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Fish Island: How From The Ashes BBQ rose to success from the desolation of lockdown

Co-founder Curtis Bell talks inspiration, meat and serving up pulled pork in a doughnut from his hatch

Curtis Bell, co-founder of From The Ashes BBQ in Fish Island
Curtis Bell, co-founder of From The Ashes BBQ in Fish Island – image James Perrin

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Fire can be a sudden spark that ignites with a burst or a softly glowing flame that slowly smoulders.

Curtis Bell has experienced both since founding barbecue business From The Ashes BBQ in June 2020 after just a few weeks of planning.

“It was just a burning desire,” said the Swansea-born chef, with no hint of a pun intended.

“My favourite thing was always to cook on the beach. Maybe it’s a primitive thing, but I have always just been drawn to the flame. I tried doing the posh stuff – fine dining – and it just isn’t me. 

“I just like the rawness of cooking in a very direct and simple way over the flames.”

Tucked behind a hatch on Fish Island, the takeaway experienced a rush of fame in lockdown, with its salty smoked pork served in sugary handmade doughnuts.

Customers were walking from as far as London Fields to queue for up to an hour. It was a success that took Curtis and his co-founders by surprise.

“It just exploded overnight and we were getting reviews and write-ups in the papers – we had to hire staff,” said Curtis.

“It was daunting, unexpected and an amazing thing to happen out of lockdown.”

The “we” is Frank Fellows and Martin Anderson, who Curtis met when he moved to the big smoke (pun very much intended), having landed a job at barbecue joint Temper in Soho.

Until then he had followed the recipes of another renowned restaurant, Pitt Cue, “like the bible” – bosses had even offered him a job, which he wound up turning down.

“I felt like it was ‘don’t meet your heroes’ and I wanted to keep it almost as a fantasy,” said the 29-year-old.

“By then they had gone from this really gritty, basement barbecue to this corporate steakhouse for City workers and it had kind of lost its magic.”

It is that hands-on flavour that Curtis loved and wanted to capture with From The Ashes.

That, he feels, is achieved by working directly with farmers such as Farmer Tom in Herefordshire and McDuff in Scotland to source meat.

Curtis at wok in the kitchen
Curtis at wok in the kitchen – image James Perrin

The team also does most of the butchery themselves in a tiny eight foot by six-foot kitchen, so they can stick to their whole animal approach.

“We make sausages from the legs and smoke down the necks and shoulders and bellies and then smoke the loin like a rib roast,” said Curtis.

“We get half cows and use the bones for stock and the fat for potatoes and trimmings for mince for a special. 

“It’s not only more cost effective, it’s also a much more efficient way to cook. I think everyone needs to be cooking like this.”

They launched the business thanks to a loan from his dad and a pig from Farmer Tom who said: “Pay me when you can”.

A friend made them a smoker from recycled parts, which they dubbed “The Piggy” and they began experimenting.

“The hardest thing is patience,” said Curtis. “From seasoning it right the way through, to resting it can be 12 hours and the temptation to get into it earlier is huge. 

“It does take its toll when you’re doing big events and have to start at 6am and go through until midnight. It’s endurance, stamina and hard work.

“Sometimes you cut into it and it’s overcooked. That’s disappointing, but I will braise it down and make a brisket ragu and try and make the best of a bad situation.

“We try to avoid as much wastage as possible.”

From The Ashes serves up its food from a hole in the wall
From The Ashes serves up its food from a hole in the wall – image James Perrin

So is it worth all the effort?

“Yes, I love it – all good things come to those who wait,” said Curtis.

“You can have a steak, which takes 15 minutes to cook, or a piece of rib, which has taken seven hours. I guarantee you will be way more satisfied with the latter.

“As much as my back hurts and my legs hurt, there is so much satisfaction in the joy it brings people.

“When you put all those hours in and it pays off watching those people bite into it – it’s just amazing.”

The chance to birth his own business came when he, Martin and Frank were made redundant during the pandemic.

Curtis and Frank opened a dark kitchen for fried chicken restaurant Coqfighter and decided they should “copy the formula” with barbecue.

“The person who was renting out the Coqfighter kitchen had one on Fish Island too and we went over and had a look at it and scrambled some money for the deposit and the first month’s rent, and in we went,” said Curtis.

Martin came on board and they spent four weeks testing out recipes, eventually landing on a doughnut filled with pulled pork as their signature dish, inspired by Black Axe Mangal restaurant in Islington.

“Lee Tiernan up there is a genius and did a duck liver parfait and prune doughnut which probably changed my whole life, it was that good,” said Curtis.

“We were just toying with ideas and one day ordered some really shit Tesco doughnuts and tried putting some pulled pork in the centre of it – it just worked with the sweet, savoury, salt, smoked fat.

