There was a time when I would have shuddered at the idea of eating and shopping alone. But as I sit on a minimalist wooden seat at Cafe Bao, in London’s Pancras Square, sinking my teeth into a perfectly plump bun, I’ve never felt less lonely.
— Claire Spreadbury (@PA_Features) July 12, 2021
King’s Cross is buzzing with people – in a way that feels good right now.
This area of London has been actively undergoing regeneration for a good decade now. But what it’s striven to achieve so far has made Kings Cross the place to go. It’s very cool, but not intimidatingly cool. If you look around, you’ll see every generation enjoying the space.
In Granary Square, young couples are curled up watching sport on the big outdoor screen, supping beers in the summer sunshine, while kids splash about in the water fountains, watched over by parents, topping up their energy with takeaway coffees. And friends are everywhere here – making up for lost time when we were all shut away. It all feels gloriously cosmopolitan and relaxed.
I meander down to Lower Stable Street in Coal Drops Yard – a shopping destination and foodie hotspot, where creative types are working outside on their laptops.
The shops here are a wonderful mix of high street stores, designer labels, independents, second-hand treasure chests and tattoo parlours. There are places here I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Boutique by Shelter is a brilliant concept, selling second-hand or unwanted goods that have been cherry picked to perfection. It’s a double whammy of goodness, decreasing the purchase of brand new stuff, while increasing sustainability and raising money for the homeless. And they also use the space for events and to raise awareness of campaigns.
Roseur – a small store set up by artist Sophie Kim – sells a rainbow of dried flowers, and next door pumps out beats while broadcasting as a radio station called Voices.
And Earl of East is a super-cool lifestyle emporium, a creative business selling all manner of homewares including beautiful spherical watering cans, vintage-inspired wine glasses, funky oversized sunglasses and hand-poured candles. Essentially, you’d be happy to walk out with anything in the shop.
Start a conversation with anyone local and you’ll get a friendly reply. One shopkeeper gesticulates enthusiastically as she tells me how great all the events are around here, and how I simply must seek out the ‘Bookbarge’ – the floating book shop, Word On The Water.
As an outsider, I feel truly welcome, which is quite rare in the big smoke, and am still astounded by how calm and casual everything is all weekend long. Bars and restaurants are busy, but everywhere feels spacious and at ease. I have bags bulging with purchases, and am already planning when to come back and who to bring with me.
When it comes to food, I want to eat everywhere. Names that need no introduction grace street corners here, with Great British Menu banquet winner Pip Lacey setting up Hicce diagonally opposite Dishoom.
I’m in awe of the architecture at German Gymnasium – an all day Grand Cafe in a former gym built by German gymnasts in the 1800s. Inside the two-floor expanse you can still see hooks in the beams from where ropes and trapezes used to be suspended. Look up when you take a tinkle and you’ll clock cute Germain ladies painted on the ceilings, dancing along to a Sound of Music-esque soundtrack.
The German beer slips down like silk – try a Rothhaus Hefeweizen for £7.25 a pint, or a double pint of Rothaus Pilsner for £13. A Holstein Schnitzel will set you back £25.50, but cost doesn’t appear to be putting off punters, as the tables are heaving – and apparently it’s a ‘quiet’ night.
I’m happy to save room for dessert, though, as the hazelnut praline, £6.50, and strawberry and elderflower coupe, £8, are well worth waddling out the door for.
Over at Lina Stores, an Italian deli and diner where everything is colour-coordinated in striped sorbet shades of turquoise and white, I’m a little bit in love. The candy cane curtains, matching pinnies and headscarves, over-spilling deli counter and Limoncello Spritz (wild oregano infused limoncello with Prosecco and soda, £9) are all getting a big tick from me. It’s loud, buzzing and child-friendly, and the perfectly portioned raviolini con burrata, £8, might just be the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten.
At Redemption Roasters – the UK’s first prison-based coffee company, where they train offenders to become baristas – supervisor Ben attempts to educate me (I don’t drink coffee because I don’t – normally – like the taste).
He brews me a shot by Mageyo Washing Station in Bujumbura, Burundi, and I have to admit, I genuinely enjoy it. Not at all bitter, with notes of redcurrant, chocolate and Earl Grey tea, it slides down really smoothly. Word has clearly got around, as huge queues form at all times of the day.
Come dusk, however, people are sniffing out a different kind of brew just opposite at the tiny House Of Cans, who specialise in canned drinks – mainly craft beers, but wine, water and cider are also available. They work with artists to produce cans so beautiful, it feels wrong to recycle them. The beer is delicious, but a takeaway can will set you back just as much as a pint in a pub (four pint-sized cans cost £27).
— Claire Spreadbury (@PA_Features) July 12, 2021
With all this on your doorstep, and an international train station in case you fancy travelling further afield, there is no better place to stay than in the original railway hotel, the Great Northern Hotel, which has been around since 1864.
Rooms are bijou, and though some extra storage for clothes wouldn’t go amiss, everything else is small but perfectly formed. The deep blue ceiling and wood panelled walls provide an air of luxe, and the delectable double rain shower makes up for fact there’s no bath.
Restaurant Plum + Spilt Milk carries the colourways through, with a stunning addition of glass pendant clusters, the swirling filaments adding a glorious glow. Wooden and metallic edging makes the space feel special, the large windows flooding the room with daylight for a relaxed breakfast setting, while cosying up the space come evening.
On my visit, the rain clears up just in time for the Independent Label Market, which has been taking place across 17 cities for a decade. Stands are set up selling vinyl, T-shirts and badges, live and loud music blasts out from the decks, and DJs and music lovers excitedly rummage through records, anxious to make a purchase.
Coal Drops Yard has taken the ailing retail world and transformed it. This isn’t somewhere you come when you need a new coat. You come here for the overall experience. You wander, you browse the multi-concept shopping spaces, you sit for a beer and a catch up, eat some fantastic food and have a thoroughly enjoyable day, whether you like shopping or not.
The people are friendly and the vibe is cool. Add in some themed markets and surely, this is the future of retail as we know it.
While we continue to shop online for the mundane stuff, we can soak up the experience of shopping at independents and boutiques, from people with a genuine passion for their products. I don’t think I’ve ever loved shopping alone so much in my life.
How to plan your trip
Rooms at the Great Northern Hotel start from £170 a night. For more information, visit gnhlondon.com.
For more information about upcoming events and markets, visit kingscross.co.uk/whats-on.
For more information about King’s Cross, visit kingscross.co.uk.