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London: Welcome to Midtown

The reinvention of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations and the surrounding area in the past decade has seen a once shabby part of the capital transform into a chic hotspot. Welcome to ‘Midtown’

London: Welcome to Midtown
St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. Image: AWL Images

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Perhaps the Spice Girls deserve some of the credit. On 19 April 1996, five then-unknown women — who’d go on to become one of the world’s biggest pop groups — gathered at the former Midland Grand Hotel to shoot the video for their debut single Wannabe. The resultant promotional film painted the quintet in a noisy blaze of colour, clattering across the tiles of what was once the cavernous reception area in stack heels, and performing dance routines on the main staircase — an epic double curve of steps, soaring three floors, which had symbolised the building’s unabashed flamboyance when it opened as a hotel in 1873.

Although the video portrays the hotel — one of Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott’s finest pieces of Gothic Revivalism — as a plush five-star, it was effectively a shell at this point. Having closed to guests in 1935, by 1996 it was clinging to existence as drab railway offices.

It was also an emblem of the area around it. King’s Cross was a London success story of the mid-19th century, growing with the railway boom that saw three mainline stations — King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston — built within a mile of each other. But by the end of the 20th century, a decline that had set in after WWII had seen it slump. Two years before the Spice   Girls, another British music giant, Oasis, had captured the district in a more realistic light, crafting the video for their own debut single, Supersonic, on the roof of Belgrove House (which still exists, at 17-21 Euston Road). King’s Cross station is visible in the background as the band plays, faded facade trapped under slate-grey skies. So too is the former Midland Grand, lost behind scaffolding. In this epoch, you may have arrived into London at King’s Cross, but you rarely lingered.

Now it’s transformed. Restaurants dot its streets, cranes peck at construction projects and the Grand is reborn — officially as the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. King’s Cross is something else, too — a fiery phoenix in a section of the city on the rise. There have been mutterings of a name for this gentrified block — ‘Midtown’, a tag that seems a fair description for those areas of London that are too far east of the centre to be bracketed with Covent Garden and Soho in the West End, but not so far east that they fall within Shoreditch’s chic orbit or the City’s moneyed glow. Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Holborn — all are following King’s Cross’s lead, with new shops, bars and hotels singing of their upsurge.

Of course, the Spice Girls didn’t spark these changes. In the end, the railway found its groove — the six-year renovation of St Pancras station (starting in 2001) as a state-of-the-art hub for the Eurostar service (trains began running from here to Paris in December 2007) proving a catalyst for modernisation. In 2008, a colossal sculpture by British artist Paul Day — a 27ft-tall bronze couple embracing — was added to the concourse. Its title? The Meeting Place. Suddenly, King’s Cross — and its neighbours — are exactly that.

What to see & do

If the bars and restaurants of ‘Midtown’ chase the now, the area’s main attractions remain grounded in a cultured yesteryear. The British Museum has occupied its spot on Great Russell Street, on Holborn’s fringes, since 1759. Here’s a vast neoclassical temple whose eight million exhibits (including the Elgin Marbles, the ancient friezes infamously ripped from the Parthenon from 1801-1812) may be, according to your opinion, an incomparable historical resource — or evidence of the British Empire’s magpie tendencies.

The British Library brings a similar element of gravitas to King’s Cross, safeguarding 14 million books, but also staging exhibitions. The Treasures of the British Library display proffers ninth-century bibles and illuminated 14th-century korans. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy dissects one of democracy’s firmest foundations until the end of August.

And yet, the district’s most intriguing institution may be a small King’s Cross secret. Tucked just behind the nine-mile Regent’s Canal — one of Britain’s greatest 19th-century leftovers — the London Canal Museum peers lovingly at the city’s industrial growth spurt, just as King’s Cross and its neighbours are remembering to put this heritage to innovative use.

Parthenon sculptures, British Museum. Image: AWL Images

Parthenon sculptures, British Museum. Image: AWL Images

Shopping

It’s a sunlit Saturday, and faces are pressed to the window of E Katz & Co with a mixture of joy and trepidation. The picture is repeated across the road at Val D’or — young couples inching towards their marriage vows as they measure out their joint futures in the promise of diamonds and gold. It’s ever thus of a weekend at Hatton Garden, the long lane that, as well as marking the border between Holborn and Farringdon, is also London’s street of sparkle, with over 50 independent jewellers decorating its narrow half-mile.

