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Royal Docks: How Expressway offers industrial and office space to business

Royal Victoria Dock-based facility provides studio and growth space for small, expanding companies

An image of Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson
Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson – image Matt Grayson

For drivers cruising down into the southern slice of Royal Docks via the long, graceful curve of the Silvertown Way flyover it would be entirely possible to miss something extraordinary taking place beneath the smooth asphalt caressed by the rubber of their tyres.

But, turn right at the bottom onto the switchback of North Woolwich Road, and the hive of activity beneath the arc of the carriageways becomes increasingly apparent, a crescendo as the height of the units rises, culminating in a main entrance.

This is Expressway, a comprehensive revitalisation of the old Waterfront Studios Business Centre. General Projects, the company that bought the space in 2018, hasn’t so much updated the existing real estate as reinvented it, punching a fresh entrance through the wall to Royal Victoria Dock and installing a coffee shop serving Perky Blenders’ products to open it up to the public and fuel occupants of its studios and industrial units.

Outside, dark grey paint has refreshed the structure, while indoors, whites, greens and stencilled lettering alongside a profusion of plywood and real plants lend its communal spaces and corridors a light, airy feel. There’s no plastic foliage nonsense here, just a friendly welcoming atmosphere replete with community notice board and plenty of puns around the word ‘way’.

It’s a visual expression of the light-touch authenticity that’s at the core of General Projects’ scheme.

Studio space at Expressway in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson said: “When the company was founded, the serviced office market was popping up all over central London, but what became apparent to us was that when you got further out, to areas such as Acton in the west, Croydon in the south, Haringey in the north and Royal Docks in the east, there wasn’t that same provision of space. 

“There were lots of blue carpet, white light offices but not much in the way of amenities or service for what we call steady growth innovators – hard working small businesses such as craft brewers, accountants, recruitment consultants and fashion designers.

“These aren’t the kinds of companies that are looking to raise £50million from venture capitalists. They’re looking to hire a couple of people who they trust, who will feel ownership of that business and will like going to work. Hyper-talented one-man-bands growing to five person firms.

“So when we were looking for locations as a company, we were hunting an incumbent sense of community.

“I’m not the figurehead of Expressway – it’s made up of the people who have worked here the longest. As a company, we’re just here to provide nice space for people and exactly the things that they want and not more than that because we know value is the most important part of our product.”

In addition to private office studios, typically 350sq ft, the facility boasts communal showers, cycle spaces, meeting rooms and a co-working space as well as industrial units of between 1,000sq ft and 7,000sq ft.

“We think this is London’s first truly serviced industrial space,” said Jacob. “We can provide spaces fully furnished or fitted at a basic level with services connected and wireless and wired internet connections included. It’s really up to the business. It’s also about supporting local people – around 50% of the people who work here live within 15 minutes’ walk.”

Key to Expressway’s offer is the importance it places on developing its community of businesses, whether that’s assisting firms in navigating through the choppy economic waters of Covid-19 or helping support the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“I’m incredibly proud of how we acted through the pandemic,” said Jacob. “It was a time when there was fear in every email. 

“As soon as it was clear Covid-19 was becoming a problem we set up the Expressway Genius Bar for our tenants, staffed full-time by a colleague of mine.

“His job was to understand and be the guy to go to on everything from VAT deferment to furlough, the Coronavirus Interruption Business Loan Scheme, grant funding and the bounce back loans.

“The aim was to communicate with all of our tenants and stand between them and the complexity of accessing assistance and money.

“We helped more than 60 businesses get more than £600,000 of grant funding and that really helped. We’re currently at 92% occupancy and I hope people here would talk about us favourably as an owner-operator.” 

Expressway’s industrial units – image Matt Grayson

General Projects is also working to create a circular model where Expressway, in partnership with the council-run Newham Workplace and the Royal Docks Team, hosts the Youth Incubator programme.

“Fostering small and local businesses is at the core of everything we do,” said Jacob. “We have a number of initiatives but this programme in particular offers 17 people aged 18-30 free membership of Expressway. Newham has very high levels of youth unemployment but, when you have that, you can also have very high levels of entrepreneurship.

“Our incubees get skills seminars, development support, social media marketing advice, guidance on accounting for small businesses and on how to raise funds. 

“They also get free, relevant mentoring – we’re not experts in any of those areas but we have an on-site network of 162 small and medium-size businesses that have all been down those roads, have trodden those paths and completely understand and empathise with the challenges. 

“Expressway acts as a social brokerage to match businesses with young people on the programme and we welcomed our second cohort at the end of March.

