It’s easy to feel vexed when you arrive in London. Jostling for space on the pavements alongside harassed city workers and tourists with selfie sticks. Trying to navigate changes between tube stations. The exasperation of finding somewhere for lunch that isn’t fully booked till 3pm.
What if I told you there’s a part of the city where you can get the ‘London experience’ without feeling like you need a stiff drink and a lie down after?
Let me introduce you to N1C, a mere 10 minutes on the Circle line from Liverpool Street.
King’s Cross/Coal Drops Yard has undergone a dramatic facelift over the last 10 years. Once considered ‘colourful’ (to say the least) today this neighbourhood has so much to offer. Upmarket shopping, a burgeoning art and creative scene (it’s home to Central St Martin’s College), bars, restaurants, open, capacious plazas, canal side daydreaming spots, covered markets.
The area spans 67 acres, with 50 new and repurposed buildings, including the iconic tubular Gasholders trio and The Granary. There are 27 acres of public space – parks, streets, squares, skyline walkways planted with scented flowers and shrubs.
You’re just a few stops from central London, and a short walk from Camden and Hyde Park.
We begin our stay here by checking out Coal Drops Yard, which revellers might remember as being home to former legendary clubs The Cross and Bagley’s. Reimagined by Heatherwick Studio in 2018, the former Victorian coal buildings house dozens of stores, tucked into its sweeping arches.
It’s reached via a bridge and through the enormous Granary Square, where children dance in the water fountains that spurt from the ground, and where the stunning works of the Travel Photographer of the Year competition are scattered on large boards for all to see.
First stop is Blomma Beauty where former Harley Street aesthetician Monica uses the shop’s natural beauty products to give us one of the most fantastic facials either of us has ever had. She really does possess magic hands, and the Husk and Seed products soothe and soften our skin perfectly. My friend, who suffers rosacea, notices an immediate calming of her redness and buys up a bunch of the lotions and potions.
I’m won over by Bao Skincare’s Reviving Body Cream, which smells addictively like lemon sherbet. Other brands include Odylique, Silven and Terra Verde. Sample pots of most products can be bought for £2, and as well as bookable facials (from £25) there are regular workshops and events here, from free hand massages to the chance to make your own bath salts.
We pause, with the other early afternoon sunseekers, to lay for a while on the faux grass bank by Regent’s Canal. “This is the life,” my mate smiles.
There are too many food options to mention – Japanese curry, fancy sandwiches and soft serve from Sons and Daughters, class Indian from Dishoom, and the new Spanish parillan experience from Sabor, Hicce’s small plates.
We plump for pretty epic, thick, melty gourmet cheese toasties from Morty & Bob’s, with a side of Parmesan and truffle fries for good measure. Thankfully they arrive on proper sarnie bread (sourdough is too crunchy), and mine in particular (a blend of cheese, truffle and mushrooms) is a winner.
Next stop is Kitchen Provisions. Now, I am a kitchenalia nut with a cookbook obsession. I have to be held back here. Shelves burst with Puglian pottery, beautiful linens, Asian cookware, goodies (hello Halon Mon salted caramel sauce), and dozens of books I want to take home but can’t carry. Perhaps what they’re best known for is their jaw dropping knife collection – around 700 types, handmade by artisans. Staff really know their stuff, and are more than happy to show off their wares, giving a complete run down on materials, how to use each blade and more. They offer full after service too.
I’m drawn into Shelter’s very fancy boutique, where there’s a collaboration with AllSaints, and loads of one-off and uber cool vintage clobber.
Caravane oozes style, across a huge store filled with tactile soft furnishings and furniture.
And they’re making jeans…from scratch…at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers.
I’m a huge fan of Wolf & Badger, and their Coal Drops outlet is like a candy store, with sparkly, shiny things in every corner. It encompasses everything this shopping district is about – uniqueness and experience. Grab a slice of cake and a glass of fizz while you browse the homeware, food and fashion spaces.
There’s just time to sneak into Tom Dixon OBE’s flagship London store before closing time. It is beautiful. An homage to modern design. Part shop, part office, part workspace, the uncluttered shelves and walls act as a gallery for the former director of Habitat’s visions – from sensually fluid Melt lamps and pendant lights, to fragrances decanted into diffusers that look like science beakers.
Our bed for the night is at the four-star Great Northern Hotel, a hop skip and jump from King’s Cross and St Pancras stations and fashioned as something out of the great age of steam travel, with decadent mirrors and lighting, velvet curtains concealing a swanky bar area, and a restaurant that screams opulence.
With its comfy king bed, bold English colour scheme, sash windows and bevelled glass inset cupboards, our room continues on the theme. There’s an enormous shower, flat screen TV, pod coffee machine, and complimentary soda, water, crisps and chocolates – nice.
After checking in, it’s time to check out…heading for actor Idris Elba’s wine bar, Porte Noire, housed in the base of one of the iconic Gasholder’s buildings. They say Thursday’s the new Friday in the city, but that doesn’t stop this place (co-owned with David Farber) having all the vibes early in the evening. We skip the special frose (frozen rose) and go straight in for a glass of the signature Porte Noire Champagne, which is malty, creamy and bursting with subdued, sexy citrus notes.
The rest of the wine list is up for trying before you plump on a glass, and staff are well versed in steering drinkers towards vino they think they’ll like.