“A lot of people are still very cautious but, because you have every sense in your mouth, it’s perfect.

“We put it on Instagram as a draw and it worked. It was a magnet and there was a time I couldn’t open Instagram without seeing my doughnut. 

“Some people may think of it as a gimmick and are not impressed, but I find that hilarious.”

A party in June 2020 with all their hospitality mates, kicked things off for the trio and they just began opening the hatch every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Del Piero doughnuts ready to go
Del Piero doughnuts ready to go – image James Perrin

“People started walking up  – it built momentum and, the next thing we knew, we had queues round the block,” said Curtis.

At the peak, he was waking at 6am on Saturdays to tend to the smoker and meats and start rolling and proving the 120 doughnuts they were selling a day.

Made over two days from a laminated enriched dough, they included sweet options such as custard in different flavours and dark chocolate Hennessy and hazelnut praline.

Other creations included a smoked pork bun with pickles, sriracha Marmite mayo, smoked garlic mayo and a slaw made with hispi cabbage, fennel, apple, lime juice, walnut, jalapeño dressing and gorgonzola sauce.

They quickly attracted queues, which stretched as far as the Premier shop on Roach Road with punters soaking up the sun and free shots handed out by Curtis.

“It was just a really special time and something I would love to relive again,” he said. “But we’re back in the real world now, sadly.”

Since London went back to business, Curtis has found himself having to stoke the flames of success in new directions.

Following their early success, From The Ashes landed spots at food venues Two Tribes Campfire in Kings Cross and Kerb Seven Dials.

And their summer has a full roster of festivals, events and private parties, including Bigfoot Festival, British Summertime, Bike Shed in Tobacco Dock, Big Grill Festival in Ireland, London Craft Beer Festival and Manchester Craft Beer Festival.

Frank left in October last year to work with his girlfriend at the cafe of local company Barkney Wick, but Curtis now has a team of seven chefs and said there is no such thing as a day off for him.

“The hatch will remain open and we want it to go from strength to strength,” he said.

“We’re looking to get an outside licence so we can have benches and seats.

From The Ashes cooks up a range of meats – image James Perrin

“We now sell some craft beers and park wines, perfect for a summer day when you’re sitting on the kerb eating barbecue.”

He’s also been implementing a huge shake-up of the menu to help with the business’ longevity.

“Now summer is coming, I’m changing the menu on a weekly basis,” he said. “I ring my farmers and see what’s available and create the menu around that.

“This weekend we have got some whole smoked chicken with some wild garlic pesto, an aged sirloin with horseradish cream and roasted beef fat.

“Last week I had an aged beef meatball sub with mozzarella, parmesan and wild garlic again. We’re going to become seasonal.”

Curtis said the founders had been a bit unsure of themselves as they tried to transition from their blaze of glory in lockdown to the more even tempered real world.

“It’s been daunting,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what our dream is but I think it is to be a bit of a household name in London and keep on enjoying what we are doing.

“I just want to keep cooking outside and doing amazing pop-ups – happy and free. I don’t want to do anything too serious. I’ll never be the person who wants a big huge chain.”

Curtis said the pressure of running a small business was enough. They’ve never had any investors and are just about breaking even.

But with prices skyrocketing across the board, the profit margin is getting smaller.

“We are increasing our prices and I hope customers understand why we need to do that,” he said. 

“I think the next year will be incredibly tough on hospitality with everyone trying to save pennies.

“I can already feel the pressure, but hopefully, we can keep our heads above water and keep going and growing.”

Read more: How Squid Markets is bringing street food and fresh produce to Canada Water Market

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Canary Wharf: How Lenderwize spotted telecoms’ companies’ need for finance

Level39-based firm verifies digital assets allowing money to be lent to the businesses handling them

Lenderwize founder Lawrence Gilioli
Lenderwize founder Lawrence Gilioli

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Lawrence Gilioli’s business, at least at present, is mostly hidden from the minds of the public.

Make a call from the UK to Brazil and the phone rings, someone picks up and the conversation happens.

As far as the user is concerned, they’re paying BT for that call and it’s delivering that connection.

Except, in the world of telecoms, that’s not what goes on.

“BT doesn’t have all the lines in the world, so needs to connect with an intermediary or wholesaler,” said Lawrence.

“They, in turn, don’t have all the lines either, so they need to connect to a terminating operator, which completes that phone call.”

It’s in this middle stage that Lawrence, a seasoned entrepreneur with a background in the telecoms industry, has identified his first market.

“These companies are invoicing each other – the middle man has to pay the terminating operator in Brazil and BT has to pay the middle man.

