THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 2
“Old St Pancras Church Gardens in a snowfall, December 1986,” begins Angela Inglis’s elegy to King’s Cross and St Pancras, Railway Lands. “Dilapidated tombs with barely legible names. Through the gardens railings, seven gasholders in the distance. I am drawn to them. I walk through the gardens, turn right into Camley Street and enter Dickensian gloom beneath a rusting railway bridge where pigeon droppings fall onto sodden pavements.”
The tombs, which remain in the churchyard, tell a story of romance among the Romantics – William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft have a memorial tomb here, and their daughter Mary declared her love for Percy Shelley in the church’s gardens in 1814.
It is a peculiarly chameleonic place – radiant in the sun, but haunted by a spectral blue light at dusk. Its trees are extraordinary: aside from Hardy’s Tree, whose growth has unearthed row upon row of forgotten headstones, the limbs of the trees on the Euston Road side knot maniacally into one another, and the trees near the church are more like roods.
The memorial sundial, commissioned by the very charitable Baroness Burdett-Coutts, is like a decaying wedding cake – a wonderful Gothic monstrosity, overgrown with tiers of grass, yellowing weeds and dead flowers, surrounded by garish green rusted railings and guarded by four stone statues of lions and collie dogs, one of which has lost its face. The art-deco style Cecil Rhodes House on the other side of Pancras Road is one of the finest Council estates in London.
Yet twenty years on, the railings, the bridge and most of the gasholders in Inglis’s thumbnail have gone. Old St Pancras Churchyard welcomes you to a placeless place whose history is being erased.
A walk under the bridge takes you to Camley Street Natural Park, a sliver of land squeezed between rail, roads and canal. The park was landscaped on disused industrial wasteland in the mid 1980s by the GLC, which wanted to use the land for the local community. It is ingeniously laid out over two acres, so that you can sit at its edge, by the pond and alongside Regent’s Canal, and be almost surrounded by water. I was brought up in the country, but I still feel a bit jealous of the local children who get allured by its patchwork of grassy, cowslippy meadows, moist woodlands and reed-drenched ponds, its birds and bugs and sunbathing turtles.
Despite its tranquillity, it is perfectly attuned to the industrial landscape. Most of its surrounding gasholders have now been dismantled, but the bare brown brick coal and fish offices (designed and built by the Cubitts, the architects of King’s Cross) are still visible over the canal, their use to be decided by a boardroom of men in suits. Camley Street Natural Park, alone in this area in being largely unaffected by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, is a safe haven for examining the landscape across the King’s Cross and St Pancras and plotting the journey ahead.