Raves and resistance: the hidden history of Kings Cross

The disappearing city

King’s Cross has a proud record of subversive defiance. While its past is a complicated one, the progressive spirit that characterised its glory days remains – you just have to know where to look.

King’s Cross was once the epicentre of the second Summer of Love, but there’s nothing about it to hint at that these days: take a walk across the newly regenerated Granary Square and you’ll find a clean, upmarket development with kids playing in fountains and young professionals hanging out on fake grass. It’s strange to think that, during one fabled summer in 1988, rave culture was coming up in that same spot, with giant warehouses full of happy, sweaty people dancing to acid house until the morning.

“The queue to get in is enormous but you can hear this bassline, it’s throbbing and it’s like the walls are shaking,” Natalie Wade says in the Kings X Clubland documentary, describing the first time she blagged her way into a King’s Cross rave when she was 15. “You get in and there’s this enormous room in front of you, it’s so loud and it’s heaving with bodies and light and movement. For a moment you feel like you’ve walked into a cult, as everyone understands what's going on but you… It’s one of the memorable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”  

The regeneration of King’s Cross is one of the biggest in London, covering 67 acres of the area behind King’s Cross and St Pancras stations known as the railway lands. Starting in 2007 and set to complete in 2023, it’s already a remarkable transformation of what was mostly ex-industrial brownfield land. For such a central piece of London, the Cross was surprisingly derelict and wild.

Little about the new King’s Cross reveals that the area used to have a reputation for drugs, sex work, and homelessness. Coal Drops Yard (which once held 15,000 tons of coal for a fuel-hungry city) is now home to cool, pricey retail – the kind that appeals to ageing, well-moneyed millennials – with gender-neutral toilets and space to lounge. At the Granary Building (once storing Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers), Caravan serves excellent avocado toast with a choice of sourdough, grain, or gluten free bread.

This new branding of Coal Drops Yard looks far better than the standard corporate fare (think face tattoos and hotdogs with toothpaste), but it’s really not very long ago that the Cross had a counter-culture that really couldn’t be used to sell upmarket soap. For better or worse, the old King’s Cross had an edgy, rebellious energy; it was so run down, and in parts so downright scary, that people would meet by the station to walk in groups over to The Bell, the legendary LGBTQ hub on Pentonville Road.

The regeneration of the railway lands will create at least 50 new buildings, 20 new streets, 10 new public spaces and 1,900 new homes, and see to the refurbishment of 20 historic buildings and structures. But it’s had a significant gentrification effect on the rest of neighbourhood, a patch of inner London that’s always been pretty grotty. (In fact, a renaming was considered as the regeneration efforts began, because who would want to live in King’s Cross?) But while the people who can afford the new flats inside the once-rusting gasholders might never have come here back in the day, the Cross has always had a community of locals who call it home.

RADICAL BEGINNINGS

King’s Cross used to be called Battlebridge, named for a battle that may or may not have involved Queen Boudicca and the bridge over the river Fleet, and it was in a sorry state. This is why, as new housing was being built in the 1820s, developers got their way and changed the name – it’s “King’s Cross” because King George IV had just assumed the crown, historian Andrew Whitehead tells me.

There was certainly nothing regal about the area back then. In his book Curious King’s Cross, Whitehead describes it as a “a huge mound of horse bones, a smallpox hospital and a few pockets of dilapidated housing.” Consequently, the Cross was cheap, and attracted an interesting set of characters.

“A lot of left wing organisations have had their national offices in the area. There’s also a real tradition of radicalism and occupations,” says Whitehead, listing off events in the late 1970s and early 80s: the occupation of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital to prevent its closure; the occupation of Camden Town Hall to protest poor housing; and the sex workers’ occupation of Holy Cross Church (just around the corner from Argyle Square, at the time London’s premier red light area) in protest of police harassment.   

“The Communist party was once strong in the area,” says Whitehead, adding that the red flag used to fly from St Pancras Town Hall on May Day. “And The Bell was a gay activist pub. A lot of the solidary meetings for the miners’ strike were held there.” The Bell is gone now (the Big Chill bar is in its spot), but the alliance between Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners (LGSM) and the strikers in South Wales became a turning point for gay rights by fostering ties with the trade unions.

