Built to receive South Yorkshire coal, London’s Coal Drops Yard now mixes its fascinating industrial heritage with high-end shopping and dining. Stephanie Smith reports.
The train journey to King’s Cross London is a familiar one to Yorkshire folk. Too familiar, perhaps. On reaching the capital we might barely look up as we trundle past Finsbury Park, the Emirates Stadium, the Holloway and Caledonian roads, then hit the dark of the tunnel before emerging to enter King’s Cross’s airy arched yellow brick halls.
Yet we have just passed by a site that played a hugely important role in Yorkshire’s heritage and in the development of London. A mere five-minute walk from the station’s back entrance, Coal Drops Yard – and yes, the clue is in the name – is now a striking contemporary shopping, dining and leisure development, but its origins are inextricably linked with Yorkshire, and those links are still there to be seen.
The gateway to Yorkshire, King’s Cross Station was built in 1851–52 as the terminus of the Great Northern Railway, founded some five years earlier to provide the main line from London to York, with branch lines to Sheffield and Wakefield. King’s Cross became the drop-off point for the many goods needed by an ever-hungry, developing Victorian London, but the most important of these was the coal needed to fuel its growth. Built to receive deliveries from South Yorkshire, Coal Drops Yard was sited behind what is now St Pancras Station (which opened in 1868) in the Great Northern’s western goods yard on the Regent’s Canal.
The depot was formed of two long covered train sheds, the Eastern and Western Drops. First came the three-storey Eastern Drops in 1851. The trains entered at the top storey where the bottom of the waggons opened to drop the coal down chutes to the hopper floor to be sorted, before being lowered again to horses and carts waiting on the ground floor. The Western Drops was built in 1860 and opened on to a canal basin with boats waiting to transport it away. There was also a coal office and stabling. All are still standing.
As ingenious a set-up as this was, it didn’t last long. Coal business moved away when, in 1866, Samuel Plimsoll, who grew up in Sheffield and was by now a coal merchant, opened his own coal drops close by, having invented a mechanism that reduced damage while dropping. The Eastern Coal Drops was sold to glass bottle manufacturer, Bagley, Wild and Company, founded in 1871 in Knottingley. In the 1930s, Joseph Bagley & Co was transporting 30 wagons of bottles a day to the yard, reportedly carried away by “gangs of fearsome and muscular women”, whose nocturnal activities also came under suspicion.
As road transport overtook both rail and canal, the buildings were abandoned. Then in the 1990s Coal Drops found new life as home to London’s rave scene with The Cross nightclub and Bagley’s (later Canvas), where around 2,500 clubbers would party up and down its three floors (it’s now home to Wolf & Badger).
In 2007, after work for the Channel Tunnel had been completed, development started on Coal Drops Yard as part of the massive King’s Cross regeneration project that includes the Great Northern Hotel, whose curved lines dictated the architecture of the station’s new semi-circular concourse (a handy place to stay for exploring Coal Drops, especially if you want to try nightlife there).
For the £100m redevelopment, developers Argent commissioned designer Thomas Heatherwick who has united the two long sheds to create a “kissing roof” above the central yard. This will soon provide space for Samsung’s creative and digital playground of a shop. It’s the centrepiece of a really quite astonishing development that now offers a fascinating and eclectic mix of more than 50 shops and dining places, all chosen because they offer something out of the ordinary. Bagley’s brightly painted walls are still be to seen and all around are clues to Coal Drops’ former life, the remains of signs, the elaborate cast-iron columns, and a trio of gas holders, two of which are now swish apartments and one a park. Historian Rebecca Haslam of Pre-Construct Archaeology, which works with Argent on the project, gives talks on the former incarnations of Coal Drops Yard.
Back to the modern day and shops include French fabric and furnishings boutique Caravane, plus Cos, Fred Perry, Paul Smith, Kitchen Provisions, Superga, Tom Dixon, Cheaney, Bonds and an Oxfam Boutique charity shop. There is a beautiful Miller Harris store where you can stick your head into scented umbrellas for a complete sensory experience, and a Face Gym, where you can stop off for a vigorous face-toning session.
Dining stop-offs include Bodega Rita’s sandwich bar (with great wine) and Redemption Roasters cafe, which works with prisons and former inmates, both in the Lower Stables. Morty & Bob’s is an atmospheric and bustling cafe-restaurant famed for its cheese toasties, Vermuteria Cafe & Bar has tasty Italian-based dishes and an extensive vermouth list, Alain Ducasse offers the finest coffee in the world, served with delicious madeleines, and Casa Pastor serves reasonably priced Mexican-inspired food in vibrant surroundings. The Drop next door is a friendly bar where you might just find some Yorkshire waiting staff – an ideal spot for a drink before heading off to the Everyman Cinema close by.
Landscape architect Dan Pearson has recently created a new floral installation with outdoor seating to fill the ground floor yard with colour. Right next door to Coal Drops Yard is Central St Martins and Granary Square with its multi-coloured fountains – a treat day and night. But perhaps my favourite find was the bookshop a moored narrowboat on the canal.
Its proximity to King’s Cross Station makes Coal Drops Yard a potential day trip from Yorkshire, say, arriving at 10.30am and leaving at 7ish. That’s my aim. Plenty to do and home in time for bed.
* Coal Drops Yard is situated close to King’s Cross London Station. Find out more on https://www.coaldropsyard.com/
Recommended accommodation: The Great Northern Hotel, King’s Cross St Pancras Station, Pancras Road, London, https://gnhlondon.com/
Enquires about train travel there: https://www.lner.co.uk/