You can venture here if you have money to spend in ‘Midtown’ — although there are less glittering ways to part with your cash on hand. The broad thoroughfare of High Holborn is now giving notice of altered times in the area, with Davy’s Bar and Grill touting bottles of crisp Sancerre for £15 (amid other reds and whites); Holborn Dining Room and Delicatessen — attached to the Rosewood — tempting passersby with fruity chutneys and boxes of lemongrass tea.

The area’s most intriguing retail street is, however, anything but broad. Exmouth Market is the star of Clerkenwell, a pedestrianised drag where regeneration’s soft hand is more and more visible — In With The Old delighting in scented candles, bright crockery and other items for the aspirational home; East Central Cycles filling its window with sleek bikes for the pedal-powered city dweller. But it’s Sew Over It, on adjacent Myddelton Street, that underlines the area’s change of emphasis — not just stocking fine fabrics and floral patterns but also teaching customers to fine-tune them into bags, hats, dresses and jackets.

Caravan, London. Image: Alamy

Caravan, London. Image: Alamy

Where to eat

The reinvention of ‘Midtown’ also extends to the area’s culinary offering. In Holborn, hip eatery Hubbard & Bell supplies upmarket comfort food, including pork belly with green apple mustard (£14), and a lamb burger with cumin and feta (£12). In King’s Cross, the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel salutes its maker via The Gilbert Scott, a gourmet treat where top chef Marcus Wareing concocts modern British dishes like rabbit and prawn pie (£20). The makeover in this area extends to Granary Square, where Victorian warehouses built to do the railway’s bidding have found contemporary purpose — fountains dancing on the plaza outside, eateries full of customers inside. Grain Store acknowledges its host building’s past as a storage unit for the raw materials that underpinned London’s bakeries in the late-19th century, but proffers less stodgy items on what’s a largely vegetarian menu, featuring the likes of butternut squash ravioli with apricots and pumpkin seeds (£14.50). Next door, Caravan is a meatier proposition, with dishes such as Yorkshire short-horn ribeye with carrot-yam puree (£21.50).

However, true carnivores in ‘Midtown’ will want to head to Farringdon. Smithfield Market has been a purveyor of prime cuts and juicy steaks since 1866. And while there’s still a Victorian pragmatism to its grubby structures and 4am-to-midday trading hours, there’s a more of-the-moment flair to the eateries that have mushroomed on its edges. Bird of Smithfield aims for subtlety with its braised ox cheek, smoked cauliflower mash and crispy bone marrow (£24), while The Grill On The Market keeps to the basics with its 450g T-bone (£32) and chateaubriand with home-cut chips and French beans (for two people, £60). And if all this sounds staunchly traditional, a short walk west brings you to Kimchee. Here, amid discreet low lighting, Holborn has embraced Korean food, including the dolsot bibimbap (sticky rice cooked in a stone pot with chilli, egg and a choice of meat, fish or seafood, £8.90), injecting a little Seoul into a thoroughly ‘London’ setting.

Spirits, Scarfes Bar, Rosewood London. Image: Durston Saylor

Spirits, Scarfes Bar, Rosewood London. Image: Durston Saylor

Nightlife

“What would you like, sir?” The barman thinks this is a simple question, but I’m not sure whether to order a book of spells, a glass slipper or a wicked witch. Located on Farringdon’s southwest perimeter, The Fable revels, as its name hints, in a vibe that’s as much fairytale as watering hole. Next to me, a table is framed by an alcove of hardbacks — a Hogwarts-esque curiosity; elsewhere, vintage typewriters await Gothic authors. I opt for a strawberry and lavender mojito (£7.95) and marvel that despite spanning three floors this bar-eatery is oddly invisible; half concealed below the sturdy, 19th-century road bridge that is the Holborn Viaduct.

The Fable has some serious local competition. A street away to the east, St Bart’s Brewery worships at the altar of beer, pouring bottles of speciality makes — like the 8.5% Belgian export Delerium Tremens (£5.25) — as well as Fresh London Lager, stored in copper tanks from Greenwich’s Meantime Brewing Company. A block away to the west, Bounce is idiosyncrasy embodied — an underground den where you can play table tennis until 1am on Fridays and Saturdays, while sipping at cocktails like the wiff waff — gin, tonic and Earl Grey tea syrup (£8.75).

