Even the Elizabethans were wary of the London neighbourhood now known as King's Cross: “Walk not there too late,” one scholar warned in the 17th century, and that was before the bone boilers and horse butchers moved in, followed by the slum dwellers and, more recently, the drug dealers, pickpockets and prostitutes.
When I moved to London in 2004, I looked at an apartment in King's Cross, a notorious area of central London sandwiched between the Regent's Canal to the north and Bloomsbury to the south. It was a lovely place, full of light, spread over three floors, with a shiny red plastic button by the front door.
“What's this?” I asked the real estate agent, who shrugged and looked sheepish.
“It's just a precaution,” he said. “You won't ever need it.”
It was, of course, a panic button, and when I noticed the bars over each of the big, bright windows, I decided perhaps this was not the apartment for me. These days I probably couldn't afford it, because rents are soaring in this once-decrepit neighbourhood. (“Mountains of filth,” sniffed a 19th-century politician making an official report on King's Cross. “Hillocks of horse-dung.”)
The renewal of the past few years is largely due to the refurbishment of St. Pancras rail station, the Victorian gem that, until 10 years ago, was the derelict home of crackheads, hookers and out-of-their-heads ravers. Now, as the London terminus for the Eurostar train, it's home to bon vivants, gourmands and out-of-pocket champagne swillers. In 2011, a luxury hotel will reopen in the station, giving the local economy another boost. One of London's top art schools, Central St. Martins, is relocating to King's Cross; can avant-garde shoulder pads be far behind?
For now, the neighbourhood is still sleazy enough to provide an illicit thrill for the urban explorer – it is home to Soho Books, which proudly proclaims itself “Adult Retailer of the Year, 2009.” (I didn't know they'd already held the awards ceremony.) But the rubber fetishists and weed peddlers are increasingly being squeezed out by the design and advertising agencies, and the young professionals who've snapped up Victorian row houses – even if they have to step over drunks to get their kids to school in the morning.
It's a glorious part of London because it's the real London: squalor and beauty living in companionable peace. But the Elizabethans were right; you really should watch your purse at night.
Getting off the train You could spend an entire day at St. Pancras, the most beautiful train station in Europe and now a mini-mall filled with clothing boutiques and food shops. If you're going to Paris or Brussels, you should factor in at least an extra hour for a stop in Europe's longest champagne bar, where you'll be drinking on the platform only a few metres away from the wheezing Eurostar trains. If you're hungry, the St. Pancras Grand serves classic English cuisine – bubble and squeak, liver and bacon – with a 21st-century twist. You'll feel like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (and hopefully not like Anna Karenina). www.stpancras.com
London Broil Who knew you could feed a restaurant full of people using food raised and grown within the boundaries of dirty old London? But that's what chef Oliver Rowe has done at his popular, inviting restaurant Konstam, where the windows are draped in swaths of bathtub chain. Start with pigeon breast (not from Trafalgar Square) and horseradish crème fraîche, and follow it with duck leg (not from the nearby canal) and gooseberry compote. Book early. 2 Acton St.; www.konstam.co.uk
Good, and Good For You Altruism and gluttony live in lovely partnership at Acorn House, a homey restaurant that locally sources both food and staff – it trains young people from the King's Cross area in cooking and restaurant management. Enjoy a tasting menu followed by cheese made nearby (but not too near – there's no need to be reckless) and locally brewed beer. 69 Swinton St.; www.acornhouserestaurant.com
Roughing it, sort of Most of the hotels in King's Cross are either budget chains or slightly frightening flophouses. But Rough Luxe, a “little bit of luxury in a rough part of London,” is less fleabag, more posh teabag. The orange shag carpet and Gilbert & George poster in the parlour are clear signals to the style conscious. Each of the nine rooms is decorated in shabby-sumptuous fashion, with prices for a single starting at $294 – that's with a shared bathroom. Oh, what's wrong with a shared bathroom? Stop being so North American and make friends. 1 Birkenhead St.; www.roughluxe.co.uk
The gorier the better The Wellcome Collection is one of the city's hidden gems, a museum devoted to art, science and medicine and the place where those three meet. Downstairs is a gallery featuring changing exhibitions (currently a fascinating show on the nature of identity) while upstairs showcases the demented collecting sensibility of philanthropist Henry Wellcome (chastity belts and Napoleon's toothbrush – could it be better?). In the lobby you'll find a lovely café and an outstanding bookstore. 183 Euston Rd.; www.wellcomecollection.org
Words and music I was initially set against Kings Place because of its ridiculous lack of an apostrophe, but it really is a most welcoming space to hear classical music and to see contemporary art. It's a brand new arts hub set on the canal, with concert space and gallery below and the offices of the Guardian and Observer newspapers. A soothing place to have a drink and watch the joggers puffing on the canal's towpath (maybe they're chasing the lost apostrophe). 90 York Way; www.kingsplace.co.uk
Where the art is King's Cross is not yet the art capital of London, though that may change when Central St. Martins moves in. For now, there are a few good places to see art, including an outpost of Larry Gagosian's empire, where on “private view” evenings you can watch art world stars in amazing shoes negotiating the cobblestone streets. The crypt at nearby St. Pancras church is a small but reliably interesting venue for smart contemporary art. Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia St., www.gagosian.com ; Crypt Gallery, St. Pancras church, Euston Road, www.cryptgallery.org.uk
The best for last London is a famously green city, and while King's Cross is a bit of an industrial wasteland, it conceals a secret jewel in the shape of the Camley Street Natural Park. Hidden away behind the rail station, the park is a tiny, sublime oasis: There's pond dipping and nature trails for the kids and bird watching for the adults (do moorhens have red beaks, or is that coots?). Buy a picnic at St. Pancras, come here to watch the swans glide past on the canal and forget that the grimy city is only steps away. 12 Camley St.; http://bit.ly/EFUg3