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Tracking the story of the railway lands

Dan Carrier talks to heritage expert and former engineer Peter Darley, author of a new book that looks at the history of the railway lands at King’s Cross

30 November, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

The arrival of Queen Victoria at King’s Cross station in 1853. Image: Science and Society Picture Library/National Railway Museum

RAILWAYMANIA gripped the UK in the 1840s and investors, sensing a profit, set about laying tracks that would see locomotives steam across the country, taking people and goods from the major industrial centres.

And on July 1, 1846, directors of the Great Northern Railway met for the first time to hammer out their plans for a major new terminus in King’s Cross.

The story of the railway lands these directors were ultimately responsible for is now told in detail by heritage expert and engineer Peter Darley in a new book that traces the area’s history and the effect the steam engine had on it – effects that are still felt today.

Peter is the founder of the Camden Town Railway Heritage Trust. He has a background in engineering, and when he retired form his full-time work – he specialised in hydro engineering around the world – and became a freelance he began to notice the rich heritage of the railway era around his Primrose Hill home.

“I left permanent employment aged 60 in 2005,” he recalls. “And I found myself able to take more interest in my neighbourhood. I found near my home the Primrose Hill tunnels – and they are magnificent classical structures.

EH Dixon’s painting of the Great Dustheap, King’s Cross, Battle Bridge, 1837, from Maiden Lane. Image: Wellcome Collection

“I couldn’t believe they were there and so few people know about them. I hadn’t seen them in the 30 years I had lived in Primrose Hill, so I explored their origins, the history of the London to Birmingham railway, and the Camden goods yards by what is now Morrisons.”

Before the railways there were the dust heaps and brick fields in King’s Cross: the dust heaps were the product of tons and tons of ashes and other waste piled up and then recycled – used for making bricks, adding to soil, bones for buttons, rags for paper and broken crockery and oyster shells for foundations.

Regent’s Canal came through the area and the Imperial Gas and Coke Company set up works. It was the perfect spot for a new major railway terminus – close, but not too close, to the city, with good links to road and canal, it was the obvious location for a new major station and associated railway yards.

Running from the Euston Road up towards Market Road in the north, Peter looks at the land which for decades was mainly hidden from the public’s gaze – a place of great industry, with goods yards, coal yards, shed for locomotives, food stores, markets, stables and the services needed to keep them moving.

“It is still in the throes of such a major redevelopment – but it was more than that,” he adds. “I felt there is a lot of detailed railway heritage that I felt should be told.”

He takes us through the stories of the industry – but also the post-industrial landscape. Housing, art, social issues and its regeneration also are looked at.

The result is a highly detailed look at the key factor that created King’s Cross today – a book for both keen railway and social historians and any one who lives, works or visits King’s Cross.

The King’s Cross Story: 200 Years of History in the Railway Lands. By Peter Darley, The History Press, £20


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