This unlikely combination isn’t replicated at Scarfes Bar, the bar at the Rosewood, which takes its cue from the revered British political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe (some of his caricatures of beak-nosed politicians and prancing royalty) adorn the walls). The cocktail list throws out a midtown madness (rum, cacao, lime juice; £14.50) in a hushed, book-lined room.

Over in King’s Cross, the dilapidated boozers are gradually being replaced by hip upstarts. The Fellow, on York Way, is a case in point — an old corner pub reimagined with a rooftop terrace and sprightly inventions like the Pegu Club (gin, orange curacao, lime, angostura bitters, £9).

Bar, Hoxton Holborn. Image: Hoxton Holborn

Bar, Hoxton Holborn. Image: Hoxton Holborn

Where to stay

“Well, it looks better than Paris,” says the be-scarfed Frenchman to his British girlfriend as the pair emerge from St Pancras International station. He is, of course, referring to the Renaissance — which forms the front of the Eurostar terminus, comparing it with its somewhat shabby equivalent at Gare du Nord, back across the Channel — rather than suggesting the Euston Road, King’s Cross traffic-choked main vein, somehow now eclipses the Champs-Élysées.

Our Gallic neighbour is right to admire the resurrection of this magnificent Victorian edifice; its red-brick clock tower rearing 269ft above the hubbub. Inside, Scott’s celebrated staircase echoes this ascent, corkscrewing upwards towards a distant ceiling that dreams of a medieval realm — knights, monks, scholars and damsels daubed above soaring arches. There are ghosts too. The main bar — a feast of wood panels — is a waiting room where you’d be happy to wait; the corridor through to the hotel’s new wing is all echoes; staff from a century ago — bellboy, doorman, scullery maid — recalled in photos on canvas.

The building’s restoration is remarkable — yet not a lone gesture. Directly adjacent, another comeback kid waits. A slice of Italianate sophistication at its inception in 1854, the Great Northern Hotel was also a dowdy relic in the area’s dark years, a shadow outside King’s Cross station. But a four-year, £14m refit, completed in 2013, teleported it into the 21st century as a boutique retreat — all soft colour palettes, pale linen and cream leather sofas; and a bar with the trendy acronym ‘GNH’ in its name.

This double act is a compelling reason to stay the night in the King’s Cross area — and not, as would have been the instinct a decade ago, flee elsewhere. Although there are now other very agreeable ‘Midtown’ accommodation options. If The Hoxton Holborn sounds geographically confused — it opened last September as an off-shoot of the cool The Hoxton Shoreditch hotel, further east — then, in all other things, its vision is clear. When I step inside, I’m immediately in the grip of bar-restaurant Hubbard & Bell. The check-in desk, behind a corner, is almost an afterthought; a pile of antique suitcases by the door seems to declare, ‘Drop everything, grab a drink. We’ll find your room later.’

A similar message is seemingly conveyed half a mile away in Holborn at Rosewood London — a palatial 1914 Belle Époque building that was once an insurance company’s headquarters. It assumed its latest guise in 2013. Again, from the grand courtyard and facade to the equally lavish Grand Staircase and interiors, the message is clear: ‘Midtown’ — once the midpoint on your journey to some other place —  is now a destination in itself.

Essentials

Getting there
Rail operators that use King’s Cross include Virgin Trains, First Hull Trains and Thameslink & Great Northern. St Pancras is served by the likes of East Midlands Trains and Southeastern, as well as Eurostar.
British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet and Flybe offer domestic flights to London.  

 

More info
visitbritain.com
visitengland.com
visitlondon.com
The Rough Guide to London, by Rob Humphreys and Samantha Cook. RRP: £14.99

 

How to do it
Kirker Holidays has two nights at St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel from £278 per person, including breakfast.
Martin Randall Travel has a one-day Great Railway Termini tour that studies the architecture of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations (plus Paddington) in the company of Professor Gavin Stamp, a Gilbert Scott expert. From £190 per person, including lunch. Next tour: 24 September.

 

Promotional listing

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Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)