“However, typically the intermediary has to pay Brazil on seven days, but won’t get paid by BT for 60 days.”

That payment mismatch at worst means the wholesaler can’t do business at all, or limits what they can do, due to cash flow.

To address this problem, Lawrence created Lenderwize.

Based at Canary Wharf’s tech accelerator, Level39 in One Canada Square – but with staff distributed around the world in reflection of the industry it serves – its aim is to provide smart finance solutions for these companies.

“We are essentially talking about digital commodities and services here,” said Lawrence.

“Today’s world is ever more digital – that means traditional banks don’t understand it and they don’t know how to fund it, to validate activity or how to mitigate risk.

“So we’ve invented a fintech platform that uses patent pending technology to capture the digital assets behind phone calls, text messages and data use, for example.

“These things are intangible, but our technology makes them tangible because we are able to capture, validate and certify that these are real assets.

“That means you can lend against something Lenderwize certifies has been delivered.

“We understand this market because me and my partners come from this industry, which is huge – $64billion a year and growing. It includes voice calls, text messages, data use and, now, other e-goods and commodities.

“It is hidden to the general public and it’s even hidden to the financial world, because, being digital, once again, they will shy away from it.

“Typically banks or other investment institutions want to invest in real estate, the motor industry or tangible things like that.

“Consequently, there is this whole digital world that is under-served by banks and under-capitalised, but with a tremendous need because this area is only growing in size and companies need access to funding.”

Digital assets are increasingly important in a connected world
Digital assets are increasingly important in a connected world

Having launched the platform two years ago with the intention of building a business ultimately to sell to a large financial institution once the concept is proven, Lenderwize now has 12 staff split across London, Italy, Australia, Holland and Switzerland.

“We have just passed processing 350million calls in the last year and we expect that to double this year and to triple within two,” said Lawrence. “We expect to surpass a billion calls.

“The way it works is that our clients buy into our system and the data is uploaded automatically onto our platform. 

“That gives us access to their switches anonymously, so we can validate and verify that the information they are giving us on a daily basis is verifiable.

“Right now we’re doing that on a sample basis – looking at calls going to the same destinations from the same number and capturing durations and frequencies.

“We’re checking to see if the numbers are real and, ideally, will ultimately do that on every single asset.

“That’s part of our know-how, but it’s the case that the operators in this market require these services, so clients reach out to us because the need is so great.

“We have a very precise credit vetting procedure and our ability to verify the assets means we’ve only had one default so far, which is exceptional.

“I think the ability to analyse beforehand and then to validate on a daily basis is the key to success. It means that if there is something wrong, we discover it immediately, not at the end of the month.”

In addition to providing credit to these wholesale companies, Lenderwize is also in a position to embed a range of financial services in its operation.

Lawrence said: “We’re looking to exit in three years and we think we’ll be sexy to a bank, a telecoms operator, an insurance company or a big bank.

“That’s because ultimately we are an entire ecosystem that can be used for supply chain financing or supply chain payments, but the direction our fintech platform is going in, which mitigates risk, will be adding on embedded finance, insurance and payment solutions, all in real time.

“As this whole world gets more and more digital, the need to speed things up in real time becomes greater, from risk analysis to the transfer of value.

“Our direction is to continue to develop new technology but we don’t want to re-invent the wheel ourselves, we want to develop partnerships with high quality businesses.

“That’s why we’re so happy to be at Level39, because there’s so much interesting stuff going on here.

“We want to partner with organisations doing specific things to add to our mosaic, creating services for our investors and our clients.”

Lawrence hopes to also offer consumers financial services

As if revolutionising the finances of the telecoms industry on the business end wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Lawrence also has ideas about how Lenderwize might branch out into the consumer market.

“Today we’re B-to-B and tomorrow we want to be B-to-C,” he said.

“At the moment you’re probably paying a flat fee for your phone contract, but statistically you’re throwing away about 25% of that money.

“We want to give people the ability to convert what they’re paying for and not using.

“Three years ago, 25% of people surveyed globally said they would be likely or highly likely to change their operator on the spot if they got a phone call offering them a new deal.

“Three years later and that figure is 66% – there is no loyalty in the mobile world.

“This means that Vodaphone or BT, for example, could lose their entire customer base overnight, potentially.

“Mobile operators need to create loyalty programs, to create stickiness.

“So we will be proposing our finance-meets-telecom solution on people’s phones, where customers can place unused airtime that they have already paid for in an interest-generating wallet.

“We want to tackle two great inefficiencies – airtime and bank savings accounts that offer low or no rates of interest. 

“We want to convert these from cost centres into profit-generating centres – a tool for everyone to use in a proactive way. We’ll be talking more about this later in the year.”

