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Canning Town: How the Bamboo Bicycle Club helps its customers build their rides

Fast-growing material offers natural cushioning, offered by the business via kits and workshops

James Marr of the Bamboo Bicycle Club at Caxton Works
James Marr of the Bamboo Bicycle Club at Caxton Works

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James Marr was working in rural Wales as an engineer when he encountered the problem that would lead to the creation of the business he’s now run for 10 years in east London.

“I was doing a lot of commuting and I was really uncomfortable on my bike,” he said.

“I decided I needed a frame that would absorb more of the vibrations from the road and be a bit more pleasant to ride.

“I’ve always been someone who just gets on and does stuff and a bicycle gives you that ability.

“I’ve always cycled – it gives you a lot of freedom, and I really enjoy that.

“I’ve always tried to fix things and build things myself, so I thought I’d make my own bicycle.”

Having lived in the USA and seen people riding bikes with bamboo frames he began researching the material and found it to his liking.

“That’s where I got the original idea,” he said. “Bamboo bikes are about 120 years old now – they’ve been around for a while.

“Technology has obviously progressed in terms of how you build bikes over time and that’s made making your own much more accessible.

“You’re able to create something really decent now, so I thought I’d build one.

“I told my best mate Ian McMillan about it, and he joined in.

“We used to meet up at the weekends – we’d have some beers and build our bikes.

“That was really the inception of the Bamboo Bicycle Club.

“We really enjoyed building them and riding them – it was enjoyable and sociable and our mates asked if they could come and build with us as well.”

Build workshops take place in Canning Town every month

Initially the idea was to open up the club as a social project with James and his friend keeping their  jobs in engineering while continuing to build and teach others at the weekends.

But the idea snowballed and James quit his job to run the business full-time.

He relocated operations to Caxton Works in Canning Town in 2020 after years in Hackney Wick, mostly because rents in the area were becoming prohibitive for a firm like his that needs a significant amount of space.

It’s necessary because the spirit of the original club still forms the spine of the business.

“We don’t sell finished bikes – only kits and building sessions in our workshops,” said James.

“Over the years it has been a temptation to sell finished bikes, but it was that early feeling I got when I rode the bike I’d built which is really key.

“I remember that when I rode it, me and my mate were giggling, because we just couldn’t believe that we’d built these bikes and were riding them for the first time.

“They were functional, they worked, and they definitely planted the seed of what could be achieved. That initial spark from riding them was unique.

“The first one I built was pretty shit, but it made me realise what I’d done wrong.

“When I’m teaching others, the first thing I say is: ‘Make mistakes, but just embrace that and learn from them – it’s a process’.

“This is something that’s not allowed in our society that much – you don’t go to work to make mistakes – but trying to give things a go and learning from doing them is what I believe in and that’s what we do here.”

That’s, of course, because the other thing the club does is build a lot of bikes and sell a lot of kits so people can make them at home.

“Our home-build kits are our biggest growth area,” said James. “We now do a lugged frame with pre-moulded components – it’s the Ikea of bike building.

“You get the bits in a box, slot all the bamboo into them and you’ve got yourself a bike.

“It moves away from the possibility of compromise, but it gives people the ability to use their hands and learn some techniques.

“It takes a few hours instead of the 70 you’d expect using a cottage industry method.”

James assists a client with his build
James assists a client with his build

There’s a sense, however, that James prefers custom builds – clients who want to get their hands a little dirtier by using flax and resin to join the lengths of bamboo into frames that will suit their needs and desires.

“When you have that combination of materials, the frame becomes a bio-composite and it’s a lot more interesting,” he said.

“The initial concept was to build a certain bike a certain way, but some of the bikes we’ve built are completely bizarre.

“Loads of people build crazy bikes with us in the workshop and we also do custom kits that we ship all over the world.

“People build mountain bikes out of bamboo and that just shows how robust and versatile a material it can be.

“We’ve done loads of BMX and stunt bikes as well.

“Everyone is following the same general blueprint here but each bike is different and unique. It’s down to the individual who is building it.” 

A lugged frame from the Bamboo Bicycle Club
A lugged frame from the Bamboo Bicycle Club

Visitors to the Canning Town workshop can see all sorts of machines created from bamboo including tricycles, electric variants and rides with oversize chunky backbones.

The business also sells a wide range of add-ons from gear and brake packs to the simple addition of water bottle holders.

