Cross examination

Like many of the vulnerable people spending cold nights on its pavements and in its doorways, King's Cross has effectively lost its identity. Formerly known as Battle Bridge, its current name refers to a short-lived monument to George IV erected in 1836 at the junction of Gray's Inn Road and Euston Road, but demolished nine years later in a road-widening scheme. Property developers of the time were keen to rename Battle Bridge which had become "a haunt of thieves and murderers" and seized the strange folly as their own, thus ousting the proposed "Boudicea's Cross" (a reference to a battle falsely thought to have been fought here between the warrior queen and the Romans) from underground maps of the future.

So, King's Cross it remains, but, as visitors today can't fail to notice, the proposed makeover didn't quite do the trick. To fully appreciate the rich King's Cross landscape, the dispassionate observer needs a measure of perspective far removed from the vice and litter. The comparative height of York Way offers a stunning panorama of the King's Cross and St Pancras skyline, a wide-angle view of London which captures the essence of the capital. In one of the many discussion documents on the future of the area, Philip Davis of English Heritage described King's Cross and St Pancras as: "arguably the most important railway buildings, not just in England, but in the world."

The splendour of these two Grade I-listed buildings has been well documented elsewhere, but a stroll down Goods Way reveals an unexpected delight that most Londoners won't be as familiar with. A sign, a few hundred yards down, points to Camley Street Natural Park, a green haven owned by Camden Council and run by the London Wildlife Trust (above). This unlikely site sits on the left bank of Regent's Park Canal, defiantly close to a waste- disposal site and within earshot of the tannoy systems. The park is towered over on all sides - by Bagley's nightclub to the west and by the splendid, soon-to-be-demolished gas-holders to the south - but it somehow strikes a tranquil note.

Camley Street Natural Park was opened by the then GLC leader Ken Livingstone in 1985 - who marked the event by releasing some newts - and has a visitors' centre, a woodland area and a reed-fringed pool. Staff talk in wondrous tones of its ever-changing floral carpet of snowdrops, primroses and cowslips, and talk passionately of endangered species and coppicing. Entrance is free and there is a free playscheme during the summer holidays.

Camley Street wiggles north, under the bridge carrying the lines into St Pancras. Through a dusty iron gate on the left-hand side is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest Christian sites in Europe and whose spooky burial ground inters the eminent architect Sir John Soane and his wife Elizabeth. Its gnarled trees and peeping snowdrops cower in the menacing Victorian shadow of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.

St Pancras Way is on the far side of the gardens and leads south to a more recognisable King's Cross - the sleazy railway arches of Midland Road. These sinister-looking warrens conceal antique shops, picture framers and an implausibly busy set of car-washes which have motorists queuing in the road outside. The bottom half of the road is dominated on the left by St Pancras station and on the right by the new British Library. This isn't the architectural disaster that many had feared - its long, relatively low, shelf-like design complements its grand neighbour and uses matching Nottingham brick.

A detour down St Pancras Way, followed by a sharp left, brings the visitor to Cheney Street, where scenes from The Ladykillers and High Hopes were shot. "It's the top of the world," Cyril's mum croaks in awe from the roof of his flat, as she surveys the skyline at the end of Mike Leigh's film. And she's right. A storm's-eye view of the chaos below restores that measure of physical and psychological perspective which is all that's missing from a unique area.

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