Exploring the East Coast Mainline – King’s Cross to New Southgate

Just as we all thought there was some semblance of order to this series of blogs and vlogs with me heading further and further north from Peterborough, I decided to mix it all up a bit and head to London to do the six most southerly stations on the East Coast Mainline (ECML). From the bustle of the terminus of King’s Cross, via the busy commuter station at Finsbury Park to the suburban stations of Harringay, Hornsey, Alexandra Palace and New Southgate, this section of the ECML is very varied with plenty to see and do.

The Real Food Market outside King’s Cross station

Having arrived at the adjacent St. Pancras on an EMR Class 180 (read about that here) and with a couple of hours to spare, I decided to tick off King’s Cross whilst I had the chance and then cover the other stations on another day. Being a London terminus, the choice of things to see and do within a reasonable distance of King’s Cross is more than I could possibly write about and so I opted to cover a couple of lesser-known areas around what is one of London’s most famous stations.

Immediately outside King’s Cross is King’s Cross square which, between Wednesday and Friday, is home to the Real Food Market. With a dozen independent traders “who are invested in their product, helping support the local economy as well as the natural environment through sustainable food production”, the market sells a wide range of excellent food and is definitely worth a visit. When the market is in residence its open between 1200 and 1900, although a couple of the traders open earlier in the morning.

A rather outdated view of King’s Cross from York Way

Heading up the east side of King’s Cross (the platform 0 side), York Way provides a good view over the northern end of the platforms and a piece of railway history, the former King’s Cross (York Road) mini-station that served trains continuing down to Moorgate via the Widened Lines. Closed in 1976 when suburban trains were diverted via the Northern City line, King’s Cross (York Road) was accessed via ramps from York Way and was separate to the main station.

The next attraction around the King’s Cross area wasn’t open for me to visit but is something I’d like to do when I get the chance. From York Way, head down Wharfdale Road and then take the left turn onto New Wharf Road and you’ll find one of London’s lesser-known museums, the London Canal Museum. The museum tells “the story of canals, boats, the ice trade, and ice cream” and also periodically runs boat trips through the Islington Canal Tunnel. At the moment the museum is open Thursday to Sunday from 1000 to 1630 and costs £5 for adults. The boat trips run between one and three times a month during the summer and cost £9.25 although this includes the entry fee to the museum.

The Regent’s Canal north of King’s Cross

Although the museum wasn’t open, I did follow the advice of their website and take a walk along the canal towpath towards Camden Town. Access to the canal itself is a short walk from the museum up All Saints Street and Caledonian Road where, after crossing the canal by bridge, steps lead down to the towpath on the north side of the water. I only took a short walk along the canal, back towards St Pancras and the next destination on this mini tour, Coal Drops Yard.

Located on the north side of the Regent’s Canal, in a site bounded by York Way, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and the canal itself, Coal Drops Yard used to be part of the expansive railway yards surrounding King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations. Two Victorian coal drops sheds used to receive 8m tonnes of coal from South Yorkshire each year and trans-ship it onto narrow-boats and horse-drawn carts for distribution around the capital.

The view of King’s Cross and St. Pancras from the north

Whilst a fire gutted on of the coal drop sheds, the other was used as a night club until 2007. Redevelopment of the site began with the appointment of architect Thomas Heatherwick in 2014, with the plans approved in late 2015. Two years of construction followed and Coal Drops Yard is now “a shopping destination and foodie hotspot just a five-minute walk from King’s Cross St Pancras stations”.

Following a quick look around Coal Drops Yard, I crossed back over the canal (via Somers Town Bridge) and through Camley Street Natural Park before heading south along Camley Street itself to St. Pancras. Although not as frequent as services to the Midland Mainline, there are now four trains an hour from St Pancras that run via the Canal Tunnels to Finsbury Park and beyond on the ECML, and I jumped on one of these for the short run to Finsbury Park.

Great Northern’s ‘Thank You NHS’ class 717 at Finsbury Park

The busiest station on the ECML between York and King’s Cross, Finsbury Park is a key commuter interchange, with services provided by Great Northern and Thameslink to Cambridge, Ely, Peterborough, and intermediate stations, along with connections to the London Underground Piccadilly and Victoria Lines. With Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium a short distance to the south, the station is also used by a large number of football fans on a regular basis.

Running on former railway land between the station and the football ground is Gillespie Park and Ecology Centre, which is open from 8am until dusk on a daily basis, except when events are being held at the stadium (I assume due to anti-social behaviour). The park was winner of the Green Flag Award in 2019 and the London Conservation Area of the Year award in London in Bloom 2015 and is Islington’s largest nature reserve. I’ve walked through the park a couple of times in the past and its an amazing oasis of calm with only the ‘clickty clack’ of passing trains able to be heard.

Part of the Parkland Walk from Finsbury Park

Finsbury Park’s other attraction is its namesake, Finsbury Park itself. A mix of open space and leisure facilities, the park originally opened in 1869 and was designed by Alexander McKenzie. Unfortunately, a lack of funding throughout the late 20th century resulted in many of the original features disappearing and the park falling into a state of disrepair until 2003 when a £5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund led to the restoration of the park including the clearing of the lake and the construction of a new café.

The next station north from Finsbury Park is Harringay, served by the Great Northern commuter services from Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage to Moorgate and therefore served by four trains an hour in each direction off-peak. I actually arrived at the station on foot from Finsbury Park via the ‘attraction’ that I’m classing as something to do from Harringay but can actually be reached from numerous rail and tube stations, the Parkland Walk. Split into two sections, the Parkland Walk runs from Finsbury Park to Highgate (the southern section) and from Muswell Hill to Cranley Gardens near Alexandra Palace (the northern section). With a number of routes connecting the two sections, the total route is about 5km and the two sections run along the former track bed of the Great Northern Railway’s branch from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace (the current Alexandra Palace station was then known as Wood Green), which closed to passenger traffic in the 1950s.

