disguised as burgers, from the fast food joint below the lighthouse. Again, this is an anecdote that is hard to reference or prove but is certainly plausible and likely to have more than a grain of truth in it. Now cross the junction and head southwards down Grays Inn Road.

Photograph of The Scala music venue from the outside
The Scala
A photograph of the top of the lighthouse in Kings Cross
The Lighthouse

Stop 7: The Water Rat:

Along Grays Inn Road is the Water Rat. Bob Dylan played here on his first trip to Britain. The pub, now called the 'Water Rats' and is still a music venue. They loudly proclaim that it hosted Dylan's first British gig although this is hard to prove. They also state that both Karl Marx and Lenin drank here; claims that may be true but are from watertight. Marx after all wrote ‘Des Capita’ in the British Library Reading Rooms whilst Lenin lived nearby.

Now turn down Argyle street.

Stop 8: Argyle Square:

You are now standing on the site of one of London’s most infamous Dust Heaps. Today, it is hard to imagine the scale of these mountains of refuse, which provided both a health hazard and an eyesore to the centre of London.

However, it has never been a high status area and and from 1827 there were complaints of bad behaviour and prostitution. From the 1860s the neighbourhood declined further with many of the properties being transformed into ‘hotels’ which were actually brothels. Booths poverty maps of the are in 1889 coloured the square red, meaning houses “with two servants” but the rest of the neighbourhood was coloured black – “semi-criminal” – or blue – “chronic want” – or purple – “working class comfort.”

Prostitution remained, so that by the 1980s Argyle Square had become a by-word for vice in London, asserting Kings Cross’s connection with prostitution and the accompanying criminal underworld

Continue along Argyle Street, turn left onto Whidborne Street and walk until you reach Holy Cross church.

A photograph of The Water Rats pub
The Water Rats
A photograph of the exterior of Holy Cross Church
Holy Cross Church

Stop 9: Holy Cross Church:

As mentioned this area was once the centre of London’s red light district. The sex workers were often vulnerable being treated brutally by both pimps and the police.

In 1982 sex workers occupied Holy Cross Church for 12 days in a protest against police harassment. They were inspired by prostitute women who in 1975 occupied churches all over France.

A photograph looking up at the Camden Town Hall
Camden Town Hall

Stop 9: Camden Town Hall

Make your way back to Euston Road and you will see Camden Town Hall. This was the location of another political occupation. This time protesters were campaigning against the sub standard council housing provisions; after a family had perished from a fire in the B&B they were being housed in.

Stop 10: Euston Palace of Variety

Next to the town hall there once stood the Euston Palace of Variety which opened in 1900 and had a capacity of 1,310 people. The theatre was ideally located as it could cater to the highly populated and predominantly working class area and was opposite the station which allowed easy transport for wealthier punters traveling from the suburbs. Music Hall was one of the first forms of popular entertainment for the masses, producing the pop stars of the era. Cross the main road and head round the back of the station. You will see a bird cage next to the German Gymnasium.

Stop 11: German Gymnasium:

The German Gymnasium was England’s first purpose-built exercise hall opened in 1865. It cost £6,000 and was funded by the city’s German population. The creation of this space was a highly influential moment in the development of British athletics. The indoor events of Olympics forerunner the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1866 were held here. It was also a pioneering space as during the same year it was used as the location for dedicated women’s classes: a rarity in the nineteenth-century.

A photograph of the German Gymnasium
German Gymnasium
A photograph of the Euston Palace of Verity
Euston Palace of Verity

You have now finished the tour and thanks for reading this far. You can get the train back from here. However, I would recommend grabbing yourself a drink of something and sitting along the Regents Canal. There are plenty of places to grab a coffee or another drink. For Coffee I would recommend redemption roasters and if you fancy a pint Beer and Burger serve an excellent selection of craft beer. If you resent paying £3 for a coffee or £5 for pint there is a Waitrose near Granary Square where you can pick up something cheaper. I guess when that's your cheap option you know an area has been gentrified.

If you have found this useful of interesting please give this a share. Happy adventuring!

Anyway, stay safe and stay free.

Link to marlked map - https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1x9E4FoN1ETmhv65PKfnYUfNOLpQsyLxW&usp=sharing