“If you’re into bikes, you know there are hundreds of different types and variations,” said James.

“Basically a bamboo bike is just a bicycle, no different from any other, that you use or may have used regularly.

“The only difference is that you can customise it, create something you want and it’s a lot more accessible.

“If you want to build a custom bike from other materials, you’re talking tens of thousands of pounds, so bamboo bikes are quite affordable to build.

“From a ride perspective it’s also a lot more comfortable because the material naturally absorbs impact.

“We’ve done a lot of work with universities researching bamboo because there’s huge under-investment and naivety about it in the western world.”

Frame build kits start at £410, while one-day frame building workshops, which run once a month and must be pre-booked, start at £695.

Bamboo can be used to make a wide range of bikes
Bamboo can be used to make a wide range of bikes

Read more: How Just Vibez is set to take over Greenwich Peninsula

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Canning Town: How Rise Climbing is building a community at Caxton Works

The bouldering centre, gym and cafe aims to attract climbers old and new to its recently launched wall

Conor Skillbeck, left, and James Skinner of Rise Climbing
Conor Skillbeck, left, and James Skinner of Rise Climbing – image Matt Grayson

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Like its walls, there are many angles to Rise Climbing, which recently opened its doors at Caxton Works in Canning Town.

It’s a temple to the pure, clear cut challenge of reaching the top of something.

But its two co-founders have ensured that it’s filled with much more than bouldering problems, brightly-coloured plastic holds, plywood and crash mats. 

“One way we describe it is that we want it to feel like home, a place to relax and for people not to feel like they’re walking into someone else’s space,” said Conor Skillbeck.

“We want people to feel welcome, to drop all their stress and worries at the door whether they’re here to climb or just for a coffee.

“Most of the world isn’t like this – there aren’t many spaces where people aren’t being challenged.

“Everything tells you the world’s miserable and that you should be unhappy so we’ve created a space where people can have a bit of time off from that unhappiness.”

James tackles a problem at Rise
James tackles a problem at Rise – image Matt Grayson

The Rise project began with Conor’s friend James Skinner, who found himself working at a climbing wall after leaving his job in medical software. 

“I’d been climbing since I was 12 and it was something I’d always come back to,” said James. “I ended up sticking around and after working at the wall for a few years, I wanted my own place.

“I looked at all the things I was good at and all the things I was bad at, because good partnerships are with people who complement each other, and they can recognise where their skills overlap. I wanted Conor as a partner because he’s a do-er.”

James, who’d met Conor through climbing, wrote a business plan, put a picture of his friend on it and showed it to him.

After managing to convince him it wasn’t a joke, the two began to plan in earnest, seeking premises and deciding exactly what their own wall would be like. 

Conor, who’d worked as a model before embarking on a career in structural engineering, said that having recently married and, with the prospect of kids on the horizon, he felt that if he was going to do something like Rise, then the time had to be now.

After a lengthy search, they found a lofty unit in east London in an area with little climbing provision, giving them the opportunity to build both an extensive, two-level facility and a new community.

The sport is growing at a rapid rate and both James and Conor hope their wall will attract both veteran climbers living locally but, crucially, an influx of those new to the sport who just want to try it out.

To that end Rise is already starting to partner with local schools and is keen to grow its operation in that area.

“Everyone wants to get to the top of something – walking up mountains, for example,” said Conor.

“In a sense, it’s a completely pointless thing to do, because when you get to the top, you just come down to the bottom again.

“But when you walk along a street with kids, they will want to walk on the wall, just because they get to be on the top of something.”

James added: “It’s such a fundamental action. Any parent in here will tell you that their kids love climbing trees and that they can’t get them off the stairs. 

“So we have such an easy sell – a climbing wall combines all of those things in a single space.

“It makes it safer to do them because of the crash mats, but it also means there are easier and harder ways to get to the top.

“People can get better at doing that and when they discover this, that’s something they really want.

“For kids especially, it’s somewhere they’re encouraged to climb higher, when they’re usually told to get down.”

Conor and James recently opened the wall in Canning Town
Conor and James recently opened the wall in Canning Town – image Matt Grayson

It’s not just for the kids, of course. Conor said the ultimate thrill was still reaching the top hold on a bouldering problem for the first time – something touching the second-from-top could never live up to.

“We set 30 new problems every week and the sense of satisfaction when you get to the top is addictive,” he said.

