Although I class myself as a country boy, I have spent the majority of my life living as an urbanite. I count myself lucky to have spent the last twelve years in London, witnessing the capital’s unrelenting, exciting reinvention. Seemingly impervious to recessions and economic turbulence, areas once considered unsavoury are now described in terms of ‘hip’, ‘edgy’ and ‘innovative’. Even Archway, the urban centre closest to where I live, is being revitalised in a way I never imagined possible.
When I was at university the area around London’s King’s Cross station, three miles down the road from Archway, was a seedy, decaying, post-industrial no-go area. How things have changed. Twenty years on Kings Cross is quite the place to live, work, shop and relax, boasting parks and gardens that are genuinely vibrant and modern. It’s a whole new piece of London with a brand new postcode, N1C.
It was ultimately the move of the Eurostar terminal from Waterloo to St Pancras that triggered the development of neighbouring King’s Cross. The fashion for industrial architecture and the need for large office spaces made 67 acres of land, cupped by the Regent’s Canal and served by two major stations, especially appealing. Happily the developers understood the importance of creating an impressive, beautiful, extensive public realm from the outset, preserving 40% of the site for designed open spaces. A thorough account of these could fill a book. Assuming you may not have time to read such a tome, here’s a very brief introduction to some of my favourite King’s Cross green spots.
Constructed where once barges offloaded their cargo, this imposing public square is the epicentre of King’s Cross. The main event is the layout of 1,000 fountains which are choreographed so that they begin the day cool and misty and end the day with a spectacular light show. On warm days, like this Monday, the square becomes an urban beach, with children and adults dodging (or not!) the jets of cooling water. In the background is Central Saint Martins, the world-famous art school that produced Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Jarvis Cocker, Lucian Freud and Antony Gormley.
Although I am not a huge fan of artificial grass I particularly like the wide, south-facing steps sweeping down from the square to the canalside. The steps sometimes set the scene for performances and installations, but on hot days they are amply utilised for casual gatherings and all-important tan topping-upping.
This is my favourite public space within King’s Cross. If I had the means to move here, into one of the fabulous apartments designed by Wilkinson Eyre, I would. The Pancras Gasworks were built in the 1850s and were finally decommissioned in the year 2000. Gasholder No. 8, the largest of the iconic structures that once dominated Kings’ Cross’ skyline, provides the monumental framework to a lawned park bounded by a circular, mirrored pergola.
When the redevelopment of King’s Cross began the beautiful cast iron structure was dismantled piece by piece, painstakingly restored in Yorkshire and moved to a new home north of the canal two years later. This is contemporary landscape architecture of the highest quality, realised by Bell Phillips Architects with planting by Dan Pearson.
Dan Pearson rears his tousled head once again at Handyside Park, where he has fashioned a serpentine public space from a straggly strip of land between Waitrose and smart new apartment buildings. The plan of the park reflects the pattern of railway sidings that once ran through the site, while the planting is inspired by flora commonly found along railway embankments.
The railway has, necessarily, also influenced the technical design of the gardens. The tunnels that run from the north into King’s Cross Station are just 4.5 metres below ground level. This limits the depth of the soil and the number of trees that can be planted. Raised beds, bordered with corten steel, are packed with masses of billowing perennials, shrubs and trees. I especially enjoy the snaking rill which makes its way from the sandy playground at the northern end of Handyside Gardens, through a decked seating area, arriving clear and clean at the southern end.
Guided tours of King’s Cross’ public spaces are bookable online, including on the ‘Open House’ weekend of the 17th and 18th September.
Handyside Gardens Plant List
1 COMMON BOX Buxus sempervirens
2 COMMON HORNBEAM Carpinus betulus
3 JAPANESE CORNELIAN CHERRY Cornus officinalis
4 HUMMINGBIRD FUCHSIA Fuchsia magellanica
5 CRANESBILL Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’
6 ENGLISH IVY Hedera helix
7 ST PATRICK’S CABBAGE Saxifraga ‘London Pride’
8 IBERIAN COMFREY Symphytum ibericum
9 SERVICEBERRY Amelanchier ‘Ballerina’
10 CHINESE HAWTHORN Crataegus pinnatifida var ‘Major’
11 HARDY KIWI Actinidia arguta ‘Shoko’
12 HARDY KIWI Actinidia arguta ‘Unchae
13 BARRENWORT Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’
14 ALPINE STRAWBERRY Fragaria vesca
15 GREAT WOODRUSH Luzula sylvatica ‘Marginata’
16 HART’S-TONGUE FERN Asplenium scolopendrium
17 WHITE WOOD ASTER Aster divaricatus (below)
18 LENTEN ROSE Helleborus x hybridus ‘White Lady Spotted’
19 PURPLE OSIER Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders’
20 MALE FERN Dryopteris felix-mas
21 WITCH HAZEL Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’
22 EUROPEAN WOOD OATS Chasmanthium latifolium
23 WALLICH MILK PARSLEY Selinum wallichianum (below)
24 FRINGE CUPS Tellima grandiflora ‘Purpurteppich’
25 TREE PEONY Paeonia delavayi
26 SIBERIAN MELIC Melica altissima ‘Alba’
27 CHINESE SUMAC Rhus chinensis
28 PURPLE STONECROP Sedum ‘Jose Aubergine’
29 IRONWEED Vernonia crinita ‘Mammuth’
30 PURPLE SMOKE BUSH Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’
31 HIMALAYAN INDIGO Indigofera heterantha
32 JAPANESE BURNET Sanguisorba hakusanensis
33 ANGEL’S FISHING ROD Dierama pulcherrimum ‘Merlin’
34 AGAVE-LEAVED SEA HOLLY Eryngium eburneum
35 RUSSIAN SAGE Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘ Little Spire’
36 DOG VIOLET Viola riviniana
37 MEXICAN FLEABANE Erigeron karvinskianus
38 ELEPHANT’S EARS Bergenia ‘Overture’
39 SWEET BOX Sarcococca ruscifolia ‘Dragon’s Gate’
40 PERENNIAL ANGELICA Angelica edulis
41 JAPANESE ANEMONE Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’
42 MASTERWORT Astrantia ‘Roma’
43 RED BISTORT Persicaria amplexicaule ‘Firetail’
44 GOLDEN COLUMBINE Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Star’
45 CULVER’S ROOT Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’
46 STRIPED HEMLOCK Molopospermum peloponnesiacum
47 PURPLE BERGENIA Bergenia purpurascens ‘Helen Dillion Form’
48 BLUE FLOWERED LEADWORT Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
49 FALSE INDIGO Baptisia australis ‘Purple Smoke’
50 SEA HOLLY Eryngium eburneum
51 ORNAMENTAL OREGANO Origanum ‘Herrenhausen’
52 BROWN DEER SWITCHGRASS Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’
53 LAMB’S EARS Stachys lanata
54 CALICO ASTER Aster lateriflorus ‘Prince’
55 STARWORT Aster turbinellus (below)
56 DAFFODIL Narcissus ‘Jenny’
57 STRAWBERRY GRAPE Vitis vinifera ‘Fragola’
58 SILVER VINE Actinidia polygama
59 QUAMASH Camassia leichtlinii ‘Semiplena’
60 STAR OF PERSIA Allium cristophii (albopilosum)
61 JONQUIL Narcissus ‘Pipit’
62 PURPLE MOOR GRASS Molinia caerulea ‘Transparent’
63 PERENNIAL HONESTY Lunaria rediviva
64 ARKANSAS BLUE STAR Amsonia hubrichtii
65 RIVER BIRCH Betula nigra