Lawrence, who holds dual Italian and American citizenship said he’d based the business in London because of the efficient infrastructure, easy access to clients and investors and tax breaks for startups.

“Level39 is at the heart of fintech in Europe, it’s also the coolest place to be aesthetically and it’s connected to all the banks,” he said.

Read more: How cryptocurrency exchange Coinjar gives investors options

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Isle Of Dogs: Why the Massey Shaw fireboat is seeking new volunteers

Historic vessel lying in West India South Dock looks to ensure its stories continue to be told

Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock
Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock

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This is not the story of the fireboat Massey Shaw. How could it be?

Just to stand on the deck of this remarkable craft at her berth in West India South Dock is to feel her planks and steel plates quietly pulse with the decades of history they’ve absorbed.

It would be possible to fill this space many times over without coming close to bottoming out the sheer depth of material associated with this remarkable boat.

It might be the part she played saving goods worth many millions of pounds just a year after coming into service by blasting down the walls of a warehouse with the power of her main jet to stop a fire in its tracks at Colonial Wharf in Wapping. 

It could be the more than 500 lives she saved as part of the flotilla of little ships launched to help rescue British servicemen from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 – ferrying soldiers from the land to larger craft and herself taking about 100 back across the channel, making three trips despite the danger of the sea and enemy fire.

Or it may be the part she played in the desperate firefighting effort during the Blitz.

Massey in full flow

But these stories – and many more – are best told by those who know, the volunteers who are working to keep her shipshape and who hope eventually to open her to the public as a museum ship.

Built in 1935 by J Samuel Whites at Cowes on the Isle Of Wight for £18,000 (more than £2million in today’s money) she served the London Fire Brigade from launch until 1971.

After a decade in the wilderness, in 1982, the Massey Shaw And Marine Vessels Preservation Society embarked on a project to restore her and to sail her once again to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1960s.

Today, after much passion, a sinking, restoration work, vandalism, repair and renovation, she lies by the entrance to West India Docks, sharing space with the 1920s steam tug Portwey and the Dockland Scout Project. 

From there, the Massey Shaw Education Trust, as the society has become, intends to use its 40th anniversary year to raise awareness of its work, the vessel herself and the opportunities available for those who might like to get involved with the ongoing  project.

Rescuing troops from Dunkirk

Trust CEO David Rogers – himself a former firefighter, albeit a land-based one – said: “We’re a completely voluntary organisation and we’d really like to engage with a wider audience including people who are in Docklands.

“Perhaps they’ve seen this black and red boat that looks a bit strange – we often get questions about what she is and what she does.

“So one of the things we want to do is to get more volunteers of all ages who can come along and support us in our plans for the boat.

“We’ve had her for 40 years, but we see ourselves as custodians and we now need people to take her forward for the next 40.

“This boat has a unique history and we want to help people understand it and to help shape it whether they’re involved in the fire service or not.

“We want people to come and be trained so they can run the engines, operate the boat and man her pumps so she can appear at events. 

“But we also have a big archive that we’ve built up over the years, so we need people with IT skills to help organise and digitise that.”

Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers
Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers – image Matt Grayson

Currently the team are working towards getting Massey Shaw ready to once more cross the channel in 2025.

“We’re part of Dunkirk Little Ships, which celebrates the journey made by those boats in 1940 to save troops from the beaches,” said David.

“The crews who went over during the war were all volunteer firemen and fortunately they all came back safely, but some of the soldiers they rescued had been badly injured.

“We’d especially like young people to take part in our next trip, to learn the skills that were taught back in the 1930s, which are needed to operate the boat so future generations can continue to enjoy and learn about her.

“Volunteering is a great deal of fun – over the 40 years I’ve been involved, I’ve met some fantastic people and I’ve always enjoyed it.

“It’s great when visitors come onto the boat, especially if they have stories to share about individuals who perhaps served on Massey Shaw or were associated with her. 

Massey's 'monitor' which shoots its main jet
Massey’s ‘monitor’ which shoots its main jet – image Matt Grayson

“Also, the opportunity to go out on the boat, to show people what she can do and what it was like in its early days gives you a real buzz. We’re here to prove she can still do the job she was built for.”

Descend into Massey Shaw’s engine and pump room and you can see exactly what he’s talking about.

The beating heart of the vessel is her two main engines that require constant maintenance to both propel the boat and to power its firefighting equipment, capable of pumping enormous amounts of water to where it’s needed.

David says the main brass cannon on deck – called ‘the monitor’ – is capable of pumping 13,000 litres of water every single minute with enough force to propel the whole boat along when in full flow. 