Today, nowhere else in King’s Cross embodies the spirit of activism more than Housmans, the “radical booksellers” at the bottom of Caledonian Road. The windows are full of posters: the Anarchist Festival, Justice for Grenfell, the Karl Marx Walking Tour, and you can still buy a t-shirt from the 1984 ‘Pits and Perverts’ LGSM fundraising event. Albert Beale, one of the building’s trustees, meets me by the door, walking me through a maze of room with books stacked floor to ceiling before finding a place to sit.

The building is owned by Peace News Trustees, a non-profit which also oversees the publication Peace News. An engaging storyteller, Beale’s mind is an encyclopedia of the history of the area – he’s been associated with Peace House since 1972.

“The rest of the building is let out to other worthy progressive groups,” he says, explaining that the building has never been afraid of controversy, housing the Gay Liberation Front in the days before full decriminalisation: “Others might think, ‘Oh, dodgy issue!’ But we’re just, ‘Great, come on in.’” Current residents are War Resisters International, Network for Peace, Forces Watch (which scrutinises military recruitment), and anti-sweatshop outfit No Sweat. Switchboard – a lifeline for the LGBTQ community – started out operating from Peace House in 1974 (it’s based just up the road now).

The (subsidised) rental income keeps the building running, but the reason why Housmans has been able to resist the many attempts by developers to convert the block is because they actually own the property and refuse to sell. “The politics behind what we’re doing isn’t just about changing the world on a big scale, but also being rooted in the community you find yourself in,” says Beale. “The local folks didn’t want local shops and pubs knocked down to build an office tower, so we weren’t going to go along with that.”

Those who’ve been around the Cross for a long time have always known the railway lands would be done up – it’s always just been a matter of time. (“They kept some of the old buildings, and the things they built are not as ugly as they could be, I’ll give you that,” says Beale.) But during the early regeneration debate, the hope among locals was for the development to be more squarely focused on the needs of this not-so-leafy part of Islington and Camden: “We [wanted to have] a secondary school there, parks, social housing, a health centre, and all those things that are needed in a grotty inner city area,” says Beale.

The short version is that the publicly owned railway lands ended up being sold off, and while the councils have some say, the estate is now privately owned by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (consisting of property developers Argent and a pension fund called AustralianSuper). While the public has access, the creep of pseudo-public space is a London-wide concern. As Beale puts it: “If I went down to Granary Square and gave out a leaflet saying, ‘This should be public land’, the security guards would ask me to leave.”

In his play King’s Cross (REMIX), live artist Tom Marshman shares collected stories from London’s LGBTQ communities in the 1980s. Originally from Bristol, he was drawn to the area after hearing the song “King’s Cross” by the Pet Shop Boys, which speaks about coming into London and hoping for the streets to be paved with gold. “But King’s Cross was so grotty,” he remembers. “It was a seedy place where if you were a young gay man you might be walking into a world where you could become a sex worker.”

Marshman adds that, for many, King’s Cross was “hedonistic and full of parties, and people being very expressive and exploring their sexuality”. But his show is also a story about the devastating impact of HIV and Aids on the gay community. The Cross used to be dark – literally, as there wasn’t much street lighting – and this would engender certain behaviours.

“We lived in a squat,” says Ramón Salgado-Touzón in Elly Clarke’s King’s Cross oral history project Queer Encounters. “We would score drugs, get a few punters first to get the money for the drugs.”

Salgado-Touzón describes a kebab shop (there’s a Five Guys in that spot now) where pimps would gather outside: “We were all avoiding that area, because you could just tell, you didn't want to look directly into their eyes as there was that feeling of threat.” But Salgado-Touzón still has fond memories of the Cross: “It was my favourite place because there was always something happening there. There was always some excitement or risk. It was a dangerous place. I’m surprised I’m alive from the things I’ve done.”

THE BIRTH OF RAVE

To hear the truly euphoric stories about King’s Cross, ask a raver who discovered Bagley’s in the mid-late 80s – chances are their eyes will light up. “It was so free,” Anne Marie Garbutt says in the Kings X Clubland documentary. “If you went to go to the toilet it’d take you an hour, as you were just chatting to people on the way there, on the way back. You certainly didn’t want to [leave the floor] when your favourite tune came on, as it might not come back on again that night, or that morning – it went on from 4am to 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.”  

