The Oysterhouse Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Building - Alastair Fyfe

In London, you can get obssesed with dereliction. It seems impossible that in our city of overpriced housing, hideous new builds and people with money to burn, those majestic, empty buildings with trees growing through the collapsed chimney pots can sit untouched for decades. Derelict London celebrates the urban beauty that lies dying, and How to Rescue a House works on the fantasy of rescuing your local disused pumping station for your own.

No neighbourhood, no matter how central or spotlighted by council strategies, is without its examples: slap-damn in the middle of the King’s Cross regeneration is The Lighthouse. This strange building has the quality of the elephant in the room: you don’t see it until someone points it out to you, and then it’s big, weird and fascinating. And this elephant has a lighthouse on top!

Pentonville-now.jpg  Pentonville-then.jpg

These amazing now vs. then images (both from this little beauty of a site that tracks down London scenes from 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers) show how the area has changed. [Please, please don’t get me started on how much I hate the fungus-like spread of street furniture.]

After hearing that this building is finally going to get its facelift, I decided to do a little digging into what the heck The Lighthouse is, and where did it come from?

There’re plenty of guesses from Lighthouse afficianados on Flickr: Mondoagogo quotes:

According to the Eccentric Britain, by Benedict le Vay, “Some claim it was once a helter-skelter tower but it would have been impossibly, and improbably, moved up there. Inspections of the interior, say Camden Council, show that it can’t have been a clocktower or a camera obscura. Obscurer are its origins indeed, and maybe it was a totally useless architectural flourish.

I much prefer Paul Carstairs’ theory:

As far as I know the story goes that when oysters used to be the cheap and popular fast food of the day, an oyster house was marked with a lighthouse – kind of the McDonalds “golden arches” of their day. The King’s Cross lighthouse is either a leftover, or a memorial to, those oyster lighthouses.

I’m told that the building is owned by P&O–which I like to refer to by their full name, The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (how romantic!). But why has it been left to rot?

lighthouse-arch.jpgUrban Atelier points out some of the reasons:

The issues restricting the sale and subsequent development of the land involve [P&O and some other smaller players fighting for the freehold], access during construction (Kings Cross in rush hour, anyone?), and the usual bickering with the LA about how high the new building can go, social housing implications, and the fact that the site is in that no man’s land between plush but boring new development north of Pentonville/Euston Rd and the scuzz that is Kings Cross proper (on the south side of P’ville Rd).

Richard Griffiths Architects claim, on their horrendous Flash-only site that I can’t deep link to, to be responsible for the design and regeneration of the Lighthouse–these are their images at right. Although they don’t give much away as to what they will be doing with the building, it’s clear that the crowning glory stays!

Council websites are info-poor as usual, but random jargon-strewn PDFs are available here.

3 Comments so far

  1. Sean (unregistered) on October 5th, 2006 @ 1:41 pm

    Flora, you’re on a roll at the moment. This bldg is not far from where I sometimes work. It such a sad looking place that has some great stories to tell I’m sure. Nice photo too.

  2. WA (unregistered) on October 6th, 2006 @ 1:51 pm

    Wow, never noticed the lighthouse before. Great post

  3. Buzz (unregistered) on October 16th, 2006 @ 11:33 am


    You’re a star – what an engrossing story about a place I have walked, cycled, bussed and driven past for years. It is posts like this that made the hoops and hurdles of the early days on MB London so worth it.

    Buzz [old MB London blogger now in NZ]

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