“Not getting both hands on it can be a complete disappointment and frustration.

“It’s hard-wired into people and you see why they really love it. It’s also a sport people can do for many years.

“Two of the top climbers in the UK are in their 40s.

“There’s so much in terms of technique, flexibility and strength – people who are good make it easy for themselves.

“They find ways of positioning their bodies, so the hard move on a route becomes easier. It’s not just about being strong.

“I think there’s a pretty good correlation between how hard you’ve worked to finish a problem and how much satisfaction you get from reaching the top.

“Sometimes I’ve worked for six months to get to the top of one climb, and that feels way better than something you do straight away – it’s not necessarily how hard it is, it’s how much time and effort you put in.”

There’s also a shared joy among climbers in seeing others progress, develop and conquer the problems they’re tackling.

James said: “We had a guy come up to us and say that he did his first heel hook – not just using your foot to climb like a ladder or the stairs, but in an unexpected way – and he said it was really cool.

“He’d seen someone else do it and he’d asked them to explain it and then he’d had a go and said he would be able to use it on other problems.

“That was on one of our easier routes, but even with those, we want people to learn something, to progress. That feels great.”

It’s this sense of community, camaraderie and collaboration that Rise seeks to embrace and foster, with those who visit for a climb or just for a coffee.

“It’s one thing to build a place the way you want it – we did a good job,” said Conor.

“The toilets aren’t obtrusive and the changing rooms look really nice, but ultimately the space feels good when people are in it. That’s when it comes alive.”

Rise regularly changes its routes to keep things fresh
Rise regularly changes its routes to keep things fresh – image Matt Grayson

James added: “We want it full of happy people who leave feeling happier than when they first walked in.

“The temptation when you’re designing the space is to have holds on every single surface, but we wanted Rise to have a really nice flow to it.

“There are huge mental health benefits to climbing and we wanted our wall to take on board things other walls had done really well and build on them – that it would be a real break from your screen, with challenging problems that will take your mind off everything else.”

For all these reasons, Rise is working hard to become an open space where people can meet, share a slice of Armenian cake and have a chat.

“The idea behind our front desk is that it’s like a farmhouse kitchen, that it’s a relaxed environment where there’s less obvious separation between people who work here and those who have come to use the space,” said Conor.

“We don’t want Rise to be exclusively for climbers – it’s for anyone who wants to come and sit down, for the wider community.

“We’re also running open social sessions on Wednesdays from 6.30pm and a women’s social on Thursdays. 

“We’re passionate about climbing and lots of other people are too – ultimately that’s what will make it successful.”

There are myriad ways to climb at Rise, including single entry for £12 or £9.50 off peak (before 4pm on weekdays). Under 18s cost £8.50. Membership options are also available.

Rise will also be participating in the Caxton Works Open Day on July 9, running low-cost intro sessions.

Rise is spread across two levels at Caxton Works
Rise is spread across two levels at Caxton Works – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Keyboards And Dreams offers flexible workspace in Canning Town

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Canning Town: How Keyboards And Dreams is a workspace created (almost) by accident

How serial entrepreneur Jonathan Fren landed his latest business at Caxton Works in east London

Keyboards And Dreams creator Jonathan Fren
Keyboards And Dreams creator Jonathan Fren

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Black swan” is the image  that comes to mind when trying to sum up Jonathan Fren.

That’s because the entrepreneur appears calm on the surface but there’s a sense he’s working busily beneath.

The founder of Canning Town co-working space Keyboards & Dreams, is something of an anomaly.

When we sit down to chat, the mellow-voiced hipster seems exactly the sort of person who would own an easygoing office complex in Caxton Works, where members are surrounded by plants and stripped back decor.

He said it all came about “by accident” but I’m not sure that’s the right word.

“I randomly came across the development about three years ago and was interested,” said Jonathan. “I liked the vibe of what they were doing with independent businesses and I liked the architecture of the space.

“I thought it would be a cool place to have a community. It’s a very residential area and, with Keyboards & Dreams, I wanted to create a living room that people could go to when they’re not working from home.”

This is not the first business the 32-year-old has owned. It isn’t even the second or third. 

Jonathan has never totted up the companies he’s run, but I have. It’s 11.

The first, Magivend, he started when he was 10 after seeing some sweet machines for sale at Exchange & Mart.

“My parents were always entrepreneurs, and supported me,” said the Northampton native. “I bought three machines and put them in our local health club — they paid for themselves in a month, so I kept buying more and putting them around town.”

