Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Great Railway Journeys: London Kings Cross to Peterborough

It’s a tough thing to admit, but it can actually be enjoyable watching Michael Portillo on the television even when he isn’t losing an election. At least if you like trains. Though it’s more about the ride than the presenter, er, taking you on it.

Michael Portillo likes making programmes about railway journeys. He wears ridiculous pink shirts matched with lime green jackets, and what he loses in sartorial elegance, he makes up for with buffoonery. His travel guide is always an ancient Bradshaw’s railway guide, whether in Britain or the Continent.  I watched most of his recent series in Europe, but last night BBC4 was showing a repeat of a journey I had made just two days prior, from London Kings Cross to Peterborough.

Now, London to Peterborough is not what many would call a great railway journey, given that it passes through Hornsey and Stevenage, but Portillo was meaning it to be part of a trip from Portsmouth to Grimsby, which is certainly greater in terms of distance, if not final destination or starting point.

What was interesting to me was at the start, Portillo had a look around the redevelopment of the area immediately around Kings Cross, particularly Granary Square. It was very much a work in progress in the film, and still is, but I had seen a much more finished product on Saturday. I was blessed with a beautiful spring day for my trip to the capital, meaning I had to carry my winter coat (very much needed on my walk to the station in York) over my arm throughout. And Granary Square was my first port of call, where I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee (which, incidentally, I don't drink), at her recommendation. It could not have made a lovelier starting point in the sunshine. St Martin’s College of Art has now moved in to the former Granary building and outside, built on what was previously a canal basin, is a vast grid of low-level fountains. Toddlers were tottering in and out of the water having a simply marvellous time. Our chosen rendezvous, Caravan, served fresh, simple but perfectly formed food with a mediterranean twist (at a London cost of course). Its buzzing atmosphere and beautiful brunch crowd, exuding cool from every table, only served to remind me of how wrong so many eateries in York still (and always will) get it.

The area between Granary Square and Kings Cross is changing and springing up day by day. And I was delighted to see that they have finally knocked down the revolting 1960s frontage to the old Kings Cross station entrance, meaning you now arrive at the Italianate style (Portillo’s words, not mine) original Victorian entrance, with a large piazza to enjoy in front of it. It’s all good.

Portillo then moved on to Alexandra Palace. Except that I could see that on his journey there he was in fact travelling from Alexandra Palace towards Finsbury Park and Kings Cross and not the other way round he implied. The Hornsey New River Village in the Crouch End borders was on his right and not his left. But details, schmetails. Only a former resident would have spotted that.

We could see Ally Pally from our lounge window in Crouch End. I am going to be lazy and import an extract from a text I wrote many years ago (before analogue television signal was switched off) when I still had that view:

"It (Ally Pally) really is a rather beautiful place, with its gilded and turquoise tiles, triangular roof and large round window... Given its history as the home of the first television broadcast by the BBC, the vista of its transmission tower makes it all the more hard to comprehend why we have no network TV channel reception in our flat. We had to get Sky just so we could watch BBC2.
Ally Pally has many purposes these days, the main one for us being a pleasant (and slightly invigorating given its gradient) Sunday afternoon stroll up through its park with visitors so we can show them the magnificent view of London you get from the top. Unlike the London Eye, this one comes for free. Alexandra Palace has a wonderful weekly farmers’ market and one of the best firework displays in London on the nearest Saturday to Bonfire Night. It has an ice rink, a garden centre and regular trade fairs for knitting, dinghy and model railway enthusiasts. It’s part-derelict from being bombed in the war and a large fire, and round the back of the palace you’ll find a Soviet style pleasure park, with concrete skateboarding ramps, a harsh-edged lake and miserable-looking pedalos."
View towards Ally Pally from Crouch End

Portillo then went on to learn about muesli manufacture in Biggleswade and brick-making in Whittlesea. This is possibly why high speed rail was invented, so that the rest of us can hurtle straight past such boring topics. But next time you are killing time before a train at London Kings Cross, take a few minutes to stroll up the new Kings Boulevard (see what they did there?) to Granary Square. Great baked goods, art, splishy-splashing water, a bench or two, and eventually much more besides will await.

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