“Last year we had an open day and the pump was running and the harbour master ran up the dock and said it was just fantastic – that he’d never seen anything like it,” said David.

“That’s the reaction we want – people clap and cheer because it’s such a great thing to see. We’re hoping to hold another open day to raise greater awareness of what we’re doing on August 14 and we’re very keen to attract new visitors.

“Beyond that we’re working to get Massey Shaw ready for Dunkirk in 2025 and we have an Arts Council application in to become an independent museum.

“Then we want to find somewhere we can have a link to the shore so we can display our archive.

“We’re also looking to partner with other local organisations and companies so we can expand and move forward from here.”

The Massey Shaw Education Trust is actively seeking new volunteers, partnerships and funding for its activities.

One of Massey's two main engines
One of Massey’s two main engines – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Terrible Thames takes Horrible Histories onto the river

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Tower Bridge: How Terrible Thames floats Horrible Histories down the river

Woods Silver Fleet operates the boat hosting the shows from its Tower Quay Pier in east London

Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet
Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet – image Matt Grayson

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It’s fair to say the Woods family have some history with the river.

Thames Watermen since 1866, Lillian and Alfred Woods launched sightseeing tours of the capital from the Tower Of London in the early part of the 20th century – an enterprise that boomed in the 1950s around the Festival Of Britain. 

Lillian then encouraged her son Alan with his idea to gradually build the Silver Fleet – a series of vessels built for the Thames in Kent and Suffolk shipyards. 

While Alan remains chair of the company, today its course is steered by the next generation – siblings Thomas, William and Kate – who have spent the last two decades overseeing its growth as a provider of luxury river cruise ships for events and private charters. 

Over the years the Silver Fleet has welcomed film stars, politicians and members of the royal family on board – and that remains its core business.

But history also has a funny way of coming full circle and, in possession of refurbished 1980s vessel Silver Sockeye and, having acquired Tower Quay Pier, the family has made a move back to sightseeing, albeit with a fairly big difference. 

“We had this boat, which was built by my father with a lot of love – it was looking fantastic after its refurbishment, with all the lovely woodwork inside – and we thought it would make the best sightseeing cruise in London,” said Kate Woods, who works as design and development director at Woods’ Silver Fleet.

“We also thought there was nothing on the river to entertain children, so we looked and looked and, without really understanding how Horrible Histories worked, we approached Neal with the idea that we were Thames Watermen with a nice history and that it would be an interesting idea to bring the brand to the Thames.

“We’d also bought the pier by Tower Bridge, which is a great location, so we were absolutely delighted when it fired him up.”

Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery
Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery

Neal, by the way, is Neal Foster – actor manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, resident at The Old Rep Theatre and the man responsible for bringing Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to the stage worldwide as well as conceiving performances under its irreverent cartoon umbrella for the likes of Warwick Castle.

Woods’ approach resulted in Terrible Thames, a tour unlike any other on the river in that it’s a full blown theatrical performance complete with sound engineer, soundtrack and an ever-changing backdrop as the boat makes its way to Parliament and circles back to Tower Quay Pier via Execution Dock at Wapping. 

Co-written by Neal and Terry, one of the biggest challenges for the team was adapting the content to the speed of the boat – something that constantly changes and is dictated largely by the ebb and flow of the tide.

“We’ve been doing Horrible Histories since 2005 and in the West End for 10 years, but we’d never done it on a boat,” said Neal.

“I was instantly attracted to the idea – I’ve always loved rivers. If I’m visiting a city, I’ll always head for a trip on a boat, so being on a boat for long periods suits me very well.

“It was also clear there was an awful lot of history in the section of the Thames we’d chosen to work with, so wherever possible we decided we wanted to attach it to whatever you could actually see from the boat. 

“When we were writing the show, the two biggest problems were that firstly I didn’t know where the audience’s attention would be – whether they would be looking at the actors or at London going past.

“It turns out they were looking at the actors a lot more than expected so we had to make sure the characters really pointed to the things they were talking about. 

“The second issue was the change in speed – you could almost say no two trips are ever the same – so the script had to be adaptable to cope with that while still being manageable for the actors, all while performing for the audience. 

“That’s why we’ve had to rehearse thoroughly – you need actors who can think on their feet and react quickly.

“It’s a bit like doing Hamlet, but the ghost might appear at the end of the play instead and you have to kill Claudius three acts early.

“It’s why you need the sound engineer – to make sure everything happens at the right time.”

The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames
The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames

Terrible Thames cruises run regularly at weekends and during school holidays – with a full complement of half term sailings from May 30 to June 3.

“With stories constantly updated and added, it’s a 45-minute ride designed to impart knowledge with plenty of humour and the brand’s customary gore.

