As London evolves, an increasing number of locations are being recreated as pseudo-public spaces. One of these is the 67 acre development at King's Cross, to the north of the station, where former industrial land is being transformed into a new city quarter. As part of this rebirth the development company are keen to encourage the rest of us to see the new King's Cross as a coherent whole, and to position it on our radar for future activity.
One way they're doing this is by offering a King's Cross DIY Walking Tour, which you can skim through on your smartphone (or download an out-of-date version here). I walked a circuit to see what the places chosen and locations visited might reveal about the future of life and leisure in modern London. To be fair, I think the opening paragraph pretty much gave the game away.
1) King’s Cross Visitor Centre: Behind the closed front door of the so-called visitor centre is a mostly empty foyer, and a receptionist dressed to impress. I bet she hopes visitors have come to enquire about restaurants or property, rather than circling once round the 3D model and walking away with some free literature. The tour suggested: "Why not grab a coffee or some lunch at Dishoom or Spiritland nextdoor?" Because I've just started a walking tour, that's why... and because a salt beef sandwich with gherkin and English mustard would set me back £9.50.
2) Lewis Cubitt Square: I was promised a piazza which, "in warmer months, hosts evening concerts, festivals and weekend markets". I got an empty rectangle, adjacent to a building site, where a naked toddler ran through the fountains chased by a dog. Despite it being June, no events are scheduled for the rest of the month.
3) Everyman on the Corner: My smartphone led me to a "bespoke-designed, 32 seat cinema", which was shut, with no information whatsoever outside to tell me what might be showing and when. The tour suggested: "If you don't have time now, pop back and take in the latest hand-picked films from the comfort of a sofa". Of course I don't have time now, this is stop number 3 on a walking tour. Also, I never ever want to go to a cinema where it's the done thing to hail a waitress mid-film to order guacamole and a bottle of prosecco.
4) Lewis Cubitt Park: Modern developers' idea of a "park" appears to be a rectangle of turf between apartments, where those whose balconies face the wrong way can come down and sprawl in appropriate weather. The tour suggested: "Head up to the viewing platform and take in the view." The view was of a semi-obscured lawn whose outdoor pool has been removed, a lot of towers, and a backlot with some bins. The top of the viewing platform was so quiet that a couple were making out on the decking, wholly unimpressed that an actual viewer had turned up.
5) The Global Generation Skip Garden: That's a garden full of skips, not an outdoor gymnasium of some kind. The skips are brimming with herbs and other plants, and surrounded by a collection of artfully ramshackle buildings. In one, I saw some office types watching a Powerpoint presentation about "co-creation", "fire exits" and "public realm", the poor sods. The tour suggested: "You can sample delicious food, grown and prepared in the garden." I passed on beetroot soup and a roll for £5, and a lot of salads, but this was the most interesting location so far.
6) Platform Theatre: A niche theatre is part of the cultural offering of any upstart urban destination. This one's attached to Central St Martins nextdoor. Alas, the place was closed, with zero information out front, and it turned out the next events were two weeks away.
7) Handyside Gardens: Passing through a gate, I found a thin sliver of raised beds and play equipment where various local parents were occupying their offspring. I also found the developer's estate agent's window, flogging apartments for scary amounts per week. The tour suggested: "The historic train shed to the right is now home to a Waitrose store, cookery school and cafe." A deliberate refocusing on commercial activity rather than heritage? That's new King's Cross pretty much summed up.
8) Wharf Road Gardens: This canalside strip, with raised grass beds, has an air of artificiality about it. The tour suggested: "Watch this video and learn about a brand new part of the King's Cross neighbourhood." This is a new abomination in digitally delivered walking tours - the in-app video which turns out to be a lengthy plug for how fabulous living here would be. Battersea Power Station do exactly the same thing on their app, coincidentally also at stop 8. The tour also suggested: "While you're here, kick back on the grass with an ice cream from Ruby Violet." Ruby Violet is a £3-per-scoop ice cream vendor. I'm sure it's good stuff, but King's Cross isn't for the financially challenged.
9) House of Illustration: Ah, Quentin Blake's intelligent repository of drawing-related exhibitions. It's £8.25, if you're nipping in.
10) The Lighterman: A canalside pub with a slightly prefabricated feel, and split level balconies to keep the dining crowd separate from mere drinkers. Don't expect to wander inside without being given the once-over by the door staff. The tour suggested: "If you have time to stop for a bite on your way round, this would be a good moment." Who stops for food halfway round a hour-long walk? This tour seems obsessed with nudging visitors into a restaurant.
11) Canalside Steps: These astroturfed steps have been here ever since the N1C postcode was freshly minted. A lot of people now "take a break and watch the boats go by", many of them students from Central St Martins up top, but rightly popular with everyone else too.
12) Camley Street Natural Park: This is easily the best free thing to do round here, although it predates the King's Cross development, and some of it is currently closed. Maybe that's why the walking tour doesn't want you to visit it, merely see it from the towpath on the other side of the canal, from which there is no direct connection.
