Welcome to another instalment of “The Old, the New, and the Wonderful”, where I take an area of London, and share it with you in three quick and easy stops! All within walking distance so you can explore them for yourself when you’re next in the area. Today, we’re looking at King’s Cross.
The Old: British Library
This one’s an odd one, because it’s some really, really old stuff in a relatively new building (1999). The British Library is home to an astounding collection of over 170 million items, stretched over 746km of shelving and spanning 3,000 years of history. As a legal deposit library, they receive a copy of every publication issued in the UK, including digital! Apparently, this means that the collection continues to grow by about 8km of shelving a year. It’s an operation on a mind-boggling scale. To try and put it in a slightly more understandable context, if you were to look at five items in the Library every day…
It would take you about 80,000 years, to see the entire collection.
Some of the treasures of the British include an edition of William Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), a copy of Magna Carta (1215), and the original, hand-written lyrics of some of the Beatles’ most famous songs, including I Want To Hold Your Hand and Yesterday (1960s). It’s also not just documents which the Library holds (as you may have already gathered, the British Library is not your standard library). They have many other items related to literature and language, such as locks of hair from not one, but several, notable authors, including Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte. The oldest items in the collection are more than 450 Chinese oracle bones, dating back to 1300 to 1050 BC.
Why don’t we do a mini “Old, New, and Wonderful” for the British Library Collection, if that’s not too meta?
A very old one is the sole surviving Medieval manuscript of Beowulf, from the early eleventh-century. This is the earliest known copy of the Old English epic poem, which makes dating its original composition quite tricky. Some historians believe it was written as early as the eighth-century, some same it is contemporary with the manuscript in the British Library. Either way, it’s an invaluable text.
For the “new”, we’re looking at a new acquisition. Last year (2021), the British Library acquired a number of books illustrated by the wonderful Tove Jansson. Most famous for her Moomin creations. The titles now in the British Library collection include Swedish translations of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, both published in the 1960s.
Unfortunately the former wasn’t particularly well-received because Jansson departed quite significantly from Tolkien’s descriptions. Gollum, for example, was depicted as something almost half troll, half green man, and probably about twice the size of your average human. Not exactly the Gollum we all know and love. The illustrations show Jansson’s expansive imagination, but unfortunately her version of The Hobbit never made it past the first edition. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was much more popular. She captured the magic of Wonderland, while also keeping the underlying dreamlike and sometimes unsettling character of the story.
(Photos: British Library)
I think for the “wonderful”, I’ll go for the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho. A phenomenal man of the eighteenth-century – a writer, abolitionist, grocery store owner, and the first known person of African descent to vote in a British general election.
Sometimes it’s hard to connect to historical figures, to see and understand them beyond being names and facts on a page. Letters can help us do that, especially when they’re written in the person’s own hand. For example, we know that Sancho was not one to be impressed by flowery language – “I hate fine hands – & fine language. Write plain honest nonsence like thy True Friend I. Sancho” – and we get a sense in his letters of his absolute adoration for his wife Anne. They ran the grocery shop together in Westminster. In his letter dated 11th March 1779, he describes his beloved Anne, how “to my inexpressible happiness – she is my wife & truly best part – without a single tinge of my defects”. There are also letters written by their daughter, Elizabeth, in this very precious collection – a rare example of writing by a Black woman in nineteenth-century England.
We’ve talked a lot about what the British Library has, but understandably less advertised is what the Library has lost. As of 2009, there were about 9,000 titles on that list, including a luxury edition of Mein Kampf produced for Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939 and a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which disappeared in 1961. It’s not clear if they’ve been relocated since!
What’s wonderful about the British Library is that the Treasures of the Library are absolutely free to visit and its collection is publicly accessible – you just need a Reader Pass. It’s only their special temporary exhibitions which you have to pay extra for and it’s normally well-worth it!
