Book review: The railway lands

Angela Inglis, Railway Lands, Catching St Pancras & King’s Cross (Troubador Publishing, £30)

When St Pancras was first built in the 1860s, over 6,000 people were made homeless and no thought given to their fate. Even the dead were not spared as thousands of bodies were removed in a task which traumatised the young Thomas Hardy. These days such callousness would be unthinkable but nevertheless the current redevelopment of the area based around the transformation of St Pancras into the Eurostar terminal has claimed its share of casualties.

St Pancras and King’s Cross is surrounded by a large hinterland of old goods yards and sidings, made redundant by the decline of railfreight. With St Pancras now about to reopen, this is to be redeveloped by, what is known in the jargon, a ‘mixed development’ of housing, offices, shops and leisure faculties.

King’s Cross may have been a haunt of prostitutes and drug addicts but as the detailed and evocative pictures in this book show, the area was not without merit. While the masterpieces that make up the station, Gilbert Scott’s crazy Gothic hotel and the elegant single span Barlow shed have not only been retained, but, as the photographs demonstrate, been greatly enhanced other features have been lost such as the gasholders, several blocks of pleasing Victorian flats now inhabited by a ragbag of eccentrics and artists, and various warehouses.

While the photographs stick in the mind, the text is rather sparse, providing insufficient information for those not familiar with the area. There is a fascinating debate to be had here because while the area will be transformed, the question inherent in this book is whether anything of its character will survive. Every developer should be compelled to create a book like this to ensure as much as possible does.

Christian Wolmar’s book on the history of the railways, Fire & Steam, has just been published by Atlantic Books.

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