“The whole thing that Terry is doing with Horrible Histories is to tell you the history you don’t know or that the stories you think you know are actually completely different,” said Neal. 

“One of the captains working on the boats said that he had been on the river for 20 years and he hadn’t ever known any of the stories, and that’s a chap who has lived and breathed the river.

“It really is something for Londoners as well as visitors to the capital.

“When we were writing it, Terry came up with the great idea of it being hosted by a teacher and a student who has won their school history prize and is being taken on the trip as a treat.

“The student and their family have been on the river all their lives so they are quite confident they know more about its history than the reluctant teacher. So it then becomes a battle about who knows more. 

“There are 40 or 50 stories in the show, which takes in Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Cleopatra’s Needle, Parliament and the Gunpowder Plot – which was really on November 4 – Boadicea destroying London, the Golden Hind and even people fleeing the Great Plague by hiding on boats on the river, who died because that’s where the rats all were.”

Kate added: “I’ve been really touched by people’s reactions to it.

“With all the trained Thames watermen, there’s a real London feel to the whole experience and it’s been put together with so much love, from the actors to the illustrations on the boat that were hand-drawn especially for us.

“There’s something about the two brands going together that works so well.

“It’s been really well received, and we were sold out at Easter, but we do sometimes have walk-in spaces so if you’re in the area, it’s always worth checking the timetable.”

Terrible Thames cruises take place at weekends, daily in school holidays and on occasional days during term time to accommodate tourists and school visits.

  • Adult tickets cost £22 off peak and £25 on peak, with kids costing £14-£15 respectively. Under-3s go free and family tickets cost £65-£72 for two adults and two kids.

Bookings can be made here

The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier
The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier

Read more: Discover the Massey Shaw historic fireboat and get involved

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: Discover Patricia Volk’s vibrant clay sculptures with Cornucopia

Artist’s mid-career retrospective at One Canada Square brings more than 40 of her works together

Artist Patricia Volk with some of her pieces
Artist Patricia Volk with some of her pieces – image Matt Grayson

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“It annoys me slightly when someone describes me as a ceramicist or a ceramic sculptor, because I don’t think the fact I’m working with ceramics has anything to do with the pieces I produce,” said artist Patricia Volk.

“I have no interest in doing glazes or anything like that – I’m not a potter.

“I also have no interest in repeating things – I like to keep changing and developing. I like things to look as though they’re slightly unsteady, as if you would have to put your hand underneath them to stop them falling over.”

Cornucopia, a mid-career retrospective featuring more than 40 of her sculptures, is currently filling the lobby of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf.

The exhibition, which will remain in place until June 10, 2022, is free to visit and open every day.

The brightly coloured forms, often twisted and curled in on themselves, present a stark contrast to the marbled hues of the tower’s ground floor space.

“When I’m making the piece, I never think of how people might respond at the other end,” said Patricia.

“But I would like to think that people would enjoy seeing them, and maybe that the work would give them something to think about as well.

“I hope people are moved and might pick things up that I might have been thinking about subliminally. There is a series of pieces called Source – very simple forms – that I really liked doing.

“They’re a contradiction with the totem pole pieces, which are quite complicated, because they are very simple forms with a drip.

“They have to be made properly because the drip won’t go where it’s supposed to if they aren’t – I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I get from doing those drips.”

As we talk, it becomes clear there’s a real connection in Patricia’s life between the work she creates and her own and others’ reactions to it.

Born in Belfast, she wanted to be an artist from an early age.

More than 40 of Patricia's works are on display
More than 40 of Patricia’s works are on display – image Matt Grayson

“It was what I always wanted to do – I can remember when someone asked me when I was five years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be an artist,” she said.

“My father was a member of the Ulster Arts Club and, when my mother wanted to get rid of me on a Sunday morning, I was packed off there.

“I remember walking around and looking at the paintings on the walls and the beautiful sculptures. It was a fantastic place and it was something to aspire to, definitely.

“I’m very dyslexic – I can remember starting school at the beginning, drawing a picture of a wedding and my teacher calling in another teacher to have a look at what I’d done – that’s where all my self-esteem came from. 

“I was completely obsessed with drawing – people would come up and ask me to draw a picture. I always won the prizes.”

With no portfolio, however, art college was an impossibility and Patricia got a job in the textile industry before moving to London at the age of 17.

Again unable to get into art college – something she admits would have been a remote possibility for someone of her age – she nevertheless found work and stayed.

“It was when everybody believed that London was the most exciting place and two of my friends decided to leave home,” said Patricia.

“We were very, very young, and I thought I’d just do that as well. My mother was delighted to see me go and I just stayed.