Until the party ended for good on New Year's Day 2008, King’s Cross was the perfect spot for a rave. The club was called Bagley’s because the warehouse – the Eastern Coal Drops where Barrafina restaurant is now – used to be owned by glass bottle manufacturer Bagley, Wild and Company. The building was used as a location for music videos and fashion shoots in the early ’80s, and in the first few years the raves were unofficial, illegal events. As it grew, a licence was secured to admit 2,500 people, although as many as 3-4,000 might have been in there at its peak.

“It was a perfect storm. It really blew up – this whole new underground scene,” Debby Lee, who started working at Bagley’s in the 80s as a young promoter, tells me. “It came as a breath of fresh air. The whole scene was very raw. It was in the middle of King’s Cross and it felt dangerous, and it was this dirty old warehouse.”

Bagley’s (later Canvas), alongside The Cross and The Key, became a unifying hub where clubbers would gather after the West End had closed for the night, no matter what music or scene they were usually into. “You have to consider the political backdrop of the time, with Margaret Thatcher – that whole idea of everyone having to go and work in the city and drive flash cars,” says Lee. “It was a rebellion against this glossy, shiny life that we were being sold as kids.”

In the midst of this new youth culture was also a new drug culture – you can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons everyone remembers it as one big love fest is because of all the ecstasy. Lee says the police mostly left them alone, in part because they didn’t understand rave culture but also because they were busy dealing with street crime: “A few kids having a party was really the last of their worries, so it was a bit of a Wild West… It was a loving atmosphere where everyone got along, and it broke down a lot of cultural barriers.”

It got tricker once the scene got really big, says Lee – a separate economy emerged for drugs, and this started to attract less savoury characters looking to take advantage. “We had a few incidents, but we were never really exposed to the serious gangland issues,” says Lee, adding they never had to call the police. But, she stresses, it’s not like there was a strategy – everyone were learning on their feet, figuring out how to handle the drug culture while keeping people safe: “We were kids too.”

REGENERATION ERA

As regeneration schemes go, the general consensus seems to be that King’s Cross is a pretty decent one – while some have more concerns than others, everyone I spoke to concluded that it’s really not bad. Pancras Square (between the station and the canal) is a hub of corporate new builds, housing Google, Louis Vuitton and Universal Music, but there’s also a fair amount of new affordable housing: out of a total 1,900, there were supposed to be 750 affordable homes, 500 of which are available for social rent (although this has since come down to 637). The sustainability report from the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership speaks to a desire to be “a lasting place for people and a community with a long-term future”, with promises of sports areas open to the public, a job centre, a leisure centre with a pool, a library, a school for deaf kids, an on-site low-carbon power plant and a zero-waste-to-landfill programme, to name some.

One thing that’s notably absent from the plans is a dancefloor – for an area so central to the UK’s clubbing heritage this feels like an omission. Ian Freshwater, Project Director at Argent and head of the Regeneration team at the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, says a potential club venue is still in the mix – the site isn’t done yet. “The place has changed and it’s is more residential now, but we aspire to deliver King’s Cross as a piece of the city,” Freshwater tells me.

Argent spent five years consulting with locals on what the future King’s Cross should look like, receiving over 4,000 responses. Common concerns were accessibility, jobs, good public spaces, and feeling safe. “We’ve always had an emphasis on people – those in the local area, those who’ll come to work here, the students at Central St Martins [now located in the Granary Building], the visitors who step off the Eurostar,” says Freshwater. “We want to ensure this is a livable, recognisable, accessible part of London.”

TFor some, the regeneration of King’s Cross has become an opportunity to thrive. Word on the Water, the floating bookshop, was about to close down when it found a home there: “Getting mooring in the Granary Square complex about three years ago saved the business from closing,” says Paddy Screech, owner of the book barge alongside Jon Privett and Stephane Chaudat. The charming 100-year-old Dutch barge, which sells new and old books and hosts poetry slams and live music on the roof, is busy on the day I’m visiting, with people browsing and sitting down to read inside by the fireplace. But for the six years before landing at King’s Cross the barge had been a operating without a base, and the requirement to relocate every two weeks was catastrophic for business.

