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
Categories: Landscape Design, Parks, Photography
20 comments On "King’s Cross Rising"
Thank you for the tour of your part of the world. I am way down in Australia and the daughter of an Englishman and enjoy hearing about his homeland.
Well, warmest greetings to you in Australia Margaret. Hopefully you can see we are embracing outdoor living Aussie-style, even if we have to pretend we have the appropriate weather for it!
I am astonished at what Kings Cross has become having last stayed there on a London visit 12 years ago. Then it was seedy indeed! Agree with you about the artificial grass but it does work well in this application. But the Gasholder iron structure is wonderful, enclosing and yet soaring. Not so sure about the mirrored pergola – a bit tizzy?
You would not recognise King’s Cross from your last visit Catherine. Even the station is vastly improved and the connection to St Pancras opposite. I believe the grass is just a summer thing and the stone steps are revealed again in autumn. The pergola is certainly a bit ‘tricksy’ (does that mean the same as tizzy?) but it’s dramatic, fun for kids and highly photogenic. I just wish I had taken mr SLR with me on my walk.
I love this post. It’s so exciting to see what can be done in highly urbanised spaces. My great grandma emigrated from this area [yes only one great!] just as the gasworks were being built, to escape the choking pollution. How things have changed. The gas storage ‘tank’ is so elegant and beautiful…who would have thought…and the gardens…simply gorgeous. Thanks Dan for the positive reminder that cities don’t have to be all cars and concrete.
You’re so right, Suzanne! This is definitely an example of urban regeneration done with appeal. Thanks for sharing part of your personal history; I find that people and the places they inhabit (or not) offer a powerful testament to what does and does not nourish human beings, the planet and the relationship between the two.
So pleased you had a connection with this post Suzanne. Many gas holders have disappeared from the landscape so it’s great to see these, not preserved, but incorporated into living, breathing homes and gardens for the public to enjoy and admire. We still have pollution in London, but not to the degree your grandmother would recognise.
Great Post about these little pockets of urban green spaces…I must take a look next time I am in the Great Wen..!
This is an achievable visit for me….am inspired to do so! Thanks!
Good! Look forward to hearing your thoughts. Have a lovely weekend Alison.
I was in the King’s Cross area twice last year and was surprised by the changes. I don’t recognise what you’ve documented in your post but perhaps some of these areas weren’t quite finished or I just wasn’t looking!
PS I love the mirror walls 😊
You must have a lot of very happy residents living amongst all this beauty. Applause to the leaders looking ahead and maintaining some beautiful green spaces to relax in with family and friends. 🙂
Thank you, that was an amazing tour of the area, I worked at BUPA King’s Cross in the early 1980’s and to say it has changed is an understatement. I am so glad that you have highlighted so many positives in the redevelopment, and so many varieties of plants in an urban area. It looks great and worth a visit.
What an interesting post – so enjoyed all the info you gave!!
What a coincidence: this past weekend I attended the inaugural “European Landscape Conference” (though I’m not a landscape architect or garden designer I must admit) which focussed on how to incorporate nature into an increasingly urban world so we and future generations will not lose touch with the former. (Intend to write my next post about the ELC) – The Kings Cross development was mentioned in some of the talks, not always in a positive light. Being a fan of the fountains on Granary Square myself, I really like what’s been done to the area. Thanks for your post, will have to seek out the Handyside Gardens! By the way: Do you know if the Skip Garden is still there? I was quite impressed with it a few years ago, but along with the construction site it may be gone now.
I didn’t see the skip garden I have to say Stefanie. I think it’s all too easy to knock developers: all design is subjective after all. The fact is that what’s been created is a hundred times better than what’s been in this location for the last 300 years. And much of it is in the public domain. Clearly the general public love it, which must be the proof of the pudding, plus there’s plenty for wildlife to enjoy too.
Agree, Dan. There was one particular charge against Granary Square: lovely fountains but next to no plants (the pleached trees on the far side excepted) – a wasted opportunity. As a plant lover I half agree but the “water ballet” of the fountains might be less impressive if obscured or plants might distract from it. Plus, there aren’t all that many free public spots in London for children to splash around in, certainly not on that scale. And while greenery and shade are nice in summer (and London isn’t short of these), for children in particular nothing beats running amongst jets of water. Still, I guess some solution could have been found to include more plants if the relevant people had wanted it. Next time around maybe.
There really needs to be a bit more of this around cities, it makes such a difference to the vibe of the area. It definitely makes living in the urban jungle a lot more enjoyable!
There really needs to be a lot more of this sort of thing in the cities, It definitely improves the vibe of the area and makes living in the urban jungle a lot more enjoyable. Bonus points for it e a zero cost option to use as well!