Stapleton Hall Road bridge on the Parkland Walk

The walk provides a green avenue through the suburbs of north London and at times you genuinely forget that you’re in the capital city due to the noise barrier provided by the trees. I followed the walk from Finsbury Park to Stapleton Hall Road bridge where I headed back down to street level to finish the walk to Harringay. The walk can be accessed at various points along the route and you can reach it from the following stations: Finsbury Park (NR & LU); Harringay (NR); Crouch Hill (Overground); and Highgate (LU).

From Harringay, I had just a couple of minutes ride on a Great Northern class 717 to the next stop on the line, Hornsey which lies adjacent to the Hornsey Train Maintenance Depot, home to the Great Northern and Thameslink fleet that operate on the ECML. In the immediate vicinity of the station, there’s not much to see or do, however a short bus ride takes you to Crouch End and its historic clock tower.

Crouch End Clock Tower – Photo by HughJLF via Wikimedia Commons

The Crouch End Clock Tower was erected in 1895 in ‘appreciation and recognition of the public services’ of Henry Reader Williams who was an important local benefactor and chairman of the local authority from 1880 to 1894. With his aim to make Hornsey a ‘model suburb’ Williams campaigned to protect Highgate and Queen’s Woods from developers and also paved the way for the purchase of Alexandra Palace and Park by local authorities in 1901, although he didn’t live to see this purchase. Such was William’s popularity in the area that £900 of the £1200 cost of the tower was raised through public subscription in just three weeks and the commission, design and construction of the tower took just a few months.

From Crouch End, it was another short bus ride to the main attraction for the penultimate station of this blog, although it was actually the final one visited during my research. Alexandra Palace station (formerly Wood Green) is where the Great Northern suburban routes split with trains heading north on either the ECML towards Welwyn Garden City or via the Hertford Loop towards Hertford North and Stevenage. Bounds Green train depot, operated by Hitachi to maintain LNER’s Azuma fleet amongst others is also located near the station with the ‘up’ Hertford Loop line running adjacent to the depot stabling roads.

Alexandra Palace looking over Alexandra Park

Of course, the main attraction near Alexandra Palace station is Alexandra Place itself along with Alexandra Park in which it is situated. Initially opened on 24th May 1871, Alexandra Palace unfortunately suffered from a devastating fire less than three weeks later and following restoration, re-opened in 1875. Threatened with demolition a quarter of a century later, a committee of local authorities saved the Palace by purchasing it, with trustees of these authorities having a duty to “keep both building and park available for the free use and recreation of the public forever”. The Palace is still in public hands today, with Haringey Council now having responsibility for it and the park.

As well as its stunning architectural design, Alexandra Palace is famous for being the location of the world’s first public broadcasts of what was then ‘high-definition’ television. The BBC had a presence in the Palace until 1969 and the antenna that was original raised in 1935 is still used for some broadcasts to this day. Two television studios, their producers’ galleries and the original Victoria theatre still remain in the building, with the former used to display historic television equipment whilst the latter is once again used for performances. Whilst the entirety of Alexandra Palace is Grade II listed, the theatre and stage structure are on English Heritage’s ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.

The view of Central London from Alexandra Park

Alexandra Park spans 80-hectares and has been designated a local nature reserve since 2013 as well as being a Site of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation. Until 1970 the park hosted horse racing, and also used to be home to a herd of fallow deer which have since been moved to Devon. The park is now home to various sport facilities, a medium-sized lake and frequently hosts food, craft and beer festivals, a farmer’s market and other events such as fireworks displays and a weekly parkrun. The entrance to the park is just a short walk from Alexandra Palace station, although a bus also runs through the park connecting the station at the bottom of the hill with the Palace at the top.

The final station for this part of Exploring the East Coast is New Southgate, the first suburban station after the Great Northern lines split and therefore only called at by a half-hourly Welwyn Garden City to Moorgate service in each direction. For this station I actually cheated and arrived by car, given its location near London’s North Circular road and the fact I had a bit of time to waste between appointments in east and west London.

The lake in Friern Bridge Open Space

With a limited amount of time, I didn’t venture too far from New Southgate, however I was there long enough to discover just how much green space there was nearby. Exiting the station via its western entrance, it was just a short walk to the first of these parks, Friern Bridge Open Space which is a smallish area of grass and footpaths, along with a small lake. Surrounded by a retail park, housing estate and the north circular, for the most part the noise is blocked out and it provides quite a peaceful place for a walk.

Whilst I didn’t venture any further (I wasn’t 100% sure of the route and didn’t have time to get lost), just across the North Circular (there is a footbridge) is Hollickwood Park and, at its southern end, Bluebell Woods. The latter is a small remnant of one of London’s ancient woodlands, Tottenham Wood which in 1619 covered 388 acres. Today, the Bluebell Wood is just over an acre in size and is home to a range of trees and wildlife however, despite its name, there are no native bluebells within the wood.

The ECML looking north from New Southgate towards the next station, Oakleigh Park

Hopefully this blog has shown you some of the things you can do and places you can explore at the southern end of the ECML. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of green space around suburban north London, and it was great to be able to explore some of them, especially the short section of the Parkland Walk that I covered. There are 12 more stations on the southern section of the ECML for me to cover, those between and including Oakleigh Park and Hitchin, so I’ve got plenty more journeys on Great Northern to tick those off.

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