“What I would really like to see is someone go round the full circle, coming to the incubator, growing from a single person business and taking space from us and then in turn becoming a mentor. 

“I want as large a number as possible of our existing tenants to remain with us and for Expressway to be a place that feels lived in as well as worked in, for it to continue to be a space where genuine experiences happen.” 

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Canary Wharf: Pergola On The Wharf opens its doors at Crossrail Place Roof Garden

New venue by Incipio Group will reflect its lush surroundings with plenty of greenery all around

Incipio Group’s Rory Graham at Crossrail Place Roof Garden – image Matt Grayson

“Unfortunately it’s a building site at the moment, so we can’t go inside yet,” said Incipio Group’s head of creative development, Rory Graham. It was less than two weeks before Pergola On The Wharf opened and we’d met to chat about the venue that will see the vast unit at the eastern edge of Crossrail Place Roof Garden transformed following the demise of the company that ran Giant Robot.

Rory’s calm exterior hid what must have been a feverish level of activity in the run-up to its launch on Friday, May 28.

“The best way to describe this venue is what we leant on for its design – the roof garden it sits beside,” said Rory. “It’s an incredible pocket of calm in the middle of the metropolis that is Canary Wharf and we wanted to continue that look and feel throughout Pergola. 

“We’ve created a 12ft by 8ft flower wall planted entrance, a whole foliage ceiling and made a bar out of trees. It all plays into our airy, green, crisp style.

“The venue’s 10,000sq ft with two bars, one big open theatre kitchen and private dining space. Then we’ve got a 200-capacity wrap-around terrace looking over the Wharf – we’re incredibly lucky to get this location. In total we have capacity for 700 people.”

An artist’s impression of Pergola’s interior

Pergola started life under railway arches in Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, gaining its name from the popularity of bookings to sit under the tiny outdoor structure its founders had built.

“We launched in White City in 2016, and on the back of that we opened Pergola Paddington and then we had Pergola On The Roof, which was the original concept – this is the fourth venue within that brand,” said Rory.

“It’s informal, good fun, accessible and there for everyone, whether a large group or a couple coming for dinner and drinks. It might be the after-work crowd, which we’re obviously keen to engage with in Canary Wharf.

Another artist’s impression of Pergola’s interior

“People can expect relaxed DJs, good music and good food. In terms of the food, our executive chef Nick Wyborn, who trained at the Langham Hotel, and recently came over from Mac And Wild, has used land, sea and earth as the narrative for the menu.

“All the dishes relate to that, as does our drinks menu, which has fresh beers, cocktails and coffees during the day and there’s a low and no alcohol section as well.

“On weekdays we’re open from noon-11pm and earlier for brunch at the weekends as well as later into the night.

“We’ll be serving everything from really good burgers to brilliant sharers, small plates and dishes that are great for quick lunches.” 

And a final artist’s impression of Pergola’s interior

Opening in Canary Wharf was an easy decision for Incipio, with a healthy local market and the prospect of Crossrail trains starting to arrive into the building in the not too distant future.

Rory said: “First and foremost, you only have to look at the other operators here to realise how serious an area this is now.

“You’ve got The Alchemist, The Ivy In The Park, an Everyman Cinema and Darwin And Wallace’s No 35 Mackenzie Walk, so it was a very attractive place to come to.

“Not only that, but it’s starting to see a lot of weekend traffic as well, which we’re keen to tap into. Alongside that, the venue and the location are incredible.

“If you marry all that up together, it really was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down. We’re very fortunate to get this unit and very excited to be here.

“As restrictions have eased, the response from the public has been incredible across the group. In our first four weeks we’ve had more than half a million bookings for the summer at our venues, which is really exciting.

“We’ve had great success in west London and we know a lot of our customers live in east London so this is us bringing one of our sites to them.”

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Isle Of Dogs: La Nina Caffe And Mercato brings Italian flavours to Pepper Street

Monica Olivieri has opened a coffee shop and grocery store complete with tastings and live music

Monica Olivieri has opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato – image Matt Grayson

“It would be amazing – if we could have the right support from Tower Hamlets Council, we could make the Isle Of Dogs a real food district,” said Monica Olivieri. The exuberant owner and creator of La Nina Caffe & Mercato is abuzz with ideas, when we meet to talk about its recent opening.

Located in Pepper Street on the western side of Glengall Bridge, Monica’s shop and cafe is decked out in white furniture and natural wood, completely packed with Italian produce, ready-to-cook meals and savoury and sweet treats to consume on the premises or take elsewhere.

Like the cheery looking sausage dog-shaped draft excluder that holds open La Nina’s door, it’s playful – with art on the walls and an ebullience that matches its owner.

