This set of photos is the 40th in my ongoing project to photograph the whole of London by bike, which I began in May, and it follows on from three previous sets recording a particular journey I made on September 3, 2012, when I cycled from Tottenham Court Road, up Hampstead Road to Mornington Crescent, and then along Camden High Street, through busy Camden with its many lively markets to the Regent’s Canal.
From there I cycled along the tow path of this wonderful artery that avoids the traffic-choked chaos of London’s roads to St. Pancras Basin and King’s Cross — or, to be specific, the King’s Cross development project that is currently underway, which, it seems to me, is rather dangerously at odds with the spirit of the canal, as a place of calm, and an antidote to the clamour of money that is so incessant elsewhere.
Since the redevelopment of London’s docklands in the 1980s, waterside developments have increasingly become the preserve of the rich and the brash, and once the entire shoreline of the River Thames was exhausted (only a few undeveloped dockets remain), developers turned their attentions to the canals — and specifically, to the Regent’s Canal, which runs in a huge loop, all the way from Limehouse to Little Venice (near Paddington), where it joins the Grand Union Canal, via Mile End, Hackney, Islington, King’s Cross and Camden. In Hackney, for example, giant housing blocks tower over the towpath, and the same is happening at King’s Cross.
Obviously, change is part of London life. The Regent’s Canal, on which work began exactly 200 years ago, was originally an investment, and a thoroughfare for trade, thriving for only a relatively short time until the railways took over from the canals. Saved largely by devotees, the canals then became a haven for those who loved living off the beaten path in all manner of boats, or who loved — for pleasure rather than for work — navigating Britain’s extensive canal network, in which the Regent’s Canal had once played such a major role, joining the Grand Union Canal to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames.
With such changes in the last 200 years, there is no watertight precedent for refuting contemporary arguments that what London’s canals need is the proximity of aggressive office blocks and acres of speculative high-rise housing, but those advocating it — especially at the King’s Cross development, a 67-acre site east of St. Pancras Basin, between the St. Pancras and King’s Cross railway lines, where there will be eight million square feet (nearly 750,000 square metres) of offices, retail outlets, and a mixture of properties for sale or rent — have no argument that can sway those who prefer their canals to be places of quiet contemplation, or alternative thoroughfares, or places where history still lives, or simply places to dream, and to dream beside water.
For these people — and I count myself as one of them — what we’d like is for those with power and money to keep a sense of proportion when it comes to London’s canals, but instead, and with varying degrees of hypocrisy, developers, architects, corporate interests and politicians from the local to the national level are involved in grafting civic rationales for their development plans — and their turnover — onto what is, essentially, the brash show of money — that of transnational corporate vultures, moving into new state of the art headquarters, and/or investing in speculative housing for the mainly foreign investors who continue to drive London prices so high that, within a generation, the arrogant and careless rich may find that there is no one left to do their menial work, as everyone poor has been driven out of the capital altogether.
In some cases, the investors at work in King’s Cross and elsewhere are also involved in the creation and management of new high-rise blocks for those who are less wealthy, who may well discover that this housing, like the well-intentioned tower blocks of the 1950s to the 1970s, turns out to be as much of a disappointment as so many of those projects were. The only difference this time around, it seems to me, is that the developers are not councils, but private companies, or private-public partnerships, who are interested — solely, it seems — in squeezing far more money out of their tenants than the well-meaning councils of the post-war years would ever have contemplated.
This photo set deals with these extremes — the tranquility of St. Pancras Basin against the high-rise hubris of the King’s Cross developers. It may be that I am wrong, but increasingly, as more and more of London is privatised and ever higher skyscrapers rise up in the City and Canary Wharf, by and for the same people who nearly bankrupted the world in the global financial crash of 2008, and as high-rise unaffordable property continues to replace affordable housing all over the capital, from north to south, and from east to west, I am anxious to forego whatever limited civic improvements might accompany this Darwinian show of wealth and power, and to take back our streets, our houses and our canals for the people.
In future journeys, I will continue to explore these themes, but for now I hope you enjoy this last part — for now — of my journey along the Regent’s Canal.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Years ago I shared a workshop at the kings land basin just of kings land road hackney I was there for about 8years in the basin there were a collection of boats with old hippies liveing on them it was a nice peacefully community lots of wild life swans ,Herron,Gauls ,you could see huge fish swimming around in the basin …..I took a walk alone there recently ..all gone ugly looming designer apartments at least 10 story’s high blocking out all the light the basin is now a dead place ..just that whole corporate repulsiveness everywhere you look these strange odd corporate type semi human things you know like out of the fantastic film…….they live……these strange creatures all kinda generic the old hackney is fading away very very fast….to be replaced by this creepy world of smoke and mirrors full of these sinister strange creepy……..beings,lol
No there not just like the aliens from they live (it’s on YouTube go see) they also remind me of the…morlocks…from the 1962 rod Taylor film the …..the time machien…..,lol,lol
Damo, you always get to the heart of the problem. I did a bike ride from Islington all the way to Limehouse Basin on the Regent’s Canal, and the developments at the Kingsland Basin was as shocking as you say. The dead-eyed zombie developers are everywhere, and the times you described are either thoroughly endangered, or a thing of the past. I think they mean to drive us all out of London.
On Facebook, Christopher John Webster wrote:
great set Andy… just gets better
Toia Tutta Jung wrote:
Agree ^^ these pictures are really great!