There are nibbles too. And excellent cocktails. The passionfruit caipirinha is a winner.
Dinner is at The Lighterman in Granary Square. While at lunchtime it swelled with families, at night it’s a different scene, with cocktails and bar service downstairs, and dining in the panoramic glass eatery on top. At 8pm we still need our sunglasses.
Cocktails here are amazing. The Rhubarb and Elderflower Swizzle, recommended by our gracious server Will, is a lip-puckering treat, as is the Star of Passion – their take on a Pornstar Martini.
Menus are filled with namechecked British produce, and take a bow to the seasons. We begin with a platter of Salt Pig cured meats. It’s £22, and at ‘London prices’ we think it’s a safe bet to get the party started. My god, it’s huge and would easily do us for an entire meal. The platter comes laden with whole meat cuts and salamis, pork pie, sausage rolls, a variety of breads, relishes, tangy pickled baby veg. Awesome.
We barely need the next course – a delicious burger, and truly brilliant, melting ribeye steak with bearnaise. But we manage. And somehow we also squeeze in a lush dark chocolate, peanut and caramel slice with Irish cream ice cream – though I let my friend have the lion’s share.
The next morning we can barely move for the previous night’s indulgences so skip breakfast at the hotel.
Lower Street Market is in full swing at Coal Drops Yard. Friendly folk tout genuine vintage jewellery (I fall in love with a giant green gem ring), coffee, beauty products and crafts. And over at the covered Canopy Market we spot handmade hats, pottery, candles, big wedges of British cheeses and lovely star sign prints. Here too are street food vendors selling everything from phad thai to freshly shucked oysters spritzed with lemon or hot sauce.
It’s worth noting there’s a free water filling point in front of the market.
In Astrid & Miyu I pick up some twisted rose gold hoops, inset with tiny pink stones for my daughter. The petite jewellery store crafts all its own pieces at its London workshop, with a pure, simple aesthetic that makes it ideal for gift giving. The girls in here are so helpful.
Back upstairs is Earl of East where, it has to be said, we spend a bit too much time. The fragrance experts moved to Coal Drops post-lockdown and everything in this shop is drop dead gorgeous, from dainty smoked cocktail glasses, to diffusers, and their own candles and oils – each one inspired by places staff members have visited.
I’m drawn to Onsen’s blend of peppermint, eucalyptus and mandarin, named for the hot springs of Japan. You can learn how to make your own candle in one of their workshops in an opposite store space (£55 per person).
Sticking with fragrance and before lunch we pay a visit to uber cool Aussie brand Aesop, which is all about clean lines, natural essences and minimal packaging. We’re served by an Amazonian goddess of a staff member, who talks us through the ranges and explains they do free consultations with customers to ensure they take home the right products for them. I plump for a huge bottle of their Resurrection liquid soap.
I pick up delectable chocolates from Alain Ducasse’s Coal Drops Yard outlet (try the black sesame bar, it’s divine).
And we get the chance to make our own new-to-the-UK Chaco sliders (worth £65) at Outsiders Store – selecting our own base, strap and buckle and watching a friendly member of staff stitching them all together on a nifty-looked machine. More and more of us got into outdoor living during lockdown as a form of escapism, taking up walking, running, cycling, paddle boarding, kayaking…
The Outsiders manager tells us there’s no reason why you can’t be fashionable while you get fit. The shop is filled with cool brands that look the part, while being totally practical and functional. I buy my husband a pair of hardwearing but slick-looking trousers in the hope he (being very active) doesn’t rip them to shreds so easily.
Lunch is at German Gymnasium, close to King’s Cross Station. Named one of the most stylish restaurants in the world, the chapel-like, capacious building (the country’s first gym built by, you’ve guessed it, a German) houses a terrace, bars, restaurant and ground floor Grand Café, in the style of the kind of coffee salons you might find in Austria.
The menu is almost entirely Germanic, and after sipping on elderflower peach Bellinis we settle on our choices. The white asparagus soup is delicate and moreish. While the kasekrainer (a cheese-filled German sausage) packs a punch, arriving with mustard, truffled potato and sauerkraut. A pint of floral weissbier on the side is the perfect accompaniment.
We head back to the station, laden with goodies, absolutely stuffed, and feeling like we’ve both discovered a ‘new’ London. Somewhere chilled, vibrant and with more to offer than you can possibly fit into a weekend.
The Samsung KX sweeps over Coal Drops Yard. Part remote work space, part community hub, part café, part techno suite, here you can ride in an F1 simulator, make a GIF, try out the latest gaming tech….or join one of the many activities and events on the centre’s schedule, from making terrariums, to bread baking, and live music.
Visit the monthly Drops Market at Coal Drops Yard, where around 40 emerging designers and graduate designers across lifestyle, home and fashion, sell their wares.
June 27 to August 7 is the Everyman Screen on the Canal festival – a free outdoor film and TV event presented by Jaguar. Recline on the bean bags and loungers and take in movies such as The Greatest Showman and Top Gun. It’s unticketed and seats are on a first-come-first-served basis.
August 10 to 21 is Summer Sounds – a programme of free music and performance at Coal Drops Yard, formerly known as the Cubitt Sessions. It brings together folk, jazz, classical and experimental musicians from around the world.