Back to the Future

Coal Drops Yard goes beyond online shopping to offer authenticity, craftsmanship and heritage

Posted: Friday 19th October 2018

Steeped in history, the music scene in King’s Cross was vibrant and is still infused in the fabric of the area. New retailers and digital pioneers are embracing the potential of Coal Drops Yards, but it is the historical significance of the place that Paul Henderson believes will truly fascinate visitors…

On the surface, Coal Drops Yard development sounds like the very definition of a 21st-century social experience. Tech-powerhouse Facebook will be following Google’s lead and opening a vast London HQ just next door. And AI revolutionaries DeepMind put all their neural networks together and calculated that the King’s Cross neighbourhood was the only place for them to base their brilliant brains. Factor in the cultural creative hotspot that is the Central Saint Martins, and that Samsung will be offering a cutting-edge digital playground there, plus the influx of artisanal retail and hospitality brands, and you have a totally unique approach to a public space — it’s genuinely ground-breaking.

But for Nick Merriman, the Director of London’s Horniman Museum, there’s even more to this incredible new development than that. “For me, the main significance is that Coal Drops Yard allows visitors to see a part of London that has been closed to the public for a huge period of time,” he explains. “It’s a chance to experience London’s industrial and post-industrial history that you will have never seen before. And we have discovered some absolutely fantastic stories during our studies of the area.”

London’s engine room

Merriman has spent most of his professional career widening and encouraging access to traditional historical environments and museums. From his previous work as director of the Manchester Museum, through to developing an interpretation strategy for the acclaimed “Firepower” display at the Royal Artillery’s headquarters, Merriman has specialised in projects that increase public awareness and appreciation for history and is therefore naturally enthusiastic about the Coal Drops Yard backstory. “Most people see King’s Cross as a passenger destination, but its real historical importance was as a goods yard,” Merriman says. “All the buildings behind the railway terminal, including Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard, were really the great engine of London’s Victorian expansion, linking the railways (which brought in the goods) with the canal network and the docks.”

Grain, wood, coal…whales! Whatever London wanted – King’s Cross provided

Taking its name from the vast warehouse spaces that first opened in 1850, coal was stored in the yard and then dropped into waiting wagons from where it was transported around the capital and the country, or sent away for export. For around 20 years, it became one of London’s most vibrant areas as thousands of people worked on the site, mostly as porters, handling the huge supply of goods from around the country that arrived by train, including cattle, grain (delivered to Granary Square), flowers for Covent Garden market, wood and coal from the North of England, and fruit and vegetables from East Anglia. Oh, and the largest animal to have ever existed.

“During our research into the area, we came across the fascinating story about the blue whale that currently sits in the Natural History Museum,” Merriman says. “It was actually transported through King’s Cross as a bloated and rotting carcass from the Lincolnshire coast. It must have been an incredible thing to see… and smell.” After Coal Drops Yard lost business to another coal drop developed by Samuel Plimsoll, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the space was used as warehouse storage.

The epicentre of London’s party scene

For a couple of decades from 1950, British Rail utilised the area for its road-haulage business, but by the late ’80s the warehouses were largely abandoned and King’s Cross had become a very run-down area, synonymous with crime, drugs, and prostitution. But with the removal of railway tracks and the filling in of holes in the exterior walls, Coal Drops Yard was able to reinvent itself again — this time as an iconic nightclub venue.

“At a time when the Criminal Justice Act had essentially outlawed open-air raves, there developed an appetite for using the underground spaces for large-scale dance parties,” Merriman explains. “The arched storage units were perfect for sound, and Bagley’s nightclub even took its name from the old bottling warehouse that had existed years earlier.”

Like all the businesses before it, it was another use of the space that wouldn’t stand the test of time and the music scene there didn’t last beyond the late ’90s (even though Prince played there in 1993), but Coal Drops Yard survived. Thanks to Victorian engineering and the money spent on much of the infrastructure, the viaducts, cobbled streets and wrought iron works not only remained robust and resplendent, but also offered British architects Heatherwick studio a base from which to rebuild and repurpose the site. Linking the long viaducts and the yard helped create a large public space, and the gabled roofs have produced a focal point that adds a cohesion that gives Coal Drops Yard a central heart.

