The Greening of Kings Cross

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy a house on such an awful street.” These words, uttered by a passer-by 15 years ago, acted as a red rag to a bull for Wharfdale Road resident John Ashwell. A typically busy inner London street of multiple building styles and ages, Wharfdale Road connects York Way with Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. 15 years ago Kings Cross was a by-word for drugs and prostitution and was a very different place to the developed destination it has become.

Wharfdale Road 2002
Front Line: Wharfdale Road as it looked in 2002 just after the first trees were planted (Pic: John Ashwell)

Kings Cross forms an arc spanning two London boroughs from Pentonville Road to Marylebone Road with York Way at its apex. The Islington half was the crime hotspot while the Camden half was the dereliction centre of London. Now the Camden portion boasts a transformed St. Pancras station and the new Granary Square ‘quarter’ around Central St. Martins. Without the dubious benefit of a masterplan, landscaping and massive new developments the Islington half has had to make do with piecemeal private developments and community initiative. And this is where John, the original Kings Cross residents and the local authority came in.

John, a landscape gardener by trade, fired up by the throwaway remark overheard outside his front door, set his sites on no less a task that the beautification of Kings Cross starting with the planting of street trees on Wharfdale Road. Planting started after John raised money from local residents and the council released S106 funds enabling one half of a Cherry tree avenue. Over the next few years more money was released through public and private funding allowing the completion of the avenue planting. This second phase involved the narrowing of the road through incorporation of parking bays separated by tree islands transforming the street into the urban equivalent of a hollow way. All this has been achieved in the remarkably short time of 15 years.

Wharfdale Road in flower
Tunnel Vision: Wharfdale Road as it looked in the spring of 2016 (Pic: Sarah Ward)

Over this time a strong partnership has formed between the community and the council who all had the same goal of planting more trees and cleaning up their part of Kings Cross. In Wharfdale Road they planted a cherry avenue of Prunus avium ‘Plena’, a double white flowered variety of the common cherry and Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ a golden trunked Manchurian cherry with single spiked flowers (much better for pollinators). Within this corner of the urban forest over 300 trees have been planted including Islington’s first Olive (Olea europaea) grove on Fife Terrace and, something I’ve never seen elsewhere – Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) on Caledonia Street.

Of course, the trees on their own have not transformed this once scary corner of London (it would be foolish to ignore the presence of CCTV cameras and the millions of development pounds pumped in), but they certainly make the environment pleasanter and they have definitely helped calm the traffic on Wharfdale Road. Perhaps too they have contributed to making the area more hospitable for people which has in turn resulted in a proliferation of cafés and restaurants who don’t need to think twice about opening onto the street.

The community partnership allowed residents to get involved with street tree selection and  planting giving them a sense of ownership of the trees in their neighbourhood and, coincidentally or not, Islington has recorded the lowest rate of sapling destruction in this part of the borough.

Staying Olive: Islington's first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace
Staying Olive: Islington’s first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace

And here’s the street view of Bay trees in Caledonia Street, bizarrely the restaurant they shade is called ‘Thyme’:

Olive and Kicking

I wonder what they were thinking, planting Olive trees on the streets of de Beauvoir Town and Pentonville? I like to think it is a nod to the glory days of 1980s Islington when media types slurped their way through tankers of new world Chardonnay accompanied by mountains of juicy olives.

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Extra virgin: Ripe fruit on an Islington street tree

Famed in tabloid imaginations for a pioneering fondness of continental gourmet goods, Islingtonians now have an opportunity to get with the small-batch artisanal craft food programme burgeoning in neighbouring Hackney. A locally produced olive crop could be the source of North London’s own cold-pressed lubricant or salty morsel – the uses of the fruit of Olea europaea are many and varied as the ancients could testify.

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A trailer loada trees: Stunted and twisted Olive trees arriving in Clerkenwell

Small but nevertheless fruit-bearing olive trees are to be found in several locations in the borough where they blend in seamlessly in these unlikely urban groves. The silvery evergreen foliage mirrors the au courant colour choices rocking the halls and doors of interiors from Clerkenwell to Canonbury.

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Singular estate: An Olive street tree graces a salubrious Pentonville Regency terrace

The Mediterranean exoticism of the olive is somewhat diminished by the ubiquitousness of hacked around trees used as props in restaurants and serviced offices. Nevertheless, the Olive tree is not to be overlooked – an attractive and extremely long-lived tree, it is a remarkable choice for a street tree, perhaps unique to Islington? Throughout my travels in Olive growing lands, I have never seen these trees lining streets in Greece, Italy or Spain.

Olives are inedible until they have been through a complex process of curing and fermenting so I am unable to report on the taste of the Islington fruit. But, while photographing trees recently, I witnessed a blackbird plucking a ripened olive from it’s branch, so they clearly do have some takers.


You can find the Islington groves here…

River Street, EC1:


Rotherfield Street, N1: