King’s Cross is well known to generations of Scots as the London station for those travelling to and from Edinburgh. It could be the gateway to a new life or a portal taking you back to an old one.
But until recent years the wider district was not a place where the average traveller would wish to hang about in, especially after dark. It was a grimy, down-at-heel area full of cheap hotels, spartan pubs and back alleys seemingly leading to nowhere.
It’s no coincidence The Pogues, the riotous Anglo-Irish punk band fronted by Shane MacGowan, were formed in King’s Cross in the early 1980s.
But that edgy vibe is long gone. The transformation of King’s Cross – both the station and the district – over the last decade is little short of remarkable. Instead of The Pogues, it’s now home to the Guardian. Flat whites and media professionals have replaced pints of snakebite and squatters.
This change of fortunes is reflected in the Great Northern, a grand Victorian railway station standing right next to the concourse.
Built by the renowned architect Lewis Cubitt in 1854 to serve the customers of the then Great Northern Rail Company, the “GNH” is a familiar landmark for passengers – even if it was long overshadowed by the Gothic grandeur of the nearby St Pancras.
But the Great Northern is now a star in its own right. In 2013, the Grade II-listed building reopened following a £42 million “back to bricks” restoration by owner Jeremy Robson to transform it into a five-star boutique hotel.
As far as locations go, it could hardly be more convenient. As well as offering direct access to the concourse of King’s Cross, it is just 25 metres from the Eurostar terminus across the street at St Pancras. Every international airport serving London can be reached directly from the hotel within 45 minutes by rail or the six underground lines.
While its historical charm is obvious from the outside – it’s when you step inside that the GNH really comes to life.
The hotel is home to Plum + Spilt Milk restaurant, overseen by Michelin-starred chef, Mark Sargeant, – a protégé of Gordon Ramsay. On the ground floor sits the stylish GNH Bar, which is eye-catching even by North London standards and boasts an enviable cocktail list.
The bar sports oversized chandeliers, cut glass mirrored ceilings and a curved pewter topped feature bar – it’s a world removed from the average station pub.
Hungry travellers will be pleased that it opens early for breakfast, while those looking to toast their arrival in London in style can sample a coupe from the impressive selection of champagnes.
Some may wonder if a hotel located next to two of the UK’s busiest railway stations can really offer a relaxing environment. But our room was so quiet it could have been in rural Sutherland – an afternoon nap after a long train journey (and a few cocktails) was not an issue.
Arriving at our spacious bedroom was an event in itself, as we paraded along the curved corridors which follow the building’s grand design. Much to our delight – it had been a long time since lunch – we were informed that each floor had access to a well-stocked pantry, where hot drinks and cake were laid on, including a generous supply of Tunnock’s tea cakes.
All bedrooms feature complimentary uber-fast 500Mb wi-fi and a complimentary in-room entertainment package including 96 TV channels and a film library.
Of course, if you have time to explore London, it’s unlikely you’ll want to stay in your room for long. With King’s Cross underground station just 30 seconds from the hotel front door, the entire city is within easy reach.
A quick tube journey and overground ride away is Hackney Wick, one of several east London neighbourhoods that have rapidly gentrified in recent years thanks to a range of pop-up restaurants and craft breweries. Among the best is Crate Brewery, which stands on the banks of the Hertford Union Canal, and offers a range of superb beers.
The following day, and a further short tube ride away, we explored Regent’s Park – one of London’s famous green spaces we had never got around to visiting despite regular trips to the city.
Two nights in London might not seem long enough, but when you stay somewhere as unique as the GNH, it remains a special break. ■
Stays at the Great Northern Hotel start from £189 per room during the low season and from £249 during high season, www.gnhlondon.com