13) Gasholder No 8: Ah, the "iconic" wrought iron form of a Victorian gasholder, which the developers were forced to keep so they turned it into a park. Again "park" means a patch of grass, in this case surrounded by benches beneath a shiny canopy, but the overall effect here is pretty impressive. You could do worse than rest awhile.
14) Gasholders London: Except the real reason we've come out this far is to see some flats. The Gasholders development sees three blocks of very expensive apartments each shoehorned inside a cylindrical skeleton, indeed some are already occupied, with self-satisfied residents looking down at you from on high. The tour suggested: First they autoplayed a minute-long video, in which some architects were quite smug, and then they directed me to the sales website in case I was wealthy enough to be able to afford one of the 145 luxury hutches.
15) The Plimsoll Building: Another shameless plug, this time for a thirteen storey "world class residential experience". Their website says "Contact us if you are interested in buying an investment property, a London pied à terre or a new build apartment you can call home", as a hint to the overall unaffordability.
16) Granary Square: We've been here already, but this time the tour focuses on the 1000 fountains. A security guard will probably be watching should you consider a mild frolic.
17) The Granary Building: Allegedly this old warehouse is "the heart of historic King's Cross", or at least that's what the developers' marketing team would like you to now believe. They have done a bloody good job of renovating it, however, and the art college inside is second to none.
18) Restaurants at Granary Square: The tour's dining obsession continues, namechecking a coffee shop, a tea shop, a bistro, and exactly the same two eateries they plugged back at stop 1. A salt beef sandwich with gherkin and English mustard still costs £9.50.
19) Coal Drops Yard: Expect Time Out and the Evening Standard to simultaneously orgasm when this place opens in October. A new shopping destination is arriving, its focus on fashion, craft and culture, with "a mix of iconic brands and artisan shops". Coal Drops Yard will be vast, and out of your price bracket, targeted more at the Putney and Kensington set, or those with a nearby penthouse to fit out. I expect it to do brilliantly. The tour confesses: "Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the group responsible for the Olympic Cauldron and London’s new Routemaster buses." Best not mention the Garden Bridge debacle, eh?
20) Gasholders Sales Gallery: Hang on what? We're being directed out of our way, along the canal, to "discuss available apartments" in a glitzy prefab? But if you do yomp out to see it, you'll discover the Sales Gallery is now closed. How long, I wonder, since this online tour was updated?
21) KERB: Likewise, the viewing platform at the top of King's Boulevard, which the tour now urges you to climb, has long been removed. They've also got the wrong location for the twice weekly KERB streetfood market, which is now held three times a week, indeed should we be trusting anything this placemaking tour is trying to say?
22) King's Boulevard: Here we're invited to look beyond the hoardings to see Google's new groundscraper going up. There's still nothing to see.
23) NIKE Central King's Cross: The tour is now shamelessly store-dropping, in the hope that a sleek trainer shop will get your juices flowing. The tour suggests: "Drop in to receive expert advice for the best products for your running technique and training style." Perhaps you'll walk out with an even more expensive pair, they hope.
24) Pancras Square: A single oak tree marks the entrance to a triangular courtyard with a sloping water feature, surrounded by office blocks, cafes, restaurants and a library. The walls appear to have been deliberately aligned to block out all sunlight, even in mid-June. It's very popular.
25) German Gymnasium: This is a lovely old building, sandwiched between St Pancras and King's Cross - the first purpose-built gymnasium in England. But it's now a D&D restaurant, so going inside's not really an option, especially given you've already eaten two salt beef sandwiches, a bowl of beetroot soup, a bagful of groceries from Waitrose, a £3 scoop of ice cream, plus a full-on burger lunch at the Lighterman.
26) Battle Bridge Place: Here we find IFO (Identified Flying Object), the giant birdcage which lights up in neon colours after dark. Its appearance serves only to highlight how little public art we've been served up earlier in the walk, indeed I was surprised by the overall paucity of the sculptural offering.
27) Great Northern Hotel: The curving frontage of this former railway hotel follows the line of the buried Fleet River, not that the tour mentions this. Instead it suggests you might be interested in the Manhattan-style bar and the fine dining restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk, because that's more target audience.
28) The Western Concourse: And finally, our tour ends inside the freshly-bedazzled concourse of King's Cross station. The spectacular domed roof rightly gets a mention, but the tour of course feels the need to add "a host of new shops, eateries and bars", as well as the queue-clogged tourist magnet that is Platform 9¾.
It probably only takes an hour, the King's Cross Walking Tour, assuming you don't stop to splash out along the way. It's good at leading you round an evolving part of central London, and showing you what's there. But having completed it, what struck me is that it wasn't a walk, it was a two mile-long advert by a development company which needs visitors' cash to thrive and grow. I finished with a chain of ideas for places to eat and drink, plus a sense of what living round here might be like if I had the disposable income, but little sense of joy.
In particular I thought I saw the soul of the emerging New London, a commercial environment hell bent on encouraging consumption, where the only things worth doing cost, and the only places to stop and pause are with a drink in hand. Whilst there's nothing inherently wrong with a shopping and dining experience, indeed it's what an increasing number of Londoners seem to want, King's Cross seems to be at the vanguard of squeezing out everything else until spending's all that's left.