Cool Drops Yard

Once a dodgy corner of north London, King’s Cross is now home to stylish bars, cafés, shops... and a rather splendid free music event, says Michael White

Thursday, 5th August 2021 — By Michael White

Cubitt sessions

Cubitt Sessions at Coal Drops Yard

LIKE any living thing, London is always changing. Sometimes for the better. And a case in point is north of King’s Cross station – which has so transformed during the past few years that, if you haven’t been there recently, you can be sure as children interrupting ursine picnics of a big surprise.

What used to be a post-industrial, desolate and slightly dodgy wasteland feels these days more like a holiday resort: a seaside pleasure ground without the sea but a canal that substitutes.

Small children frolic in the Granary Square fountains; adults lounge in deck-chairs or at café tables; office workers catch a half-hour in the sun. It buzzes. And through August it will buzz the louder thanks to something called the Cubitt Sessions: a now-annual music festival that takes place in the semi-open air of Coal Drops Yard and plays, for free, to anyone around.

Ladies of Midnight Blue, who are appearing on August 12. Photo: Anna Miller

On past experience that can be several thousand people, listening to anything from opera, jazz and klezmer to orchestral concerts, steel bands, classical piano, folk, soul – with an added element of dance that tells you something about Martin Collins, who has run the Sessions for the past five years. He used to be a dancer, and his other job is executive director of the Russell Maliphant Company.

“From the start,” he says, “I wanted this event to be diverse, inclusive, and with a strong community sense – which I’m glad to say the King’s Cross development company that finances the whole thing completely gets. It understands that without community, the bricks and mortar of what it’s built here is nothing.

“But I’m also after quality. The Sessions began largely as a platform for students from Central St Martin’s, the art school here, and the audience was Camden local. But now it’s London-wide and the performers well-established.

Balkan klezmer ensemble She’koyokh. Photo: Savannah photography

“This year we’ve got the classical pianist Lyr Williams in recital; opera singers like Sophie Bevan; the soul singer Jake Isaac, the Balkan klezmer ensemble She’koyokh, the Kate Williams jazz quintet …it goes on. And we nearly had the superstar guitarist Paco Peña, except we lost him and his supporting musicians to Covid restrictions – as of course, we lost just about everything last year.

“In 2020 all we managed to salvage was a single concert by Aurora orchestra; so it’s great to be back with a 12-day programme this time round, and we’re just hoping our artists don’t get pinged and have to isolate.”

Pinging is not the only challenge of the Cubitt Sessions, which take their name from the Victorian architect who first designed the King’s Cross buildings, Lewis Cubitt. Coal Drops Yard (which in the 1850s was where London took receipt of all the coal it took to power the capital) was his too. But it’s not an obvious concert venue. Lined by shops, and with a stream of passing human traffic, it’s contained but not exactly quiet. And while that might not bother steel bands, solo pianists are another matter. It’s a far cry from the Wigmore Hall.

Jake Isaac

“We have to acknowledge that the audience is transient,” says Martin. “It’s free access, and they come and go at will: that’s the deal. But it means we get people coming to experience performances they otherwise wouldn’t, because they have the freedom to stay or leave. And it’s amazing to see how many stay, completely mesmerised by an opera singer or a classical pianist. They zone in and end up lining the balconies, dragging in chairs and tables from across the site.

“We’re actually doing an experiment this year in having Llyr Williams play Beethoven and Chopin as part of a Family Sunday, mixed in with dance and puppetry events. And one thing I can honestly say is that in all the time I’ve been doing this, we’ve never had any trouble. We do have security in case; but we’ve always found the audience respects the artists and is totally supportive. You can tell from the applause. And there’s a surprising degree of cross-over, with people who come for one kind of event deciding to come to more, of a different kind. The other year we had one woman who came to absolutely everything, and loved it all.”

The ultimate attraction of the Cubitt Sessions is that you choose what you want to hear, and simply turn up: there’s no fee, no booking, no requirement to sit still through to the last note. If you’re bored, there’s the canal, the shops, the cafés. But you won’t be.

Cubitt Sessions runs August 11-22. Details:

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