Following a social media campaign, Screech says they were approached by the Canal & River Trust which asked them to pick a spot. “Once we got to Granary Square, they understood it would be good for both us,” says Screech. He thinks it’s a good fit – the barge wouldn’t want to be “a little gnat in the middle of an exclusive corporate wilderness”.

Screech says the owners of the King’s Cross estate have been “mindful of their responsibility to make the area available to people to come and enjoy”.

“[They’ve] taken a historic thing and made something new and nice happen, in a way that respects the history and takes it in a new direction.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

For a long time, the King’s Cross railway lands were a forgotten afterthought – raves were possible because there was nothing much going on in the old warehouses, and there were no neighbours to complain about noise. While the area is no longer derelict, 40 per cent of the redevelopment is open space – and there’s also still a little bit of that old wilderness left.

While Gasholder Park is a cute way to preserve one of the beloved gasometers, there are better places to connect with nature in the city. The Calthorpe Project is a community garden on Gray’s Inn Road, opening in 1984 following a successful campaign by locals against an office development. The Skip Garden & Kitchen, located at the top of Cubitt Park, is a scrappy DIY element in an otherwise glossy environment. Run by education charity Global Generation, which works with young locals, the café is surrounded by wildflowers, herbs and vegetables, beehives and chicken coops. As the name suggests, everything is planted within skips so it can be easily transported, and the structures are mostly made from materials reclaimed from the surrounding construction.

Open, unstructured space doesn’t stay that way for long in the city, and certainly not in a spot as central as King’s Cross. The rave scene was always on borrowed time – Bagley’s had a six-month running lease – and since the construction began 12 years ago, temporary elements have come and go. As construction around Cubitt Park is close to completion, the Skip Garden will be moving soon, but this is part of the point – it was always supposed to be temporary.

The natural swimming hole that existed in Cubitt Park for 17 months in 2015-16 was never permanent either. The pond was designed by Ooze Architects and artist Marjetica Potrč as part arts installation, part local swimming club – the water in the chemical-free pond was purified through a process using the surrounding wetland. I went for a swim there four years ago when the surrounding area was a full-on construction zone, remembering it as an enchanting, impossible place that felt like it shouldn’t quite exist. A campaign to save the pond was unsuccessful; Ian Freshwater at Argent, who oversaw the pond, tells me that although it was much loved it was expensive to run – it required lifeguards to be on duty and you had to pay to get in. The open parkland that replaced it, he says, is more inclusive.

But for a moment, the pond was a piece of urban magic – the fact that it was temporary made it all the more so. Swimming slow laps amidst the plants, King’s Cross transforming around me, I remember thinking how London is so crowded and it always feels like every square inch has a purpose, but when you stop and look closer that’s really not the case – there’s a lot left of London that’s delightfully devoid of ambition.

The Cross is a lot cleaner now, but there are still pockets left where nothing has changed. This is usually not just a happy accident, but the result of campaigns to keep it that way. Over on Northdown Street is the King Charles I, a local pub which four years ago was saved when 15 regulars bandied together to buy it. The book barge is already an asset to the area: “I think there’s something fundamental about bookshops that creates community, and it’s not even geographical,” says Paddy Screech. “That’s been the real learning experience for us – a couple of old semi-tramps living on boats – we’ve found ourselves at the heart of a large community of people.”

A wander further up the towpath will reveal Camley Street Natural Park, squeezed between the canal and the tracks leading into St Pancras – it’s a former coal drop that was slowly reclaimed by nature, and a campaign by locals and the London Wildlife Trust charity in 1983 successfully secured its future as a nature reserve.

Up past the King’s Cross development, beyond York Way, the railway lands are still unpolished and wild – a bit grotty and useless, but ripe with possibilities for the future. London will never stop evolving, but in between all the rush we need these spaces that lack ambition – because they give the city space to dream.

King’s Cross (REMIX) is back in London at the end of May, then goes to Leeds and Bristol.

‘The Disappearing City’ is a series about the changing urban landscapes of London. Previous instalments: The last days of Hackney Wick; the hidden history of Eel Pie Island; and Greek Street, the last great, shit street in Soho.

Follow Jessica Furseth on Twitter.