By the age of 12, he had 32. By 13 he was “bored” and bought tyre sealant franchise Nopunctures.

Part of the workspace at Caxton Works
Part of the workspace at Caxton Works

Despite its success, nine months later he gave it up as “the need to be face-to-face with businesses as a 13-year-old was difficult”.

There was no stopping him now though – at 14 he left school with no formal qualifications and became the youngest person to attend the Open University, studying robotics under a special arrangement with the council. 

“I wasn’t allowed to ever meet my tutors as staff weren’t vetted for working with under-18s,” said Jonathan.

“And I only spent two weeks actually preparing for the exams as I was too busy learning about the internet.”

He started taking apart websites and learning how they worked, building CaribGo, a revolutionary webmail client but said he was beaten to the punch by Gmail.

At 16, he moved to Barbados to run a watersports business, but within months realised his passion lay in cyberspace.

“I’d gained some great contacts online, and spent the next few years travelling and building things for clients like Barclays Bank, General Motors, and Oxfam,” he said.

“None of them knew my age – it was my most closely guarded secret. But of course I’d have told them if they’d ever asked.”

The rest of his CV includes co-founding identity management service ProfileBuilder, face-to-face networking platform PowerMeeter, fashion designer finder Osmoda and magazine It’s Rude To Stare.

Some only lasted months but by 2016 he seemed to have found a more secure footing in Clerkenwell, spending four years running tech company Rebel Minds.

Exhausted yet? So was Jonathan.

Keyboards And Dreams is located at Caxton Works in Canning Town

“By then I was 25 and I was finding it all really stressful,” he said.

“The company I had created had become something so different from what I started. 

“I ended up with 20 employees in central London doing things I just didn’t believe in. We ended up being an agency just making websites for clients.

“I wanted to do super awesome things and have products that I really believed in. I tried to pivot it first, but I was in this really bad place and ultimately decided to shut it down.”

He said making all his staff redundant was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my working life”.

The phoenix from the flames was his office block nestled among the jewellers in Hatton Garden.

During the five years the tech company existed, Jonathan had acquired more floors of the building and the first Keyboards & Dreams evolved naturally.

The site can cater for up to 95 members
The site can cater for up to 95 members

“We had a really cool space and I’d always had lots of friends interested in it,” said Jonathan.

“Initially I just rented it to them for their tech companies and then to more and more people and eventually it became this great co-working space.”

He managed the building remotely for a few years while travelling through Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and San Francisco and had no intention of launching a second site. But then he discovered Canning Town. 

“I didn’t know much about the history of the area when I started, but now I can see that in three or four years it is going to really go up,” said Jonathan. 

“At the moment we are a little bit in sleepy mode, but so much has happened just in the year we have been at Caxton Works.”

These days Jonathan lives in Poland with his Yoga instructor girlfriend, but moved back to the capital to get the unit ready for launch in November 2020.

He said: “We had a waiting list of about 60 people but then Covid rules changed and we ended up with 10 members. It was a lot less people than I expected, but I didn’t want it to be an empty building, I wanted it to be used.”

Today, the site has about 25 members and space for another 95.

But Jonathan is confident it will take off and he has just launched Yoga space Wonderful Things in the unit next door.

“The concept is to create a really modular space that is not just about working but enabling people to do whatever they’re doing,” he said.

“We have podcast spaces, private desks, open-plan spaces, storage, meeting rooms, a photography area, lots of different spaces to enable people to do lots of different things. I’m super optimistic.

“Throughout Covid we have had lots of people drop out, but also people joined. Clerkenwell has been used throughout the pandemic. 

“With Canning Town we have had nowhere near the number of people walk through the doors I expected, but I think that’s part of being a new place in a new area.”

So was this really all by accident? Like the black swan, it seems more like effort rewarded.

Read more: See James Cook’s typewriter art at Trinity Buoy Wharf

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Canning Town: How Wonderful Things hooks Yoga up with co-working

Space at Caxton Works is neighbour and sister company to Keyboards And Dreams

Wonderful Things' space in Canning Town
Wonderful Things’ space in Canning Town – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

A new space that embraces the increasingly blurry lines between home, work and wellbeing is about to emerge in Canning Town.

Wonderful Things will offer traditional Yoga and meditation classes alongside sessions such as sound healing, moon ceremonies and ecstatic dance.