“It was born during the first lockdown,” said Monica. “I’m a marketing and events expert, mainly working in food but with the pandemic I was completely closed. I couldn’t do anything, because I usually work with chefs and restaurants, and they were shut and events were banned.

“So I said: ‘Let’s do something’. I moved to the Isle Of Dogs four years ago and, at home, I have art, good food and good music and I just wanted to take it out and put it along the street for the community.

“I grew up in my grandmother’s shop in the province of Lecce in Italy and I’d always had these feelings to create something similar here on the Island – something authentic, familiar but with my spirit in it.”

UPCOMING GIGS AT LA NINA CAFFE AND MERCATO in 2021

June 4
E&E Acoustic Duo, Guitar and piano

June 11
Mackerel Skies, Guitar and percussion

June 18
Mariska Martina, Guitar and piano

June 25
Cinelli Brothers, Guitar and percussion

With branding drawn from an old family photo of Monica on her grandmother’s hip, the celebration of family is clear, but the logo is also an expression of deeper roots.

“My grandmother Joanna opened her first shop in my home town – a very tiny village in Lecce – just after the Second World War, so I consider her an entrepreneur,” said Monica.

“In Italy you have Joanna, then Joannina and the nickname is Nina, so that’s where the name of my shop comes from.

“My grandmother was a businesswoman. She started selling paper and pencils, because she was living in front of a school and understood the demand.

“Then, after that, she started to sell pasta, vegetables, clothes, everything. I grew up inside that shop and for me it was like a funfair because I could eat everything.

“My grandma was probably the first to have a TV in the village and, every time we were watching, there was advertising going on often for biscuits or chocolate or whatever.

“She’d ask me and my sisters which we wanted to eat and then she’d buy them so we could try and decide whether to stock them. I think that’s where my interest in marketing came from.”

La Nina offers a wide range of produce from across Italy – image by Matt Grayson

Monica’s career has seen her working with numerous chefs and restaurants as well as for big brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks and Ducati. Islanders may also be familiar with Carbonara Day In London, which saw more than 3,000 people come to Mudchute Park And Farm to enjoy the classic Italian dish in 2019 and is set for a second physical edition this year. 

For now, however, her focus is on establishing La Nina with an energetic   programme of events and a monthly roving spotlight on different Italian regions. 

“In the shop, customers will find cheese, salami, pasta, tomatoes and olive oil,” said Monica. “We pick some products where we know the producers, have visited them, and stock others recommended by friends of friends.

“We want people to try gourmet food and to understand that it is not always expensive – for customers to take advice from us because, for example, you can buy good quality olive oil without spending a fortune.

“Eventually we want people to visit the farms and companies that produce these products so we can say to people: ‘If you like this, here’s a business card, go and stay there and eat there. This is how people gain a proper knowledge of food.

“Italian food is, of course, some thing that comes naturally to me because I eat it every day. When I speak with English people they often say they love Italian cuisine, but this doesn’t mean anything because our food is so varied. 

“Italy has 20 regions, so it’s wrong to say the food is just pasta and pizza. We are rich in vegetables and there are so many varieties of fish and different ways of eating meat.

“As a cuisine, it’s very diverse and very different, so my goal is to tell our customers about food from different parts of Italy, changing the focus each month.

“We’ve already looked at Puglia, Sardinia and Campana and in June we‘ll have Tuscany, with olive oil, wines and some special dishes available at the shop and online.

“We’ll also be launching our Pranzo Con Opera – a set lunch menu available to pre-book on Saturdays and Sundays with a performer from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire  Of Music And Dance. 

“In July we’ll move on to Veneto with a selection of products as well as launching Aperitivo Veneziano, serving spritz cocktails.”

Furnished in part with unwanted chairs and tables found on London’s streets by Monica, the space’s other key function is as a cafe, having opened for outdoor guests in April as lockdown restrictions eased. 

“Mercato, of course means market and caffe, because La Nina is a coffee shop,” said Monica. “We serve Italian coffee and only one size with no syrups or anything like that. 

“If people want to make their coffee sweeter, they can use sugar. It’s been going fantastically – we’ve had queues outside and we really love to invite people in.”

Each month there’s a special focus on a different region of Italy – image Matt Grayson

La Nina has also become a venue for live music, as Monica works to attract more people to a part of Pepper Street that has suffered mixed fortunes in recent years, with a busy programme of events.

“It should be more active,” she said. “I want it to be vivid – an honest food district like Brick Lane or Borough. I want it to come alive.

“In England attention has completely shifted onto food. People really know about the quality and authenticity of Italian food and I’m very happy about that.

