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Image courtesy of E5 Bakehouse
Image courtesy of E5 Bakehouse

London’s Disused Railway Arches Get Back On Track

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 17 November 2016
With their ready-made exposed brickwork, it’s no mystery why the city’s hipster population are drawn to the Instagram-friendly spots, but with all manner of businesses sprouting up in every corner of London, London’s arch makeover trend has proven pretty much universally attractive — or has it?

The trend for archway regeneration began as a largely individualised process, with single arches converted into spaces to house everything from cinemas, galleries, restaurants, breweries, bars, bakeries, and even a gay leather fetish club (called The Hoist, for any interested parties).

In North London, 2010, the newly formed Camden Town Brewery took an innovative step, leasing seven Victorian arches between Camden and Kentish Town tube stations. They spent the next six months converting the space into a modern brewery. After building one of London’s most identifiable brands of craft beer— Camden Hells Lager—  Camden Town Brewery were purchased by one of the world’s biggest drinks companies, and are moving their brewery to a bigger site, but founder Jasper Cuppaidge insists they will retain their base at their original railway arch home.  

Across the river and four years later, Peter Jackson and Andy Nichol, founders of the Southwark Brewery Company, followed suit, setting up shop in arches near London Bridge station. The space on offer in these premises clearly proved perfectly suited to these two micro-breweries’ industrial set-up.  

Guests in Camden Town Brewery, Kentish Town, at their Tank Party 2015 | © Jennifer Balcombe/Camden Town Brewery

Guests in Camden Town Brewery, Kentish Town, at their Tank Party 2015 | © Jennifer Balcombe/Camden Town Brewery

If it’s a sensitive, more authentic conversion you’re after, there’s no better example than Hoxton Arches. Set up in 2012, this two-room, 2,500 square foot venue provides a multi-purpose space for a variety of artistic events and exhibitions. With its minimalist approach, and its original exposed brick and distressed features, Hoxton Arches allows the natural theatricality of the arches’ cavernous space to shine through.

Image courtesy of Hoxton Arches

Image courtesy of Hoxton Arches

Also taking advantage of the artistic aesthetics inherent to the railway arches is Brixton’s Whirled Cinema, a cozy, membership-only venue in which the screen and bar are squeezed into one archway, a red-hued facelift and exposed bricks adding a touch of drama. Rounding off this cultural trio, you can also catch a play underneath the tracks, with Waterloo East Theatre and Union Theatre—  which took over a space once occupied by a paper warehouse— taking advantage of the distinctive setting of the archway conversion to set themselves apart on the crowded fringe theatre scene.

London’s pop-up and events industries have hurried to get in on the action; We Are Pop Up, the world’s largest network of retailers and space owners, operate The Bottle Shop, a two-bar space housed in Bermondsey Railway Arch, which is leased at a minimum rate of £600 per day for launch parties and film shoots. 

Image courtesy of We Are Pop Up

Image courtesy of We Are Pop Up

When it comes to food and drink, most people no doubt have passed places in converted archways, whether it’s the chain restaurants now to be found beneath Canon Street Bridge on Clink Street, or more niche, independent choices. Some of the best picks in the latter category include Tozino, a Spanish tapas bar under the Maltby Street arches in Bermondsey, E5 Bakehouse, an East London artisan bakery and coffeeshop specialising in sourdough, or Peckham Springs, a painfully cool bar, gallery and patio space in South London that couldn’t be further away from the world of the Trotters if it tried, but which any Only Fools fan worth their salt is compelled to visit, just because. 

Image courtesy of Bar Tozino

Image courtesy of Bar Tozino

While this side of the London archway trend is probably fairly well known, less obvious uses include Vauxwall, an indoor bouldering centre located in a very unassuming, unconverted-looking arch conversion by Vauxhall station, or Ko Muay Thai Boxing Gym in Mile End, East London.

Image courtesy of Vauxwall Climbing Centre

Image courtesy of Vauxwall Climbing Centre

However, the popularity of all these niche conversions has come at a price, with the individualised trend paving the way for mass conversions. Right across the capital, Network Rail (who own 10,000 arches) are teaming up with various developers and investors to deliver a massive programme of regeneration and redevelopment, with entire rows of arches now going under the hammer at a time— an approach that Network Rail claims to believe ‘encourages better place-making and more community benefit’. Disused railway arches have even begun to be converted into homes—  noisy, windowless homes, albeit—  perhaps in response to the worsening London housing crisis and the scramble for land.

