A Tour Of King's Cross And Clerkenwell With A Formerly Homeless Guide

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 19 months ago

Last Updated 23 November 2022

A Tour Of King's Cross And Clerkenwell With A Formerly Homeless Guide
A man studies papers, silhouetted against the glass arches ceiling of St Pancras station
Ben's tour begins in the ecclesiastical surroundings of St Pancras station. Image: Londonist

"Nothing is too good for ordinary people". So said Berthold Lubetkin, who came to London from the Soviet Union in 1931, and built visionary housing projects like Bevin Court in Clerkenwell.

The problem nowadays, says my tour guide Ben, is it's a case of  "Nothing is good enough for extraordinary people."

We begin our walk in the ecclesiastical surroundings of St Pancras station — a dramatic herald for the Victorian age of railways. Except the revolution wasn't good for everyone: out in the zealously-gentrified surroundings of King's Cross, we pause amid the flashy eateries to pick out the philanthropic Stanley Buildings. The construction of the railways meant the displacement of thousands here, and few were afforded such sanctuary as these balconied Victorian flats.

"This tour tells the story not only of the big people and the powerful, but also the story of the little people," explains Ben.

A glassy fronted building
Google's new HQ is the latest addition to a revamped King's Cross. Image: Londonist

This, says Ben, was the advent of King's Cross reputation as a murky hinterland of poverty and prostitution. Even now, as the new Google HQ rises (or should that be stretches — apparently it'll be longer than The Shard is tall), all is not well in publoid paradise; flickers of hostile architecture are everywhere. Whoever writes the invisible rules doesn't look kindly on rough sleepers.

This an especially important subject to Ben, who became homeless in 2003 following a dispute with a flatmate, and spent four years in a homeless hostel in Brockley.

"It was a challenging experience but it broadened my outlook and made me more open-minded," says my guide.

A map showing King's Cross on the boundaries of London in the Victoria era
King's Cross' reputation as a murky hinterland of poverty and prostitution started back in the Victorian age of the railways. Image: Londonist

The intimate nature of Ben's tour — a new addition to the series led by Unseen Tours, where formerly homeless guides lead walks around the city — doesn't end there. King's Cross and Clerkenwell mean a lot to him; the rails lead up to his family roots in Scotland and Lancashire. Ben lived a while in Italy too, and Clerkenwell's Italianate churches — and its campanile that could have been filched from Florence — are welcome nods to his days on the Continent.

An Italianate redbrick church with campanile, opposite a green tiled pub
Italianate architecture around Clerkenwell reminds Ben of his days in Italy. Image: Londonist

Perhaps most pertinently, Ben's dad worked for the King's Cross-based Guardian (including a stint as an obituary writer); a poignant stop is at The Kolossi in Exmouth Market, where Ben and his father ate "possibly hundreds of times", and where journalists from paper, and workers from Amnesty International, came to chew the fat over matters of the day.

Ben remembers his dad's leaving do at the Greek restaurant, and the appearance of a belly dancer, which caused unease among the journalists, fearing it was misogynistic of them to watch. A female Guardian writer chipped in: "She's a working woman, we need to support her!" and after that, a good time was had by all.

A modernist concrete staircase painted red
"I would liked people to have learnt something that they already know: that happiness is not an individual matter, and that places we share, even stairwells can be beautiful." Image: Londonist

As for Lubetkin's Bevin Court — with its unabashed sculptural concrete staircase slathered in Soviet rouge (and under which it's rumoured the architect buried a shrine to Lenin) — that's a highlight of the tour. Especially if you're lucky enough to be let inside by one of the residents.

On entering, one man appears on the staircase, demanding I pay five quid for each photo I've snapped. Then he cracks a smile: "Nah! Take as many as you want!"

"They are always welcoming, always cracking jokes," says Ben.

A blue plaque to Lenin on a dark brick wall flanked by grand windows
Revolt bubbles up here and there. Image: Londonist

For every slice of social enterprise and philanthropy on this tour, the spectre of avarice creeps in. In the 1830s, homeowners who lived at the well-manicured Lloyd Square, accused vagrants who pitched up here of 'sadly injuring' the trees. Anecdotes like this give credence to the idea that the richer echelons of society have always been quick to stake their ownership of the land.

Persecution inevitably bubbles up into dissent; the ghost of Lenin shows up again in Percy Square, a blue plaque marking where the Russian revolutionary stayed during his stint in London. "You half expect to look up and see him in the window," says Ben.

A jacketed man holds onto the railings of a garden square, gazing across at the trees
Ben pauses to look into Lloyd Square, one of London's many private gardens. Image: Londonist

The tour's climax takes us to Spa Fields Park — a peaceable spot, where children do keepie-ups in the summer evening light. Except this was the crucible for the Spa Fields riots, from where a group of revolutionaries broke into a gunsmiths and marched on the Tower of London, in a bid to seize power from the government. In the end, the rioters were dispersed; otherwise, teases Ben, things for this country could have looked very different.

This walk, though, is about more than historical titbits and social could-have-beens.

"I would liked people to learn something that they already know," says Ben, "that happiness is not an individual matter, and that places we share, even stairwells can be beautiful."

Ben's two-hour tour of King's Cross and Clerkenwell takes place on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Tickets are £15.