“To complement that we have a very rich calendar in June including wine tastings on 10 and 17 and olive oil tastings on 18 and 25. 

“The space also acts as an art gallery and we have artist Stefano Pallara Vernissage introducing his exhibition on June 19. We’re also set to have a jewellery making workshop with glasses of wine for participants, hosted by Isle Of Dogs-based designer Yago on June 12.”

As well as working on the second edition of Carbonara Day In London, Monica’s ambition is to open a second venue – Tavola (table in English), which will have a kitchen to serve Italian food. Until then, watch this space, there’s bound to be something going on. 

La Nina also operates as an online shop with free delivery on the Isle Of Dogs for orders over £35. Ticket inquiries should be made in person at the shop or via its website. 

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Wapping: Wilton’s Music Hall reopens its doors with a busy programme of shows

The venue will welcome live audiences for black comedy EastEndless from May 28

The doors to Wilton’s will swing open on May 28 – image by Matt Grayson

The doors of Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping, shut to the public for more than a year, are set to reopen on May 28 and the team cannot wait to welcome people back to its forthcoming programme of shows and to its bars.

 Head of development and communications at the venue, Harry Hickmore said: “We closed the building to the public as instructed on March 16, 2020. The memory of that day is quite vivid because, like all arts organisations, we’re not used to closing our doors – especially not for an uncertain period of time.

“We haven’t been completely quiet over the past 14 months – we’ve had a lot of exciting things going on in the building, which was often used as a set for film or TV productions.

“We’ve had the BBC recording in here, as well as Amazon Prime and new Disney and Netflix films.

“So we’ve been using the building creatively – there have also been rehearsals in the building for streamed performances, but in terms of having real human beings enjoying culture together, May 28 will see us return to live performances.”

OUR TOP PICKS FOR SUMMER 2021

EastEndless, May 28-29, £19-£22
An obsessed EastEnders fan lands a bit part on the show in this blackly comic look at the soap 

Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, Jun 1, £19-£22
Mark Farrelly takes on the part of the naked civil servant in this resurrection of a work
 
Scaramouche Jones, Jun 15-26, £22.50-£25
A centenarian clown breaks 50 years of silence on Millennium Eve to tell the story of his life 

With restrictions constantly changing and unexpected lockdowns, the reopening means shows that have long been planned can finally go ahead.

“It’s been really rough for the artists,” said Harry. “Everyone who works in theatre, music or anything to do with industries that work with freelance creatives, knows it’s been really rocky, because people have not known when they’d be able to perform again. For all artists, it’s more than a job, it’s their livelihood, their lifestyle and their life.

“We’ve got so many who were meant to be performing in March or April last year that we moved to September or October in the first instance and, when that didn’t happen, rescheduled for January or February.

“Now we can actually say to artists with complete confidence that, in terms of being able to do socially-distanced shows initially, they will be performing to audiences who cannot wait to hear them. We’ve got a lot of frustrated performers and now they’re thrilled.

“We’re delighted that audiences and artists are coming back together in our venue – that’s what makes these buildings really sing – it’s very exciting.”

Harry Hickmore is head of development and communications at Wilton’s Music Hall – image Matt Grayson

At first Wilton’s capacity will be cut from 350 to 109 to ensure audience members can remain socially distanced and Harry said the venue could adapt its operation at short notice should government guidance change.

“Something very strange would have to happen for shows not to go ahead,” he said. “The only thing that would stop us is a full lockdown. If needs be, we can have a socially distanced auditorium for a bit longer in June. 

“The other thing is that audiences will be returning to a venue that’s really comfy and sounds great.

“Wilton’s was built to have more than 1,000 people in the hall for performances in the 19th century so it could be a bit boomy. We’ve just completed a £500,000 project to install acoustic pannelling on the walls of the balcony to enable a range of shows from one person speaking on stage to a full opera.

“We’ve also had new seats put in, which will be an extra bonus for audiences. We have a lot of generous donors who support us and we’ve relied on them this year when ticket sales and other income have fallen by the wayside.”

Harry, who oversees fundraising efforts for the venue, is also looking forward to the return of weddings at Wilton’s.

“By the time this article comes out we’ll have just done our first wedding since lockdown,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people approach us in 2020 who are planning to get married and really want to do it here so I hope there will be more in July and August when people can have a full ceremony and celebration.

“We’ll also be reopening the Mahogany Bar and we have a lot of regulars and locals who just visit us for a drink.”

Ready and waiting for an audience – image Matt Grayson

Harry, who is a trained musician and previously worked as a fundraiser for English National Opera, said he was especially looking forward to Scaramouche Jones Or The Seven White Masks later in June.

