A pretty short one today; partly due to the fact that I dropped my phone shortly after leaving the house, and then cut my thumb open on the smashed screen. I also lingered rather longer than anticipated in the British Library, from where this walk begins before crossing the Euston Road and making a brief foray into the St Pancras area south of the eponymous station.
Before we kick off though the shaded area in the map below shows what we’ve covered so far. As someone once said – this could take a while.
As already noted, the starting point today is the British Library which divorced itself from the British Museum and moved to this purpose-built site on the Euston Road in 1997 (the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century). I don’t think it’s in any way controversial to describe the building itself as uninspiring – not helped by the unflattering comparison with its majestic neighbour, the Renaissance (formerly Midland Grand) Hotel of which more in a minute. Someone must like it though as it was granted Grade 1 listed status this year.
The BL collection comprises more than 150 million items adding around 3 million each year. This takes up 625km of shelf space and requires a further 12km every year.
The statue in the picture above on the left is a representation of Sir Isaac Newton by artist Eduardo Paolozzi “after the style of William Blake”. Funding for this was provided by a grant from pools companies, Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters. This was just one year after the start of the National Lottery which was ultimately responsible for forcing the three pools companies to merge into one and effectively disappear off the public radar.
As I said I spent longer than intended at the BL. This was down to visiting the recently-opened “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” exhibition, which I can thoroughly recommend (it’s on until 16 February 2016).
The mask in the right-hand picture above is of a kind used in masquerade rituals in Burkina Faso and northern Mali. The black and white pattern represents the importance of learning – black signifying the deep knowledge of the elders and the white the lack of knowledge of the youth. ( I think we can all get with that particular message).
Anyway, I finally leave the library and make a quick up-and-down Midland Road which separates the library from St Pancras International Station and the aforementioned Renaissance Hotel. The original St Pancras Station opened in 1868 and the Midland Grand Hotel eight years later. The hotel was the “wonder of the age” when it opened but after the First World War, during which it was bombed, it gradually fell out of favour and closed in 1935. From then until 1985, when it was declared unsafe, it was used as railway company offices. In the 1960’s there was a proposal to demolish both the hotel and St Pancras station but a vociferous public campaign led instead to listed status in 1967.
Latterly, of course, the arrival of the Channel Tunnel and the decision to site the eventual London terminus for Eurostar services at St Pancras led to the redevelopment of the site between 2004 and 2007 and the rebirth of the station as St Pancras International and the hotel, which Betjeman had feared “too beautiful and too romantic to survive” as the Renaissance Hotel. The pictures above show how the architectural motifs of the original building were carried over into the new construction.
Further evidence for the case that it is nigh on impossible to take a photo of anything in London without a bloody white van getting into the frame.
So crossing Euston Road we venture down Judd Street before taking a right into Bidborough Street which leads into Marbledon Place and today’s pub of the day, Mabel’s Tavern. Very nice pint of Shepherd Neame Bishop’s Finger and a sausage sandwich but how many screens blasting out Sky Sports News do you really need.
On leaving the pub it’s a revisit of Flaxman Terrace before turning left into Burton Street and then right into Burton Place where we come across this van promoting St George Ethiopian beer. Having never seen this stocked anywhere I was half-inclined to view this as some kind of elaborate art installation with the name being a stab at political comment on cultural misappropriation. However it transpires that St George is not thought to have ever been anywhere near Ethiopia and is merely a shared patron saint and that the brewery named after him has been going since 1922.
Burton Place leads into Cartwright Gardens. This whole area is awash with budget hotels (though in London the term is purely relative) but this particular crescent is wall-to-wall with them.
Cartwright Street is closed off due to a massive redevelopment of student halls so we have to traverse the actual gardens which are themselves undergoing a make-over. Hence the caging off of the statue of the man after whom the gardens were named. John Cartwright (1740 – 1824) was a political reformer who campaigned for universal suffrage well before the concept became reasonably acceptable. His status as all-round good bloke is evidenced by the fact that this statue was paid for by public donation.
Next up is Sandwich Street which is obviously where I should have had lunch.
Then on to Thanet Street and via Leigh Street back to Judd Street where there’s just time to pay a visit to Camden Town Hall. As well as, naturally, being home to Camden Borough Council this Grade-II listed neo-classical thirties building is now a much-used venue for civil marriage and wedding ceremonies (as exampled below).
There is public access to the first floor where the council chambers are located and also the Mayor’s parlour (which his or her office is quaintly referred to). The plaque you can see in the picture below celebrates residents of the borough who fought on the right (i.e. the left) side in the Spanish Civil War. The flags commemorate the wartime contribution of Canadian airmen.
Fittingly, given the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, there is also a commemoration of the granting of the freedom of the borough to Michael Foot (the last genuinely socialist leader of the Labour party).
Back on the eastern side of Bidborough Street are the Victoria mansions which were home for 22 years to the British surrealist painter and wartime artist, Paul Nash (1889 – 1946). Nash is best known for his haunting, proto-Modernist WW1 landscapes.
The remainder of the streets bounded by Gray’s Inn Road to the east and Euston Road to the north are unremarkable save for the already-remarked upon proliferation of lower-end hotels. So via Tonbridge Street, Argyle Walk, Whidborne Street, Argyle Street, Belgrove Street, St Chad’s Street, Argyle Square, Crestfield Street and Birkenhead Street we end emerge again opposite Kings Cross Station just as the early evening gloom is setting in.
Gateway to the major cities of Yorkshire, North-East England and Scotland, Kings Cross (or King’s Cross – either is used) has a strong history in popular culture. In fact it’s probably better known today for being the home of Harry Potter’s fictional platform 9 and 3/4 than for the tragic fire of 1987 in which 31 people died. It also featured prominently in the great Ealing comedy of 1955, The Ladykillers.
According to folklore, King’s Cross was also the site of Queen Boudicca’s final battle and she is buried somewhere under one of the platforms.