Image courtesy of E5 Bakehouse

Image courtesy of E5 Bakehouse

In North London, excitement has been mounting in some quarters concerning the new Hackney Walk project, a luxury designer outlet district due to open later this month, where shoppers can bag up to 70% discounts on prices paid in the rest of the city, with brands from Ugg Australia, Nike, Joseph, Stone Island, Pringle and Anya Hindmarch having signed up already. Pegged by developers to be fashion’s answer to Hatton Garden, the project is located opposite and adjacent to Hackney’s old Burberry factory on Morning Lane, and housed in two new multi-story buildings as well as 12 freshly-converted Victorian railway arches. Beside the outlet stores, the complex will also include a new restaurant by Alistair Maddox of Broadway Market, a cocktail bar, and design studios, previously promised as spaces for ‘locals to display their work’.

Shop fronts in the railway arch cobversions| Image courtesy of Hackney Walk

Shop fronts in the railway arch conversions| Image courtesy of Hackney Walk

But, flashy as the final product may be, the routes of the Hackney Walk project are steeped in misery. With the area suffering a beating during the 2011 London Riots, the Mayor of London awarded Hackney council £2 million from the post-riot regeneration scheme, with the council choosing to invest £1.5 million of that into developing the project— only £500,000 was earmarked to revamp existing shop fronts in Hackney Central and nearby Narrow Way, a site of rioting. Added to this is the £3.3 million windfall from Network Rail to develop the arches, but in total, the Hackney Walk scheme will have cost around £200 million by completion.

There are many with concerns about whether Hackney Walk will merely aggravate the divide between the London that’s moving forward, and the London left behind—  a cosmetic facelift which does nothing to address the high levels of inequality widely acknowledged to be an underlying factor in the riots, and which is argued to be exacerbated by gentrification. Rows broke out in March between the Hackney Walk developers and local Hackney shop owners, who claim they were originally promised that the the new development would not sell food, thereby protecting them from loss of income— developers now say Hackney Walk will play host to pop-up street food stalls.

A far more harmonious approach to archway conversion can be found just around the corner from the development, on Bohemia Place. Bohemia Hackney, a trendy bar, cafe and restaurant known for its live music (particularly jazz, blues and world music, to reflect Hackney’s vibrant multiculturalism), has lived beneath the arches here for over five years, sitting next to independent business Argun Printers and Stationers, which has been serving the local community for over 25 years. The rest of this stretch beneath the Overground line (which runs parallel to Morning Lane) is home to a variety of independent businesses, including a florist, a small brewery, and traders from plumbers to mechanics. It’s a world away from the monolithic development at Hackney Walk. 

English breakfast

A photo posted by Michael Charleston (@voncharleston) on

One of the most visible sites of conflict between Network Rail and communities is in Brixton, where local business owners and campaigners, as part of the ‘Save Brixton Arches’ group, have been locked in battle for more than a year over the railway company’s plans to evict over 30 businesses from the arches around Brixton Station, in order to complete a major programme of renovation. Many of the businesses currently in this popular market area have been there for over 40 years, an important part of the local community for generation after generation. Fishmongers LS Mash & Sons have been serving the community since 1932, longer than the Queen has been on the throne, as owner Lorne Mash proudly attests.  

With the current popularity of railway arches as commercial spaces, campaigners fear the renovation will lead to an increase in rents by up to 300%, making them unaffordable to local, independent businesses, and perhaps leading to an influx of multinational chains and the loss of Brixton’s unique character. The Save Brixton Arches campaign has gained the support of celebrities from David Hayes to Levi Roots, politicians including Labour’s Chuka Umunna, and even Lambeth Council, as well as gaining over 25,000 signatures on a public petition condemning the actions of Network Rail. Celebrated spoken word artist Potent Whisper, who was born and bred in the Brixton area, has used his art to put Brixton’s plight on the map, arguing that Network Rail’s renovation programme simply plays into a larger, encroaching trend towards gentrification. 

However, with the ever-growing popularity of railway arches for commercial space, and the ever-narrowing pool of land open for redevelopment in our crowded city, the potential income to be generated by the rail network from both their unused and used spaces means Brixton’s struggle may only be the beginning.