“It’s going to be brilliant – starring Justin Butcher in the lead role, it’s 20 years since it was made famous by the late Pete Postlethwaite,” he said.

“In general though, the thing I’ve really missed over the last 14 months is that feeling that people are coming from all different areas, different day-jobs, into one space, to enjoy one thing together – an experience of about 90 minutes without any interruption from the outside world.

“There’s the brilliant magic where there are two or three artists on stage with an audience and they’re all enjoying it together.

“There’s a reason why, since humans lived in the caves, we’ve been taking part in live performance.

“We love being in a  group – it’s something really simple – and we haven’t always been able to do that during the pandemic.

“There have been great things that have come from the proliferation of live streaming, which will really improve the whole theatre sector, but nothing can beat that bustle before 7.30pm, where loads of people who don’t know each other are about to share quite an intimate experience, side by side.

“It’s a really beautiful thing and it’s something we do brilliantly well in London.”

 With strong demand for tickets reported, don’t delay booking if you’re planning an evening out at Wilton’s or another venue in the coming months. 

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Isle Of Dogs: The Bloom Clinic launches to offer medical aesthetic treatments and wellness consultations near Canary Wharf

Image shows Dr Rita Nandi in her treatment room

GP Dr Rita Nandi founded the Skylines Village-based business after 14 years working in the NHS

Image shows Dr Rita Nandi of The Bloom Clinic
Dr Rita Nandi has launched The Bloom Clinic on the Isle Of Dogs – image Holly Cant

Time, care and attention to detail are the three things that stand out in a conversation with Dr Rita Nandi – apposite, given the nature of her new venture. Having spent 14 years working in the NHS – the last six as a GP – she’s launched The Bloom Cinic on the Isle Of Dogs, specialising in non-surgical medical aesthetics and wellness.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to work in medicine – as a child I used to play doctor in roleplay with my friends and family,” said Dr Nandi. 

“I started to contemplate aesthetics back at medical school – a GP I was shadowing at the time was doing treatments privately.

“That piqued my interest – it planted the seed in my head and as I’ve gone through the ageing process, I’ve started to look at having treatments myself. 

“Seeing the befores and afters, I was amazed at what could be achieved non-surgically and that the effects of the treatments could be reversed if desired – I have my procedures booked with the doctor I usually see in a couple of months.

“I also spoke to colleagues who were doing them and they said it was great in terms of owning your own business, but also for getting to spend as much time with your clients as they need. 

“What’s really frustrated me, working as a GP is that the time constraint of 10 minutes to see a patient – that just kills me.”

After making the decision to launch her clinic, Dr Nandi set about training in January 2020.

She said: “I’m all about safety – the oath we take as doctors is to do no harm so, for me, it was really important to get as much practical education as possible. I decided to do a Level 7 diploma – equivalent to a Masters – in injectables and a Level 4 in cosmetic dermatology with Harley Academy, as a foundation for my practice, and I’ve also completed numerous courses with Derma Medical and Cosmetic Courses, meaning I’ve trained with the top three leading organisations in the field.

“I’ve hand-picked the training so that I am able to run this clinic really well and, above all, safely.”

Image shows the managing director of The Bloom Clinic
Dr Nandi’s husband, Vivien Blossier is MD of The Bloom Clinic – image Holly Cant
Dr Nandi launched The Bloom clinic with husband Vivien Blossier as managing director.
  He said: “The key is that what we’re offering is non-surgical, reversible and that Rita is a fully qualified doctor.
  “We want to make sure The Bloom Clinic truly lives up to its name  – that it really helps clients and makes their lives better. We will prove the concept that way and then look at whether we want to expand the business.
  “Canary Wharf is a great market – Rita did some research and found there were a lot of people in the area in need of the holistic approach we provide. They work long hours and don’t have time to really think about their health and their needs as a person. We can help them bloom.” 

While the list of treatments offered by Dr Nandi at The Bloom Clinic is too long to reproduce in full here, services include injecting botulinum toxin  and hyaluronic acid fillers as well as microneedling, facials and chemical peels.

“I see the confidence that aesthetic treatments can bring about in people’s lives – they can have a life-changing effect,” said Dr Nandi. “As they walk out of the clinic, they’re ready to face the world. 

“It’s like wearing a red lipstick. They feel so powerful – it changes their outlook on the day, on life.

“Aesthetic treatments are great for people who feel fine but look at themselves in the mirror and think: ‘I look so exhausted, so tired’.

