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Underneath the arches: a new generation of producers dip their toes into retailing

Could the future of retail be germinating in some dank railway arches in south London? Unlikely, as shopping only happens for a few hours on Saturday mornings. But Spa Terminus is still an intriguing model.

It’s the brainchild of the founders of Monmouth Coffee Company and Neal’s Yard Dairies. Both businesses were looking for bigger London premises to roast beans and mature cheese respectively. Together, they have secured a 50-year lease on 80 Network Rail arches. Since moving in, they have clad the seeping brick vaults with white metal and populated the remaining arches with other food producers. “We already had lots of connections and friends who were desperate for space, but didn’t want to be out of town,” say Monmouth Coffee Company founder, Anita Le Roy.

The London Honey Co.
The London Honey Co.

Across four estates either side of the railway bridge, the 35 tenants include butcheries, bakers, a brewer, and makers of honey, granola and ice cream, plus fruit and veg importers.

All these businesses are essentially wholesale, except for Saturday mornings. For five hours, the shutters are rolled up, and the front areas of the barrel vaults are furnished with trestle tables and card machines. Or as Alex Fubini, managing director of the Ice Cream Union, puts it: “The set-up is simple, we roll out two freezers full of ice cream.”

Monmouth Coffee photograph by Jack Hobhouse
Monmouth Coffee photograph by Jack Hobhouse

“It’s a way for people to put their toe into retail,” says Le Roy. In retail design terms, ‘light touch’ is an understatement. But despite or because of this approach, most arches see queues forming each Saturday, as people do a farmers’ market-style shop straight from the site of production. It’s also a relaxed antidote to the street-food-cum-tourist-frenzy of Borough Market two miles away.

Le Roy describes the state of the site – called Spa Terminus because it was the first stretch of rail, built in 1836, to come into London - on her first visit. “It was pretty abysmal, very run-down, we couldn’t get into most of the arches as they were blocked up. There was water coming through, no power and no drainage. Grim isn’t the word. It was effectively a new-build.”

The site before refurbishment
The site before refurbishment

The job of converting Monmouth Coffee Company’s five arches fell to ID:SR, the interiors arm of architecture firm Sheppard Robson. Following their renovations, light comes in from either end of the vaults through shuttered glass doors, and the cladding, up-lit. The front area houses its three high tables, where samples from the previous day’s roasting are tasted. And there’s an office space within a black metal frame.

For shoppers who don’t mind their retail experience being more gritty light-industrial than glossy shopping centre, the benefits are clear. For tenants, the advantages are two-fold: direct customer feedback and a sense of community.

David Lockwood at Neal’s Yard Dairies elaborates: “It is the direct contact with our customers that allows us get better at selecting, maturing and selling cheese. Our Saturday retail presence serves to ground the site and let those who come by have a look at what we do.”

Little Bread Pedlar
Little Bread Pedlar

Evin O'Riordain, founder of Kernel Brewery backs this up: “It really means a lot to us to have a direct relationship with people who buy and drink our beer. It also means a lot to us to be part of a community like Spa Terminus, and Saturday mornings are an integral (and the most social) part of that relationship.”

While most tenants will continue with their temporary arrangements, Lockwood at Neal’s Yard Diaries has bigger plans: “In the future, we will complete a more bespoke area to use as a training area for wholesale customers during the week and for our shop on Saturday.”

The loss of light-industrial production areas in the capital is much bemoaned by those in the sector. Since 2001, over 1,000 hectares of the capital’s industrial land has been lost to non-industrial uses, according to the Greater London Authorities London Industrial Land Supply & Economy Study. Spa Terminus manages to combine production with a sliver of entertaining retail.

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