King's Cross facelift: A peek behind the bandages

Taking a look at the nearly completed redevelopment of one of London's busiest railway stations, Matilda Battersby dons the orange overalls

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The Independent Culture

Anyone who regularly passes through London’s busy King’s Cross railway station will by now be used to the sight of scaffolding and blue hoardings flanking Platform 8. But I’ll wager that most of the 47 million of us who enter the station every year barely notice the building site via which we’re travelling, so carefully wrapped out of sight are the major feats of engineering underway.

For most of us, destination in mind, the station is just a dilapidated shell, convenient for catching the train to Cambridge or Edinburgh. The main concourse, disjointed and dysfunctional, remains beneath an irrepressibly ugly green awning – a 1972 extension housing coffee shops, a WHS Smiths and indeterminate sandwich sellers. A far cry from the glamorous marble-lined shopping city of neighbouring St Pancras.

You may be surprised to hear that a £500 million King’s Cross redevelopment is just a year away from completion. In the once dead space on the western side of Platform 8 more than 330 workers heft stone, scaffolds and brick – both tearing down and restoring - shielded from curious eyes behind a warren of office space, underground tunnels and disused storage rooms commuters have no idea are there.

The brainchild of architects John McAslan + Partners, the new face of King’s Cross will be a brand new domed concourse, similar to a souped up Millenium Dome, which will link the original Victorian building and the neighbouring Great Northern Hotel with a circle of bomb-proof glass and steel.

The current green concourse monstrosity will be given as fodder for the bulldozers. Its demolition will reveal the 1852 Grade I listed facia designed by the original station’s architect Lewis Cubitt (who also designed to Great Northern Hotel) exposed in all its glory. And as if that weren’t a triumph enough, the space where the original concourse sat will become a piazza style garden for the traveller with time to kill to sit and read, weather permitting.

I recently donned a bright orange reflective jacket and trousers, clodhopper boots and a hard hat and goggles (not just for fun, I hasten to add), in order to be allowed admittance behind the builders’ hoardings. One of the very few women on site, and drowning rather in my standard issue XXL uniform, it was an intriguing experience.

Stepping onto the building site was a bit like stepping into a vortex. It's difficult to explain quite how odd it is to discover such a huge space hidden in familiar surroundings. I can only compare it to the impossible scenario of finding a trapdoor in my flat leading to a huge house I’d forgotten was there. Security was tight. I was given a lesson in what-not-to-do (speak on the phone while operating heavy machinery etc - as if?) before I was issued with my hi-vis outfit and signed in and out of several ‘check points’.

Entering what some of you might remember as Marks & Spencer’s and the Duke of York pub, now behind boards on Platform 8, the stripped down walls and floors reveal Victorian windows and cornices. Yards away in the original ticket office, due to be reinstated, there are some huge ornate wall brackets which were uncovered for the first time in 50 years during the build. The beauty of this project is clearly the Cubitt-era gems long hidden by cheap and functional interiors.

Inside the 8,000 sq m space which will become the sweeping globe of a new concourse, it is a tangle of intricate scaffolding. The scaffolds, in fact, are bearing the weight of the sweep of iron girders which, when glazed, will eventually become a glorious self-supporting roof with a mezzanine of shops and coffee bars beneath. Atop the curve of steel and wood men in their orange overalls are harnessed, welding and drilling, the only ones on site allowed to remove the clodhopper boots.

A trip up some (frankly, rather rickety) scaffolding steps leads to fantastically grand, high ceilinged Victorian rooms with views of St Pancras. Used for decades as offices for train companies, they have been restored painstakingly (all to English Heritage approved standards) and are majestic in quality as a result. The contrast between the clean beauty of these rooms and the frenzy of the main station below was pronounced.

Stranger still, two floors above the ticket office (up yet more scaffolding) was a generously proportioned room known as the ‘badminton court.’ During its excavation the builders came across lino with a badminton court marked out – last used by drivers during their ‘R and R’ in the 19th Century.

Much has been made of the urban folklore that King’s Cross was built on the site of Boudica’s final battle and that her body lies buried under Platform 8. Walking through the maze of tunnels beneath the platforms and in the newly opened-up rooms, some of which haven’t been accessed since the 1950s, is rather spooky. My guide tells me only after we’ve left the area that some of the construction workers have claimed to see ghosts.

A new platform (the Rowling-esque ‘Platform 0’) has been created to keep service disruption to a minimum during the build, which means there will be 12 working platforms after completion. A special area in the redesign has been dedicated to the Platform 9 ¾ to keep Potter fans happy. All in all, the regeneration of King’s Cross and St Pancras will have cost Network Rail and its partners £1.3 billion.

Standing looking out over the new concourse, it is easy to survey the huge impact this project has had on the rejuvenation of a surrounding area which stretches a staggering 67 brown-field acres. They claim the new King’s Cross will be 40 per cent public parks and outside spaces. It is the largest site in single ownership to be developed in London in more than 150 years.

The station's mega facelift incorporates a century of evolution in train travel and its changing needs. There will be capacity for 55 million of us annually, room for 800 bikes, improved access to platforms and facilities, swish shops, restaurants and pubs. When the scaffords are dismantled and the coverings removed, the station will no doubt rival St Pancras as an example of how old architecture can be modernised without sacrificing its credentials. Let’s just hope it opens on time ready for the 2012 Olympics!