“Some people might think these treatments are a little bit superficial, but it’s like wearing makeup – whether that’s younger clients looking to enhance their lips, cheekbones or jawlines, or rejuvenation to reverse the signs of ageing. 

“There’s a little bit of risk involved, but we counsel our clients thoroughly on the possible side effects. I’m there 24-hours a day for my clients. We have emergency drugs ready at the clinic in the unlikely event we need to deal with an allergic reaction.

“None of my patients have had issues – and these are very rare – but if someone does, they can contact me and I can see them at the clinic if necessary. I live in Leyton so it only takes me 20 minutes to get there – and we’re fully equipped to deal with any problems.”

After making an enquiry, prospective clients can expect Dr Nandi to contact them for a chat about what they’d like to achieve and their health, to establish whether there’s anything that might rule out a particular treatment. 

Following initial screening, clients are invited for a consultation either in-clinic or via video chat, when a full medical and aesthetic history is taken.

“Then I’ll tell them about the treatments we offer and can advise them on which would be appropriate, if they’re still unsure,” said Dr Nandi.

“These procedures are not taken lightly. According to research by Glowday – a platform where clients can find medically qualified aesthetic practitioners – the average person takes 18 months to decide whether to have an aesthetic treatment from the point of coming across it to the point of sitting there in the treatment chair.

“Normally clients do loads of research, they’ll speak to the practitioner and assess their options before going ahead.”

While aesthetic treatments are at the core of what The Bloom Clinic offers, its ethos is to go above and beyond to provide its clients with access to a wider range of services.

“In order to achieve true wellness people want to deal with their fitness, their nutrition and their mindset as well,” said Dr Nandi. 

“So we’ve taken a holistic approach, working in partnership with experts in a range of areas.”

These include life coaches Maggie Edwards and Hans Schumann, Isle Of Dogs-based personal training studio Delta Fitness and online nutritional clinic CityDietitians

“After we’ve spoken to our clients about what they want to achieve and they’ve told me they want to work on a particular area, then I’ll tell them about our partners,” said Dr Nandi, who will continue to work as an NHS GP, part-time.

“Anybody who is having treatment at our clinic will then get 10% off our partner’s services. 

“Also, £1 from every single treatment The Bloom Clinic performs goes to the Trussell Trust, which operates about two thirds of the food banks in the UK.”

The Bloom Clinic is located within easy walking distance of the Canary Wharf estate and South Quay DLR at Skylines Village.

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Royal Docks: Why Silverspace Studios’ founders created an all-inclusive business

Image shows Michael Stuart-Daley and Calvin Mlilo of Silverspace

How Calvin Mlilo and Michael Stuart-Daley created a space for photographers, by photographers

Image shows Calvin and Michael in their studio
Michael Stuart-Daley, left, and Calvin Mlilo created Silverspace Studios in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Both Calvin Mlilo and Michael Stuart-Daley want me to see Studio A. Our interview has come to an end just as their clients vacate the space. So the two photographers who founded Silverspace Studios together at The Silver Building in Royal Docks in 2018, can finally take me into the 400sq ft room where it all began.

Knowing that their studio hire business has since swelled to include a second nearly 700sq ft facility and office space just across the corridor, as well as an 800sq ft space in Elephant And Castle, I ask them how walking into the smallest room in their portfolio feels. A pause, then a quiet discussion about how to put their answer into words.

“I feel proud,” said Calvin. “It was a challenge when we first came in. You’d look at it and ask: ‘What the hell have we got ourselves into? Can we do this?’. Now, when you look at it, how this very room has trickled over into Studio B, Studio C and the office – it’s growth and growth. It’s our favourite room.”

“This is the baby,” added Michael. “You’d wake up with a smile on your face knowing you were going into work for yourself, for your business. “It was just us – we had to put our all into it and we have done that. Now this is us – full time.

“Pride is the key word. I remember the day we got the keys. It feels like it was yesterday. It’s been a lovely journey so far.”

“I love it when people book this space,” said Calvin. “For us it’s the beginning of everything.

“I love the potential of it. Your brain starts to work as soon as you step through the door.”

This spare white box with natural light flooding through windows along one side – framed by the bare brutalist concrete of the building – is a physical embodiment of Silverspace’s roots – the foundation of a project that has been 12 years in the making.

Both Calvin and Michael grew up in Newham, meeting while studying photography at the University Of East London. 

“At that time, we had the university studio and we could use that quite frequently,” said Calvin. “But after finishing university, you had to finance yourself.

“You’d get that bang in the face of needing £100 to book a studio – then there might be another £50 for equipment on top. It’s silly – being charged for using clips, clamps or a stand. It doesn’t help young creatives believe in the journey that they’re going through. It’s discouraging – spending £30-£40 on little things that you need for the shoot.”

