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A Walk Through Historic London

Message From PD&R Senior Leadership
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A Walk Through Historic London

By Cindy Campbell

Cynthia Campbell.Cynthia Campbell, Director of PD&R's International and Philanthropic Affairs Division.

I recently went on vacation to two of my favorite cities in the world: London and Paris. Both cities offer great museums (I’m a huge art fan) and plenty of sightseeing. My favorite thing to do, however, is simply to walk through the city streets, where stunning architecture is visible everywhere you turn. While in London, I visited the King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard. Located adjacent to the King’s Cross tube station and the St. Pancras International rail station, this area had been long neglected before this revitalization initiative.

This project is one of the city’s largest redevelopment projects; the full transformation took approximately 20 years and, from my standpoint, was quite successful. King’s Cross has been a vibrant transportation hub since 1820, when Regent’s Canal was completed. At the time, the canal system was the primary method for transporting products from northern England to London. The area is now an idyllic setting, with green space facing the canal. Although the weather was extremely cold during my January visit, the urban setting was lovely, with plenty of open space for residents and visitors to enjoy.

The site was named Coal Drops Yard because coal from South Yorkshire would arrive on boats traveling the Regent’s Canal. These boats would offload the coal, which would be stored in various sheds around the site. Until the advent of electricity, Londoners needed coal delivered to their homes, and even today, plenty of coal holes still exist on London’s streets. I love looking at the unique designs of these coal holes, especially those with intact glass panels.

The expansive redevelopment transformed the old coal sheds into retail space and added housing and public spaces. Although the project incorporates new construction, the developers preserved as much of the area’s historic footprint as possible. The King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard offers a variety of retailers and restaurants, including a pop-up curling club during the winter months. Visitors have a great view of the fun from the second floor of the retail area. The canal itself features a floating bookstore, Word on the Water.

In the main square, Granary Square, stands the old Granary Building, part of the original 1852 Goods Yard complex. This building was used for grain storage, supplying wheat for London’s bakers. The old train tracks and turntables outside of the building, used to load carts that would then ship goods to the city, are still present. The building now houses Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London.

King's Cross Coal Drops Yard (foreground) and the Gasholders apartments (background).King's Cross has been an important transportation hub in London for two centuries. Today, following a 20-year redevelopment effort, legacy infrastructure has been repurposed for housing, retail, and public space, including the King's Cross Coal Drops Yard (foreground) and the Gasholders apartments (background). Photo credit: Alex Liivet from Chester, United Kingdom, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the development’s unique buildings is the Gasholders London apartment/condominium project. The gasholders — enormous gas tanks constructed in 1867 and used until 2000 — were part of the industrial park at King’s Cross. The developers salvaged the tanks’ frames for the apartment/condominium project. This link features a video showing how the developers restored the column and frames of the tanks, including removing 40 layers of paint. Workers disassembled the frame and moved it to a warehouse for restoration, after which it was reinstalled as the frame for the new apartment building. Although this project is not affordable housing, the master plan for the area incorporates affordable housing units, including student housing.

The final stop on my London vacation was the St. Pancras International rail station, where I boarded the Eurostar train to Paris. This Victorian train station is attached to what was once the Midland Grand Hotel, which opened in 1876 as one of the first dedicated rail hotels. The hotel closed in 1935 because it was built without indoor bathrooms, which meant that the hotel had to maintain a cadre of additional staff to empty chamber pots — a measure that was neither economically feasible nor desired by modern hotel guests. After the hotel closed, the building was used for railway offices. Although considerable pressure existed to tear down the building and redevelop the area, the support and advocacy of a historic preservation group, the Victorian Society, saved the building, which was given historic designation in 1967. After a few decades of use by the railway company, the building was restored to use as a hotel in 2011, opening as the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. The magnificent lobby was originally the car and carriage dropoff area, which has since been covered. The restaurant is the old ticket office, and the original ticket office windows are still visible behind the bar.

The St. Pancras International rail station, along with the hotel, was also slated to be demolished; by the 1960s, it had fallen into disrepair and disuse. This grand rail station survived the Blitz with little damage, but the rail station was not as robust as it had been in the past. The station’s fate changed with the opening of the Channel Tunnel, known as the Chunnel, which links the United Kingdom to major European cities by high-speed rail. My trip from London to Paris took less than 3 hours. I must acknowledge the efforts of Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 to 1984, who was instrumental in saving the station. A wonderful statue in the station depicts Betjeman holding his hat and looking at the grand architecture surrounding him. Betjeman was an architecture enthusiast, authoring guidebooks on architecture and serving as a founding member of the Victorian Society. Thank you, Sir Betjeman — this American appreciates your efforts to save this grand old Victorian station.
Published Date: 6 February 2024

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.