“Things happened, circumstances happened. I got a job very quickly here and I got married very young and had a child.

“I came over in the April and the Troubles started in the August.Then there was no going back.

“It was a bad time, but people here were very kind to me. I got a job as a typist and then went to work in advertising and met my husband.

“The group he was with had all been to art college – they’d done film and TV.

“Then, one night, in my mid-30s, after 16 years of not drawing, I picked up a pencil and thought that I could still do it.

Patricia's early work focussed on heads
Patricia’s early work focussed on heads – image Matt Grayson

“I said to someone that I had always wanted to go to art college, so I took a year out, went to adult education classes at the Camden Institute and Islington Institute, and did life drawing and clay modelling. 

“I remember someone walking in and seeing a figure I had done, and saying that I’d got something – that I could do it, and it gave me such pleasure.

“Looking back, there’s always been someone who has said something like that when my confidence has been at its lowest, to pick me up and make me look forward.

“In that year out I got a portfolio together, applied to Middlesex Poly because someone said I had to do a foundation course.

“I went to a party and someone asked what I was doing, and I said that I wanted to go to art college but I’d never get in because I was shit, and they got my address, got an application, sent it off and, although my husband said I’d never get in, I did, and that day was the happiest day of my life.

“For the first time, I hadn’t told any lies about my qualifications and I’d got in because of what was in my portfolio.

“So then I started my education at Middlesex Poly, and went on to do three-dimensional design. After I’d done my degree it was my mindset to go out and earn a living.”

And to a certain extent, that’s what she did.

Constantly altering and changing her approach she’s progressed from making monumental heads to writhing coloured forms and vibrant totem poles.

Recognised as a Royal West Of England Academician and a fellow of the Royal Society Of Sculptors, her work can be found in numerous private, national and international collections including the Swindon Museum And Art Gallery.

Perhaps her success can partly be explained by the forces and inspirations at work within her pieces, absorbed throughout her life.

She said: “As a trainee designer in Belfast, the lady who ran the company had come from Vienna with absolutely nothing and had certain ways of doing things.

“She taught me how to do patterns so no material was wasted. Even now when I roll out a big slab of clay I’m thinking ‘100% economy’. 

“It’s interesting how the things that happen to you when you’re a lot younger have such a dramatic effect.

“What’s important to me about my work is that it keeps me sane when I’m feeling down in the dumps. 

“It’s fascinating that pieces I’ve done which people find uplifting may have been done when I’ve been feeling depressed.”

Patricia's pieces are made from clay and often hollow
Patricia’s pieces are made from clay and often hollow – image Matt Grayson

Read more: Ian Berry set to create denim artwork for Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Stratford: Discover Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

New show at Theatre Royal Stratford East hails female role-models and stars Christina Modestou

Christina Modeastou as Jane Austen, right
Christina Modestou as Jane Austen, right

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

The 1990s may be back in style, but thankfully Girl Power never went out of fashion.

It has been given an empowering new spin in musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, which is set to run at Theatre Royal Stratford East from June 15-July 17, 2022.

Based on a book by Suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, it celebrates often forgotten women from history such as Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Jane Austen and Pankhurst’s own relative Emmeline, all seen through the eyes of inquisitive schoolgirl Jade.

They are brought to life by an all-female cast and a creative crew who have worked with the likes of Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue,  Miley Cyrus and Beverley Knight.

We asked part-Welsh, part-Greek star of the show Christina Modestou to tell us about the fantastic women who have inspired her.

the matriarch

My mum Lula is one of the biggest role models in my life. She has always been 100% behind me with anything I wanted to try as a child and critiqued me in a healthy way. 

My mum was a hairdresser and she loved her job – having a parent who loves what they do really rubbed off on me.

I used to go and help on a Saturday and witness it first-hand. Looking back, I see how everyone there encouraged me.

I used to write stories and act things out as customers were waiting for their perms to set. It was one of the customers who said I should go to a drama class as it made me really happy.

the teachers

I started classes with Irene Hopkins when I was five. She was my first singing teacher and had a massive impact on me. 

She had this wonderful knack for bringing out your best qualities and encouraging you to flourish in what you were good at.

I never liked classical music, I always found passion in pop and jazzy sounds. 

Instead of putting me in a box I didn’t want to be in, she stretched me, found my flair and leaned into that. She didn’t try to mould me into anyone else. 

She still comes to see every show I do and will send me a card. There’s still that level of support.

My dance teacher Jackie Bristow was also pivotal. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her

Star Christina Modeastou
Star Christina Modestou


the character

My claim to fame is being in the choir scene in Love Actually and the year I graduated I did We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. 

But the pivotal role in my career was playing Nina in In The Heights at Southwark Playhouse.