The New: Gas Holders
Next, the Gas Holders. Something old which has been given a new lease of life. King’s Cross has been utterly transformed over the last decade, but from the nineteenth-century it was a huge industrial yard. Think warehouses, railways, and by 1900 the largest gas works in London, and you can start to imagine how different King’s Cross once was.
To reach the Gas Holders, you would have walked through much of the impressive redevelopment. The old Granary Building – once mainly a store for wheat from Lincolnshire, now home to leading arts and fashion college, Central Saint Martins. Slightly behind the Granary Building, to the right, is the East Handyside Canopy – previously used for the unloading and wholesale of potatoes, now a Waitrose cookery school. And the very photogenic Coal Drops Yard – formerly a coal store, and now one of London’s hottest new shopping destinations, transformed by architect Thomas Heatherwick. That spot at the top, where the undulating roofs meet, is a Samsung shop, complete with dry-cleaning wardrobes and smart fridges.
The Gas Holders are slightly further west from Coal Drops Yard. They are some of the most unique conversions to happen in King’s Cross. I mean, who ever thought there would be people living in old gas holders??
If you’re facing the Gas Holders with the canal to your back, the one on the far left is also now a public park which is quite a clever use of space! The park is Gasholder No.8 and the other three are Nos.10, 11, and 12. Those three are sometimes known as “The Triplets” because the frames are all joined together. The Triplets have been converted into flats, designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Flats are obviously a functional and sensible thing to do with this space, but in the competition to redesign the gas holders, one of the gems we missed out on was a series of giant slides and a rooftop trampoline!
The gas holders were part of Pancras Gasworks, built by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company. Gasholder No.8 (the garden) was built in the 1850s and 10, 11, and 12 in the 1860s, although all the frames of all 4 were rebuilt in the 1870s and 1880s to enlarge them. They weren’t actually located here, but on the other side of the canal – a vast site, covering 11 acres at its height in 1900.
For the redevelopment, four of the gas holders were saved – the ones we have here today. They were dismantled and shipped to Shepley Engineers in Yorkshire. Shepley’s had to hire an extra four employees and three apprentices to manage all the work. No.8 on its own took two years to restore. A mammoth task.
The Wonderful: Camley Street Natural Park
Now, turn around from the Gas Holders, cross the canal and you will find the very cool Camley Street Natural Park.
Who would ever have anticipated this precious natural oasis in the centre of London? Two acres of wild green space which has very recently reopened!
Complete with ashes and oaks, wildflowers, ponds, reed-beds, and little dens and alcoves for local wildlife, like kingfishers, frogs, and stag beetles. They are even working on a new butterfly and invertebrate bank.
It’s run by the London Wildlife Trust and is part of the old coal yard which I mentioned earlier. It was actually the site of a rival coal drops from the 1860s, which took a lot of business from the King’s Cross drops (where the Heatherwick roofs are). As we moved away from the use of coal in the twentieth-century, however, the site gradually fell into a state of disrepair in the 1970s and ’80s. Thankfully, it was at that point that the site was saved from becoming a coach park and transformed into a nature reserve which opened in 1985.
It was Jacqui Stearn, at the time a local student, who had written her thesis on wastelands, who imagined what the former industrial site could be: a nature park.
Her vision prompted a project with the Greater London Council, with Stearn as the first full-time project officer, which cost £2.5 million in today’s money, but one which is arguably invaluable in what it provides Londoners, both human and animal, to this day! It was a full community project, with help from local residents and school children, complete with a barbecue or some other kind of celebration every time they hit a construction milestone. Wonderfully, Stearn also became the park’s first warden. In 2017, it was closed for renovation, including the construction of a new Visitor and Learning Centre (complete with bird and bat boxes) and better accessibility, so it’s all looking refreshed and new!
It’s absolutely free (although donations are encouraged) and you can find more information about visiting here.
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Camley Street Natural Park
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- ‘Camley Street Natural Park’, London Wildlife Trust, (accessed 10/01/2022)