When London Became An Island

Kings Cross was known as Battle Bridge in the early C19th. At that time legend had it that, almost 1800 years before, Queen Boudicca had made her last stand against the Roman conquerors at this point, but this now seems doubtful.

As we walk along we will pass a large building, which is, or was, property of the Post Office. Old warehouses backing on to the canal usually had some features worth looking at, this seems to have very few and no-one could say the colour scheme does much to lift the spirits (11). In fact it is only a partial screen of trees and moored and passing boats that improve the scene.

Shortly afterwards, after passing the fine new block intended for student living, we will arrive at St Pancras basin, home to the St Pancras Cruising Club, and St Pancras lock, which, had circumstances been different, may well have been named Agar’s lock. To the left, within Gasholder Park, you will see the renovated Gasholder No 8(12). It now stands at the centre of a development quite unlike all of the others that have been passed. Grass is thriving at the centre of the circle of columns that once guided the telescopic gas holder (13) and an unusual polished metal circle, itself supported on columns surrounds the green. Standing by the grass it is possible to see a reflection of the towpath and the canal itself (14).

The area behind St Pancras and Kings Cross railway stations was once home to the Imperial Gas Works, which is where Gasholder no 8 previously stood. Canals and the gas industry are inextricably linked and this was once the largest gas works in London. From 1822 until the early years of last century, gas was actually produced there. In the pre-natural gas era gas production demanded enormous amounts of coal, which, at first, came via the canal. However, after the establishment of the railway link between London and south Yorkshire, coal could be brought right to Kings Cross and the area north of the station was soon developed with this trade in view. Rather than destroying canal trade the new freight yards provided fresh opportunities for canal carriers, leading to the development of a substantial interchange between the Regents Canal and the railway. The coal mines of Yorkshire have now gone, the last deep mine at Kellingley having closed in December 2015, but memories of the old coal and gas links are remembered in names in the new developments. Coal Drops Yard is one, Gasholder Triplet another and a very evocative photograph was reproduced on one of the hoardings erected during the time of the next development you will come was under construction (15). There are some signs that the coal industry in England is not completely dead as a new deep mine has recently been given the go-ahead in Cumbria.

Interestingly, Hugh McIntosh, who undertook groundwork on long sections of the canal, was also involved in the gas industry. This started in London in 1812 and spread rapidly to other towns in England. McIntosh supplied the mains pipes installed in Carlisle, the first town in the old county of Westmorland (which, coincidentally, now forms part of Cumbria) to have a gas works.The Carlisle works had been up and running for a couple of years before coal began to be heated in the retorts of the Imperial. It is not surprising McIntosh took on the contract, his fingers had a wide geographical spread and he undertook all kinds of projects in the developing industrial infrastructure of early C19th Britain.

Much of the Kings Cross area is currently still subject to considerable redevelopment. A new terminal was opened for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at St Pancras station in 2007 and, although this caused some disruption when being constructed, it was nothing like that which occurred when the initial railway development took place. The line into St Pancras led to the clearance of some 4000 houses in Somers Town, St Pancras and Camden Town and it is estimated that 32,000 people were displaced. Compare that to the construction of the Regents Canal half a century earlier. Even a critic conceded that the line was certainly chosen, in some respects, very judiciously, as comparatively few houses are required to be taken down.

After St Pancras lock the canal curves towards Maiden Lane bridge. On the opposite bank is the Camley Street Natural Park, which is closed at the moment. When it re-opens it will be accessible by a new footbridge. Here the towpath has been substituted by a pleasant footpath at a higher level, to one side of which you will see the development of Coal Drops Yard, a venue of shopping and eating places. On the right of the path are renovated offices originally built to match the curve of the canal (16) and the words Coal Office is still visible on one of the gables (17). Disused for some time, like most of the old industrial and commercial buildings on the line, they were the victim of the decline and fall of canal traffic. The late Jack Whitehead, a local historian, took the view that the great freeze of 1962 -1963 was the point the when canal trade ceased to be a viable entity. With the canals frozen over many companies used road haulers to move their goods and did not return their custom to canal carriers afterwards. Even if there is a revival of the coal industry beyond Cumbria I very much doubt if we will ever see coal dust drifting over this part of the canal again.

A little beyond the coal office building are steps leading from the canal to the plaza, called Granary Square, in front of the Granary Building. A couple of years ago, when walking the towpath, I visited Word on the Water, the London Bookbarge, which was moored there (18). The Granary Building itself (19) was used to store grain brought down from Lincolnshire. Direct barge access from the canal was via tunnels. Now the building is used by the University of the Arts, London, but it is possible to go inside part of it and if you have the time and inclination why not walk between the rows of fountains and go through the main door. The cow shown in photograph 20 was, I presume, produced at the university, but I have no idea if it is related in any way to the one on the balcony near Grafton Bridge. Perhaps model bovines are tributes to unsung animal toilers. When canals were built they often had to be lined with clay to stop them leaking and the clay had to be ‘puddled’ to make it watertight. This meant pounding the material to increase plasticity, a hard job for navvies. Consequently, cattle were, probably unofficially, sometimes driven up and down the lining to help in the process. Puddling cows we salute you!

Part of the building to the west of Granary Square is called East Coal Drops. Perhaps surprisingly, the area became well known in the 1990s as being the venue of one of London’s largest clubs, called Bagleys. According to a display board on the wall of the passage which leads through the building, 2,500 clubbers could be packed in on some nights. Things seem a bit more sedate these days.

Return to the towpath and after passing beneath another concrete bridge (and by the Bookbarge, which has moved a hundred yards or so east) you will come to Maiden Lane, which is known as York Way today. The bridge, however, is still called Maiden Lane bridge. I took photograph 21 close to the bridge in order to show that Kings Cross railway terminal was built at a lower level than the canal. Rather than build a bridge in the manner of Robert Stevenson's line to Euston, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) decided to carry the canal over the permanent way by means of an aqueduct, which would certainly have meant GNR rail traffic would have been less frightening to passing barge horses.


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McIntosh