The other day I happened to come across the DVD of one of Mike Leigh’s lesser known films, High Hopes. From its opening scenes of a passenger emerging from the station’s old subway steps, I was instantly transported back to the King’s Cross that I once knew. It was filmed around Culross and Stanley buildings, two Victorian tenement blocks behind the station managed by Shortlife Community Housing, which rented out flats on a temporary basis to mainly young people during the 1970s and ‘80s.
Although the word shortlife was never mentioned, the film seemed to sum up the spirit of those times and its main protagionists, Cyril and Shirley, fit the shortlife profile – from their hatred of Maggie Thatcher to their wacky top floor pad that appears to have been furnished from a junk shop.
Cyril’s mum lives nearby in a street that is slowly being gentrified on account of its fine Victorian town houses and he bemoans the way the area has changed from the days of his childhood. (The vice-trade that plagued the whole area is not mentioned, though.) Her awful neighbours represent the first wave of incomers who may as well be holding their noses when they deign to talk to her.
At the end of the film, in which the angst of times past comes to a climax, the couple take Mum up onto the roof, which real life shortlife tenants turned into a garden. The spectacular view of St Pancras and King’s Cross, as was, elicits in the old lady a rare smile. It’s the top of the world, she declares.
High Hopes came out in 1988 and if Cyril and Shirley were to retrace their footsteps today they’d get lost. The cobbled streets that attracted Leigh as a location for the film have been obliterated, while the layout of the main surrounding roads has been completely altered. Familiar landmarks have disappeared and new buildings have sprung up or been refurbished, like the German Gymnasium that is glimpsed fleetingly in the film. The gleaming Channel Tunnel terminal at St Pancras dwarfs what’s left of Stanley Buildings, and by 2011 only one of the eight gasholders that it once overlooked remained. Now there are none although we are told three are to return in the form of wrap-arounds for new buildings.
Tenants from Stanley and Culross were moved out in 2001 as work to develop the new St Pancras International station began. They were either re-housed or received a sum of money depending on the size of their flat. One half of Stanley Buildings, which was built in 1864 as the first ‘luxury’ accommodation for the working classes, was completely demolished. Following protests from community groups, it looks as though the other half will be absorbed into the regeneration of the Goods Yard, the 67-acre brownfield site behind King’s Cross station.
The transformation of this part of King’s Cross began in earnest in 2002 and over the years I’ve been astonished at the speed of change. The distinctive coal drop arches on Pancras Road, that boasted a bear breasted ship’s figurehead over one of the workshops, were once a familiar, if ramshackle, landmark. I took a walk down there from Camden Town one day and they had completely disappeared. The little workshops and junkshops that lined the side of St Pancras Station were also soon gone. You never knew what you might come across when you walked that way. I once bought two bikes from a guy who did up old cycles and seemed to take great pleasure in selling them on for next to nothing. I wonder what happened to him? Then I noticed that the gasholders and the two St Pancras railway bridges had also been dismantled too.
All that is left in this part of King’s Cross is a small stretch of the arches on Pancras Rd selling ‘book shelf’s’ (sic) made to order and the like, and one half of Stanley Buildings, now propped up by scaffolding. So this was regeneration, the virtual erasing of an area whose presence I had taken for granted and not even bothered to record for posterity. For that I had to turn to the Railway Lands: Catching King’s Cross and St Pancras, Angela Ingliss’ 2006 photographic account of before and during reconstruction. Alongside her wonderful images, she has written explanatory texts and poems, which form a mournful farewell to King’s Cross’ Victorian heritage.
I, too, had a camera and I was determined not to be caught out again, even if the results would be less elegant than Ingliss’. When I heard that Culross was soon to be bulldozed, I managed to get a few shots of it through the wire fencing. When I went down the following weekend to get another glance nothing was left of it but a pile of rubble in the middle of an empty space.
After a lull induced by the credit crunch, the bulldozers are busy again, preparing the land immediately behind King’s Cross station, which itself is in the process of being refurbished. Locals had hoped that a new road linking the station and the Regent Canal would be named after Culross Buildings or at least have some local significance. But developers came up with King’s Cross Boulevard, just the sort of name for a new non-place that is to house the familiar regeneration mix of shops, offices and luxury apartments. As Lindsey Germain, co-author of A People’s History of London, said at a meeting in Houseman’s bookshop last July, King’s Cross will become the latest “temple to finance, consumption and private property” alongside Stratford and Canary Wharf.
A welcome public (but of course privately owned) space has been opened up on the Regent Canal in front of the Central St Martin’s School of Art’s new home in the refurbished Granary building. The canal has lent its name to the smartened up streets around York Way and Caledonian Roads – no longer King’s Cross but the Regent Quarter, another title plucked out of the developers’ manual. It will never catch on. Aside from the attractively scrubbed brickwork revealing plenty of decorative 19th century architectural work, there’s the usual new build private flats and offices with their ubiquitous grey metal window frames.
I walked down to King’s Cross from the Cally one Saturday night last summer and the place was buzzing with hip young professional types enjoying themselves in the many clubs and bars. Only a quarter mile up the road the Prince Albert pub represented a completely different world, mostly drawn from the nearby estates. As I was passing an altercation that had evidently started inside spilled out on to the pavement and one of the adversaries ended up being bottled. Very soon there were flashing lights from ambulance and police cars, while a small crowd gathered round the man now lying in a pool of blood. The other one had run off. There was nothing about the incident in the local press that week, so I guess this was, thankfully, a minor incident.
The Caledonian Rd canal bridge seems to serve as the demarcation line for the extent of the Regent Quarter. Beyond that lies the sprawling Bemerton Estate and the hodge podge of shops that make up the stretch of road towards Pentonville Prison. Someone wannabe mystic once told me that the street lies on a bad ley line, that’s why it always looks so depressing. But a brilliant BBC TV series, The Secret History of our Streets, focused on the Cally for one of its episodes, affectionately depicting it as home to a lively, close-knit community, exemplified by the Prince Albert and its friendly landlady Eileen.
The programme also talked about the 1970s campaign to save Balfe St, a part of Victorian King’s Cross that once housed people like Cyril’s mum, and still may do, as it was at one time all council housing. It has now been absorbed into the new Regent Quarter. In her follow up book King’s Cross, A Sense of Place, Angela Ingliss also discusses this campaign as well as a later battle to prevent the area’s wholesale demolition to site the international rail terminal at King’s Cross station. It was switched to St Pancras as a result.
The Regent Quarter is bordered to its east by York Way, a long stretch of road lining the railway tracks that was once a dimly lit edge land where drugs, kerb crawlers and prostitution flourished. Although it was not filmed there, York Way is the assumed backdrop for the 1986 film Mona Lisa and its depiction of the creepy vice trade. Its transformation was heralded by the construction of King’s Place, the canal-side arts centre cum Guardian headquarters a few years back. St Martin’s and a Pret a Manger branch followed soon afterwards.
The opening up of these once no-go areas is of course to be welcome but with gentrification comes the threat of sanitised emptiness too. The Regent Canal could be the railway lands’ saving grace, though. Despite some mediocre attempts to build private apartments towards Camden Town, it remains largely unspoilt. The Elm Village housing estate on one side, and St Pancras Church and Camley St Natural Park on the other would seem to prevent sterile corporate developments like Paddington Basin. Take a walk along it and you are immediately in a different world of nesting birdlife, exuberant weed growth and rough tow paths. Long may it last.