Inspired by the autonomy of co-working spaces, it promises to shun rigid schedules and memberships and instead mould itself around the needs of teachers and students to create a sanctuary from stress.

Set to open in March at Caxton Works, general manager Sean Reilly said it was a “beautiful but no-frills” space run with a laid back philosophy.

The 27-year-old, who is a trained hypnotherapist, has spent weeks talking to therapists and Yoga teachers about what they need.

“People are looking for a space that’s super simple where they can just walk in, no faff, start their class and they know where everything is,” she said.

“They want to know they are in a space that is safe, that they can relax and nothing is going to go wrong so they have peace of mind and don’t need to worry about a thing.

“Creating that is our sole focus now, so we can slip into people’s lives as if we have always been there and they can just click and book and it’s done.”

Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things
Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She turned to the wellness industry after becoming disillusioned with her hospitality job during lockdown.

“During the pandemic, there was a drastic change and it came to a point where I was doing 12-hour shifts by myself, back-to-back, which wasn’t good for my brain,” she said.

“The Deliveroo drivers and I were best friends. I loved hospitality because I love talking to people and it lost the magic for me a little bit.”

Despite no office experience, she landed a role at Keyboards And Dreams, a co-working company set up by Jonathan Fren with sites in Clerkenwell and Caxton Works. 

They quickly discovered a shared passion for wellbeing and have been working together to create Wonderful Things in the unit next door.

The 150sq m space offers 24 Yoga mats as well as straps, blocks, blankets and pillows.

There is also a changing area, kitchen and a dedicated street entrance, which will be accessible via a mobile app.

It is a new direction for entrepreneur Jonathan but a natural one.

The 32-year-old started out in tech as a teen, but a decade later shut down successful web company Rebel Minds after it grew into something he hated.

He went travelling and began renting out the central London office space he had acquired and Keyboard And Dreams was born.

He launched his second space in Canning Town in November 2020, after he fell in love with the area and then jumped at the chance to start another business at the development.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren
Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren

“I took this new space on a year ago without even having an idea of what to do with it because I just really believe in that area,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do something in wellness but hadn’t crystallised the idea.

“For the past year I’ve been living in the countryside and my girlfriend is a Yoga teacher, so I’ve been doing a lot of that and meditation and it just clicked at some point that I wanted to create a space in London where people can go and just be with themselves. 

“Now, more than ever I think it’s really important that spaces have more than just offices. A lot of spaces in London are made by people with lots of money and that’s all it’s about, especially with a lot of gyms.

“We want Wonderful Things to be warm and inviting, but it will really be about creating a space where people can discover themselves.

“When I go to London one thing I miss is being in a silent room where I don’t feel I’m being watched or have to talk. I want Wonderful Things to be that safe space.”

Jonathan never returned from his travels. He now lives in Portugal, managing both businesses remotely with Lewisham resident Sean on-site.

In addition to being a hypnotherapist, she is studying psychotherapy and hopes to see clients at Wonderful Things in the future.

Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things
Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She said: “When I first met Jon I told him my idea of the perfect space and he told me about this project and asked if I wanted to be involved. I knew it was where I was meant to be. It worked out perfectly.

“There are so many brilliant therapists looking for affordable spaces to use. Renting a space can be extortionate, so you have to do a joint contract where one person uses it one day and another person another. 

“It’s always complicated. You want the focus to be on your clients’ wellbeing, but you spend half the time worrying about whether you can afford the rent.

“We said it would be great to have an all-round well-being hub and make it the kind of space we would want to go to.

“Hopefully, if it goes well over the next year, we will open the mezzanine space with meditation spaces and break out spaces where people can be alone with their thoughts or have therapy sessions.”

Classes will “start with a trickle and turn into a flood” with a schedule being developed over time, but room will also be left for ad hoc events. Teachers will pay a set price to use the space and then be responsible for promoting their classes and deciding ticket prices.

“There’s nothing in the area that really has the same vibe,” said Sean. “We are very relaxed and if you need anything you can just talk to us.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to be there because the space is so adaptable. It isn’t going to be the right fit for everyone.

“If you are looking for a big, mainstream space, this isn’t that. 

“Our space is beautiful but has no frills and is all about welcoming people. If that works for your idea in your mind then please come down.”

The space can be used for a multitude of activities
The space can be used for a multitude of activities – image Matt Grayson

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