For over 140 years the Regents Canal linked King’s Cross, one of the industrial heartlands of north London, to the major industrial cities of the North. The waterways no longer form a vital industrial transport artery, but after a period of decline and dereliction, they are seeing a renaissance, as the Kings Cross Regeneration enters an exciting new stage.

Past

The canal was built by John Nash, who shaped much of Regency London, including Regent Street, Regents Crescent and Buckingham Palace, so yeah, kind of a big deal! Named after the Prince Regent, the canal opened in 1820 to great fanfare. It linked the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm to the Thames at Limehouse, to transport coal, goods and building materials to London.

It was the interminable march of railway development across the UK that sparked the beginning of the end for the canal. There were even unsuccessful attempts to turn the canal into a railway. The final death knell came during the especially harsh winter of 1962/3, where the canal completely froze over, meaning no cargo could move on it for weeks. The canal traffic was shifted onto road and never moved back completely. By the late 1960s commercial traffic had all but vanished.

Granary Square Kings Cross regeneration

New spaces grace King’s Cross, such as Granary Square. Image Credit: Evan Parker

Present

In the 21st century the main traffic is by foot on the public towpath, popular with walkers and cyclists. Despite the odd near miss with cyclists, it is a pleasant place to walk. Journeys along the canal are also made by boat, with boat trips from Little Venice to Camden being especially popular.

The Regents canal was established as a conservation area in 2006, preserving many fine surviving examples of 19th and 20th century British industrial architecture. Developers are today transforming former wastelands into 20 new streets, 10 public squares or spaces and 2000 homes as part of the King’s Cross central project. Businesses have copped onto the resurgence of the area and the new BNP Paribas headquarters is nearing completion, taking advantage of fast Eurostar links to France from the neighbouring King’s Cross St Pancras International. Google has committed itself to the area, eschewing the much-hyped Silicon Roundabout for a new £650m UK headquarters, running 330 metres down Kings Boulevard to the canal.

Granary Square provides a focus for the area, with sweeping steps running down to the canal. Here Kings Cross is rapidly establishing itself as an arts hub, with an impressive trio of establishments. The prestigious Arts Fund moved from swanky South Kensington to the formerly down-at-heel King’s Cross in 2013, probably ruffling a few feathers in the process! The aforementioned Granary building in the heart of the square houses the University of the Arts London, bringing a flood of creative people into the area. Tucked away in the corner of the square in a refurbished railway office is the House of Illustration, a hub for illustration in London.

This sense of dynamism and creativity has flooded over into the surrounding area, with artwork found along the canal, from temporary street furniture, such as Granary Square’s grass steps installation or even poetry along the canal wall.

Regent's Canal Kings cross regeneration

Foxy poetry can be found along the canal pathway! Image Credit: Evan Parker

Along the pathway many interesting pieces of sustainable architecture can be found. Shrimpy’s at The Filling Station is a temporary restaurant set in a former petrol station. It is stunningly lit at night and indicative of how the most mundane and least treasured parts of our landscape can become something beautiful and interesting.

Kings Cross Regeneration Filling Station

Kings Cross pit stop to fill up your tank with food. Image Credit: Matt Kieffer

Leafy Camley Street Natural Park is sandwiched between the Regents Canal and the no mans land that is the back end of St Pancras International. It is surprisingly expansive for a park so secluded. Its newest addition is Viewpoint, a floating platform designed by young Finnish architects. Modelled on the rocky islands found in Finland, the ’islet’ seating provides a suitable retreat from the hubbub of King’s Cross – depending on whether you can find the blimming thing that is!

Camley Street Natural Park Alternative London walking tours

Peace and quiet on a floating canalside retreat. Image Credit: Evan Parker

Future

King’s Cross may have changed irrevocably already, but there is much more to come. The Pavilion will be a restaurant space overlooking the canal, with panoramic views of Granary Square and new routes to the canal path. Its pared back exposed brick and steel design will fit into the square snugly and provide a new focal point for dining.

Sadly, plans were killed off for an all glass footbridge over the Regents Canal, designed by Olympic cauldron designer Thomas Heatherwick. Made of 1000 sheets of glass supporting its own weight, it would have been a world first. But, during the recession, its £5 million price tag was hardly justified. The good news is that Heatherwick has recently been commissioned to build a revised bridge at the same location. Expect something less shiny and glassy, but spectacular nonetheless.

Glass bridge quirky London
Glass bridge that will sadly never be…. Image Credit: Archello

After much neglect, the industrial heirlooms of Kings Cross are finally being preserved and given a new lease of life. West of Granary Square, after holding gas for over 100 years, the grade II listed Kings Cross Gasholder No.8 is being refurbished to form a landscaped park, right on the banks of the Regents Canal. Once a common feature of industrial Britain, gasholders have been disappearing for decades and so it is encouraging that this part of our industrial heritage is staying.

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Grade II listed Victorian gasholders. Image Credit: Evan Parker

Overlooked by the Gasholders, the Coal Drops once stored coal that powered London’s homes. Now they are being transformed into an exciting retail and bar quarter to rival nearby Camden Town, preserving the Victorian brick arches and cobbled streets.

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Shop till you drop at the coal drops! Image Credit: OnePercent4Art

Indeed, taking the neighbouring areas, it was only a matter of time before King’s Cross was regenerated. From King’s Cross, a one-mile walk east takes you to Islington and the buzzing Upper Street, while a walk west takes you to Camden Lock. King’s Cross has a decidedly classier and trendier feel than both that looks to persist for the foreseeable future. Maybe then the Regents Canal will become the jewel in the crown for Kings Cross.