Classic heritage and the hyper-modern

“I think it’s a stunning piece of architecture,” says Merriman of the new design. “It will be a real talking point for visitors, and in practical terms it links the two coal drops by providing a covered space. People will be able to gather there, there will be various performances and, at one level, you can walk under cover between the two buildings. And what is interesting is that it’s offering a very different retail experience for visitors.”

Rather than just another traditional shopping centre, by working with brands who specialise in craftsmanship and high quality it will create a unique proposition that links back to the history of the area. For instance, years ago there were blacksmiths and cobblers working there, and now a new generation of artisans will be occupying the space. Not only that, but for Merriman Coal Drops Yard also offers an obvious appeal to forward-thinking tech companies such as Samsung; being in a place that is redolent of the absolute industrial period of London’s history, for a firm working in — and defined by — a modern post-industrial age, it is perfect. By having a link to the past when you are working in a cutting-edge industry, brings a real authenticity to the business.

It is the same duality which will inspire visitors to come and explore the area when it opens. “The demographic for people who will visit Coal Drops Yard is the same people who would naturally be more interested in history and unique spaces,” Merriman says. “In my opinion, modern retail seems to be heading in a more museum and heritage-experience direction — in other words, it is about authenticity rather than mass consumption. If you can buy everything you want online now, why would you go shopping? Well, one of the reasons is that you would go to an interesting place and have the experience of trying something, watching it being made, seeing the process involved, and talking to like-minded people who are creating the products you are interested in. And that is unique for London.”

But for all the excitement in the marriage of classic heritage and the hyper-modern, Merriman offers a word of caution about the dangers in over-doing the technological hardware in the Coal Drops Yard public spaces. Reflecting on his museum experiences, he makes the point that it is all too easy for electronic displays to quickly appear out of date and behind the times. Today’s expensive interactive digital exhibit is tomorrow’s clunky out-moded computerised model.

“I think that in the heritage areas, they should avoid using too much technology in favour of more complementary materials such as maps, panels, objects in cases — that kind of thing,” he concludes. “By using items and exhibits like that in the common areas, there is a much stronger link to the history of the place. Inside the individual retail areas, they can be as ambitious and creative as they want to be — and they should. But where I think museums have been most successful is when they don’t try to compete with the kind of technology people can find at home or in their workplaces. For me, less is always more; and there really is more than enough to keep people interested at Coal Drops Yard.”

Google, Facebook, DeepMind – why the biggest names in tech are picking King’s Cross…

According to Andrew Missingham of B+A Management Consultants, understanding why so many tech companies have committed to King’s Cross comes down to what they don’t want. Confused? Don’t be. “The incredible thing about Facebook, DeepMind and Google is that they could have located themselves anywhere,” he says. “But they don’t want to be on the ring road. They don’t want to be stuck in the countryside. They don’t want to be in Canary Wharf or the City. But what they do want is a bit of what all those places deliver at their best: they want transport access, open space, a like-minded sector and to be in a buzzy area that is really happening and exciting. King’s Cross and Coal Drops Yard delivers all of that.”

Oh, and Coal Drops Yard also delivers the life-blood of any retail business… people. For a brand like Samsung who create mobile phones, and offer both digital and online experiences, there is an understanding that their technological success story is predicated on having people to interact with them. “But not just that,” says Missingham. “They also need people to interact with their products and with one another to create like-minded communities in real life. And that has to happen in the right space.”

For Missingham, the companies who are taking up residence in Coal Drops Yard also share a mindset with the people who will visit the space once it is open. “We’re not talking about a demographic,” he says. “We are talking about common attitudes to authentic conversations and enriching experiences, shared by occupiers and visitors alike. And I can’t think of another retail space that bears comparison to it.”

This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below. 

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