Gillian ‘Angel Steele’ Hendy wrote:
Great pictures and great that King’s Cross is being dragged into the 21st Century, the area by those gasometers was very erm grim to say the least.
Thanks, Chris and Toia. Very encouraged by your comments! And Gillian, perhaps some of this is down to taste – and I obviously like neglected places – but I find Granary Square a rather dark presence, and I’m worried about all the high-rises going up, and planned, for the development zone. The wind will be scything down the tunnels created by these tall buildings, and some of the tower blocks going up look particularly horrible already. More photos coming soon, which will hopefully illustrate some of my concerns.
Gillian ‘Angel Steele’ Hendy wrote:
I meant more in terms of the general feeling of the place Andy! I recall York Way and also the road by the gasometers many years ago – not nice at all. The last time I was in the area was for an interview at The Guardian’s brand spanking new office and it felt so much better walking up York Way – lighter and less threatening than some years ago!
Thanks for clarifying, Gillian. I do understand what you mean. I guess my hostility towards rampant commercial and corporate development – at a time when more and more ordinary hard-working people are finding it hard to get by – is rather all-consuming!
I lived in kings x 23 years ago in Tavistock square it was ruff,lol street prostitutes,crackheads and dealers the homeless ,the mentally ill,the lost.i went through kings x recently and although they have pulled down everything in sight the same people were there only this time there corporate prostitutes,coke heads,dealers,the criminally insane,,lol,lol,a lot of them were hanging round the…..guardians..new offices,lol,lol,lol joking aside kings x is now dead zombie land just like shorditch has become…gentrification by stealth .a friend of mine lived for years in the council flats behind st pancreas station now they were moved out yeah they were paid of but not at market rates most of them left the area after generations of family’s had lived there you know social cleansing has and is taking place it was going on long before these vile Tories got in they do want us out of london they want a london for the wealthy and super wealthy only come on you only have to go to places like Fulham (we’re I was born) to see wot happens when you have out of control gentrification and the area is infested by the super wealthy..Fulham was like kings x a very different and working class place before…I rode through Fulham recently I left there 32 years ago but I rode through and I didn’t see anyone on the street..no body just street after street of dark dead …trophy houses…no life I felt like Carlton Heston in the omega man driving round a deserted post appocoliptic Los Angeles…this is wot happens….do we really want this
Yes, Damo – trophy houses! That’s what estate agents advertise: I’ve seen “trophy flat” and “top floor totty” (for a first floor flat) used by estate agents. Great analysis – and no, we don’t want this, but it is starting to be apparent that we no longer count. The poor will be stealthily socially cleansed, and everyone not rich enough to buy into the mortgage loan racket – currently £280,000 and upwards for a two-bedroom flat – will be economically strangled via exorbitant rents.
On Facebook, I posted “Haunted,” and wrote:
This is my favourite photo from my recent set comparing and contrasting the Regent’s Canal at St. Pancras Basin, where there are narrow boats, a lock and a community wildlife park, with the huge, 67-acre corporate development rising up between the King’s Cross and St. Pancras railway lines – and this wonderful boarded-up Victorian building is caught between these two worlds.
Mary Shepard wrote:
Fantastic, I could write stories with this building in my mind’s eye. It stirs the imagination!
That’s very good to hear, Mary. I too have found myself enchanted by it.
God they keep building these hideous apartment blocks everywhere on any old shitheap scrap of land (like the ones in the picture) have you seen the one at the end of hackney rd unbelievable 20 stories high so out of place and will be dated and crappy in 20 years london isn’t New York or Hong Kong it’s a medieval city …leave it alone…oh I forgot again corporate money can buy and do whatever it want…darn it any how could I forget a thing like that,lol
Ha! Yes, Damo – dated and crappy in 20 years’ time is every accurate for many, if not most of these get-rich-quick schemes for the developers. My only quibble would be that it might take less than 20 years, as I’m not convinced everything is being built without the usual corners being cut. Anything for a quick buck, eh?
I dont think I’ve come across the Hackney Road development yet. Is it underway? I know there’s been a long-standing struggle regarding a 51-storey monstrosity at the Shoreditch end, now called Principal Place.
The website for that is here: http://www.principalplace.co.uk/
Christopher John Webster wrote:
looks like it has a few stories to tell…
It certainly does, Chris. I dread to think what the developers are going to do to it.
Sorry Andy it is the shorditch end it’s nearly complete an utter monstrosity and dominates the whole area
I’ll have to check it out, Damo. Thanks. Not sure how I missed it, as I was up there a few weeks ago …
Hi Andy, a great article and set of photos. I cycle down the canal most mornings and it is my moment of escape from the hustle and bustle of London.
I am very concerned that if the high rise development work isn’t put in check, then the canal will become a “tunnel” with no enjoyment left for those who want to walk or cycle along it. If the developers put the new blocks slightly back from the canal, and made them a maximum of 2 stories high, that would be OK, but the ones going up at the moment are far too high and block out the sky.
I will do some digging around to see if there are any urban planning groups that could be persuaded to campaign to prevent any more development, and if I find anything out I will be in touch.
Great to hear from you. Do let me know of you come up with anything. It certainly seems that, since developers started getting away with building high-rise apartment blocks, their greed (which, of course, is multipliable by the number of floors!) in unconstrained. Although Boris claimed to be opposed to uncontrolled high-rise building, he has proven to be as enthusiastic as ken Livingstone. There’s a great Rowan Moore article from the Observer in December that I found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/dec/02/london-high-rise-craze-ruins-skyline
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