“How many times have we been to a studio and it’s another £10 just to use a polyboard to bounce some light off?” said Michael. “You’d feel like you’re being fleeced.”

The solution was Silverspace – a place both photographers could use for their own projects, but also that others would be able to hire at an all-inclusive price with equipment and facilities folded into the basic price.

“That frustration, that hardship is where the business came from,” said Calvin. “We wanted to make a space for us to create in and then realised that there were a lot of people going through the same hardships we were – young people trying to get into the creative industries. We started small – turning an office space into Studio A.

“It had high ceilings – which work for photography – big windows, natural light, which you can work with, as well as using lighting. We turned it into a space so people could create portraits or shoot fashion.

“Then, when we outgrew that, it was about asking: ‘Can we go bigger?’. That’s how we’ve expanded – organically.”

Image shows Calvin Mlilo
Calvin says he and Michael feel pride when the look at what they’ve created – image Matt Grayson

Michael and Calvin were among the first tenants to take up residence at The Silver Building – a former building transformed for temporary commercial use by Projekt.

For the pair, who both still live in Newham, their business is also a way of encouraging the next generation.

“Providing affordable space that doesn’t break the bank, where you can come in and get things done, is essentially giving back for us,” said Michael.

“Through our years of studying at UEL, going through the stages of our careers, there have been a lot of opportunities where we’ve been given chances.

“Silverspace was, predominantly a space in the beginning for us to create. Once we realised other people needed it, we opened it up.

“Demand has gone through the roof. Getting the keys, on April Fool’s Day 2018 was the beginning of the journey. Over that three years it’s been an amazing experience – seeing the business grow, seeing how we’ve grown.

“Being a freelance photographer is completely different from running a business.

“We’d had experience as studio managers elsewhere, so we knew how to do one or two things, but now we deal with every aspect of the business. 

“If I could go back, I’d tell myself to ‘just keep doing what you’re doing’. That’s what has got us here. As photographers we were fortunate to be able to invest in ourselves – to buy equipment and get the things we needed to apply ourselves properly in the trade.

“For example, the Profoto lights we have now are the same ones we had when we started.”

Calvin added: “It’s important not to doubt yourself too much, to run your own race. On a personal level I was guilty of that – looking at people who’d been running studios for a long time and trying to put myself on that level.

“You just have to put the work in, apply yourself, do the hours and you’ll get the results. It’s also important not to over-think things. If you worry things are expensive you’ll never buy them – you just have to do it and trust that business investments will recoup the outlay.

“Working as photographers was our market research for the studios – asking ourselves: ‘What would we want?’. 

“So we created a space for us, by us and, at the same time realised a lot of other young people could benefit from that.    

“People are often surprised when everything’s included.  That’s the reaction we get quite a lot – it’s a specific service we provide and people come back for that. 

“We help out as well and I don’t know another studio that does that. Why not? We’re in the office anyway.”

Image show Michael Stuart-Daley
Michael says Silverspace is always happy to help clients with set-up and lighting – image Matt Grayson

Michael said: “If a group of us are in and someone needs advice, they’re tapping into a good 35 years of collective photographic experience. If someone shows us a reference picture, we can set the light up for them. People come back for that service.”

Calvin added: “If you have someone who’s starting out, that makes such a difference.”

Completely committed to their craft, the pair admit to spending 70-80% of the time they should have been studying in class at UEL, experimenting in its studio, and are keen that more people should get behind the lens and do the same. 

Michael, who has also tutored students at the university, said: “We were taught there were no mistakes in photography – if you made a mistake, then own it.

“So, if there are newbies coming into the studio, we’re there to give them a hand, to help calm their nerves so they can get the results they want whether that’s as a hobbyist or as someone embarking on a creative career.

“It is expensive equipment that we supply, but it’s there to do a job and, so long as it’s set up properly and safely, you don’t have to worry about it.”

See more of Calvin’s work here and Michael’s work here

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Canary Wharf: GoBoat launches Wood Wharf branch of its boat hire business

An image showing a GoBoat in Canary Wharf

How GoBoat is set to hire out craft for a  tranquil cruise among the Wharf’s towers

An image showing GoBoat co-owner Grant Sweeney
GoBoat co-owner Grant Sweeney – image by Illyas Ayub

In addition to being the first day when hospitality venues can welcome guests back inside, May 17, 2021, is the date a new attraction is about to set sail in Canary Wharf.

A quartet of low-slung sleek grey GoBoats has already arrived in West India South Dock in preparation for the launch, which will see the company renting the craft from a base at Wood Wharf.

Inspired by an enjoyable time on the water during a stag-do in Denmark, co-owners Grant Sweeney and Julian Wootton gave up decade-long careers in management consultancy to start their own business from scratch.

Founded in 2017, GoBoat already has operations on the Regent’s Canal at Paddington and on the non-tidal Thames in Kingston. 

Grant said: “We’re an eco-friendly, self-drive boat hire business. Our boats are made from predominantly recycled materials and are powered by electric engines. We’re all about getting people onto the waterways of the UK and allowing them to have a fun time with their friends and family.

“Canary Wharf will be our third location and we’re super-excited about being here – we can’t wait to open and to get people onto these wonderful waters in Docklands.”

Initially the company will operate four boats, eventually rising to eight. GoBoats seat up to eight people and are available to explore the West India Docks and Blackwall Basin, with visitors booking either one, two or three hours for £89, £129 or £169 respectively.

“The experience is all about social interaction,” said Grant. “We view our boats as a platform to enjoy the city – it’s about giving our customers a different perspective on a part of London that they might already know but haven’t seen from the water.

“Each boat has a designated captain and they are responsible for steering. Customers go straight out on the water after a relatively short handover where they learn how to drive and steer.

“Typically our customers bring a picnic down. They are allowed to have a couple of alcoholic drinks, but no more than that and the captain remains sober.

“Essentially, it’s a fun, social experience and I think there’s a real demand for that now as we, hopefully, come out of the pandemic. Being outdoors, it’s quite a safe environment and it provides happy memories for our customers.

“I hope anyone who takes a journey with us feels relaxed. A number of studies have shown that being on the water is good for people’s mental health.

“We see it all the time – as soon as our customers get on the boat, there’s a different vibe – almost like a sigh of relief. 

“When boats pass each other, everyone waves. You wouldn’t do that on a footpath or in a car, but on the water it’s different.

Image shows two GoBoats sailing in Canary Wharf
GoBoats can take up to eight people with one acting as the designated captain

“Everything about our business has been designed to complement that, so the slow pace of life on the boat is deliberate, because we want people to be calm and relax and talk to one another. They’re limited to 4mph by design for a reason.

“It’s also why the boats have been designed with the picnic table in the centre, so that guests sit around the table opposite one another, and it encourages conversation, rather than looking forward and not talking to each other or using their phones.”

Sustainability was a key consideration when Grant and Julian set up the business and they’re always looking for ways to make their operation more environmentally friendly.

Grant said: “About 80% of each boat is made from recycled plastic bottles and the wood that is used for the picnic tables in the centre of the boats is from sustainable sources.

“The engines are electric, so there’s no environmental pollution and no noise pollution as they cruise over the water.

“We are a very environmentally friendly business and, in terms of the customer experience, the lack of noise from the engine encourages conversation.

“We are very proud of our green credentials and we want to carry that forward and try to improve that at every opportunity. We are currently looking at ways to reduce the amount of plastic that our customers leave on the boats, for example.”

That’s no small task considering the success of the business so far, which in four years has taken the owners somewhat by surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate that it would get so big, so quickly and become so popular,” said Grant.

“We estimate that we had about 100,000 customers last year across both of our sites. We’re really proud of our team for achieving that.

“We’re not sure how many we’ll get in Canary Wharf initially, but we think it will be a sizeable number.”

An image showing a GoBoat moored in Canary Wharf
Each GoBoat has a picnic table that sailors can use for their refreshments – image by Illyas Ayub

Elena Istode will be running things on the ground as GoBoat location manager for Canary Wharf.

She said: “I started in 2019 with the company as a crew member and then came back for a second season as a supervisor.

“Sailing a GoBoat is very safe, although we will recommend everyone wears a life jacket just in case as the water is deep and quite cold. Everything around here is very well managed, so there’s very little danger.

“We can’t wait to welcome our first customers and the most important thing is that we’ll be selling ice cream from Hackney gelato.”

 Other refreshments will also be available at GoBoat’s kiosk and the firm is currently on the hunt for more locally-based food and beverage partners to extend its offering to customers.

Grant added: “We’re really excited to be in this environment. We had conversations back in 2018 with Canary Wharf Group and, at every step of the way, we’ve had really positive support from them – it’s been a joy really.

“We feel the water in Docklands needs more animation and it has always been our ambition to come here. We think it’s such a stunning part of London’s waterways and it just seems so obvious to us to do this.

“The landscape here is unparalleled – it gives you that urban experience, which you don’t get at our other two sites. Each one of them is quite a different experience.” 

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