That was an experience I still hold very dear. She comes from a working-class community and goes away to university but, in trying to work and learn, she has to drop out because her grades are slipping and she has to go home and tell her family she has failed. 

It’s something quite common in our industry. People say you’ve got talent and put you on a bit of a pedestal and the thought that going home is a failure is hard. Exploring that was really exciting.

the fantastic women

This show has a really special place in my heart because I wish I had seen something like this growing up. 

In musicals there are historically four types of women – the unrequited love interest, the princess, the matriarch and the whore. Even in Les Miserables, that’s how women are portrayed. 

In our musical, we get to show who women are without men and be silly and funny, serious, loud, quiet, sensitive and strong – so many different things. I was asked to audition after I played Anne Boleyn in the original cast of Six.

I have been involved since the original workshops and it’s been amazing to see how it has snowballed. It’s a very physical show and you are representing real women.

Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red
Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red


the brawn

I play Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel and broke the world record. I didn’t know her story but she is incredible. She had measles as a child and by her 40s was almost deaf. 

She taught swimming to deaf children and, when she noticed people were drowning, she helped open pools in poor areas so people could learn to swim.

She was as strong as a man, won gold at the Olympics as part of the first female swimming team and invented the two-piece bathing suit.

I admire her strength and resilience and warmth. She was unapologetic about what she could achieve and was always helping others.

the wit

Most people know Jane Austen. I love playing her in this show because she comes back around the age she died, in her early 40s and befriends Frida Kahlo. 

They are chalk and cheese but give each other a wonderful platform. The thing that impresses me most is her wit. She was such an observer and wrote characters and comedy so well.

the intellect

Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and palaeontologist who discovered the ichthyosaur when she was twelve years old and uncovered skeletons of the plesiosaur, pterosaur and lots of other key things. 

I get the impression she lived a very hard life. She got struck by lightning as a baby and everyone else near her died.

She was one of 10 children, but only she and one other made it to maturity. She also lost her work to men, who didn’t give her credit for her discoveries. 

There is a real isolated sadness to her, which I find fascinating.

I think she homed in on the joy in her work. In the musical, we meet her with Mary Seacole and Marie Curie and they become this superhero trio.

So she has learnt how to work as a team in our world, which has a magical vibe as if all these women had come back to life.

Christina as Mary Anning, left
Christina as Mary Anning, left

the co-stars

I have never been in a rehearsal room with so many women. Doing this show has been a real collaboration and we have had some amazing discussions about gender, diversity, and disabilities. 

I’ve never experienced a room as open as this and it has opened my eyes to a lot of bias I didn’t know about. 

It is also about the fact feminism isn’t about women being better than men, it’s about being fair.

We don’t want the young men in the audience to feel they should be controlled by women. We want them to be inspired by these women. Feminism isn’t about vengeance. 

Shows like Emilia, with an all-female cast, have paved the way for this. In that, women play men, which is something we rarely see. It’s bonkers, because men play women all the time – in panto and on stage. 

In Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, we see these icons through the eyes of a young woman of colour and that is wonderful.

We wanted to make sure there was diversity – as we tour the show we want to make sure as many children are represented as possible.

the body

It’s not just about representing ethnicity, it’s about body shape. The first time I saw a body I recognised as being like mine was in Mad Men. I saw Christina Hendricks and was like: “Oh my god, finally, a curvy woman”.

I have to wear a unitard in this show, which was quite exposing for me, but the power of going out there knowing I can be a size 12 or 14 and be proud of it and hopefully inspire others, is unexplainable.

Often I get told I don’t look Welsh enough. I sit right in the middle of a lot of categories. I’m Welsh but with a Greek Cypriot background.

I’m not young, old, tall, short, thin or fat. I once got told I wouldn’t have a career until I’m older as I didn’t fit a category and I thought: “Screw that”.

the stars

I would love to work with Olivia Colman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Emma Thompson. Jenna Russell is amazing and I would work with her again and again. 

We did Urinetown together at The Apollo and then I managed to put on a cabaret at Southwark Playhouse during the pandemic and she did that with me too.

She is a class act. I admire people who put the work first and are selfless enough to tell the story which sometimes means giving up your moment to shine. That’s what inspires me.

herself

Someone asked us in a Q&A who we would be if we could be any women for a day and my colleague, Jade, said: “I would be me”. What a cool thing to feel – that you just want to be you and no-one else.

Read more: Discover the denim-based art of Poplar’s Ian Berry

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Canary Wharf: How Ian Berry is set to create a new artwork from donated denim

The Poplar-based artist’s piece will be unveiled on the estate for World Environment Day on June 5

Artist Ian Berry, pictured surrounded by jeans in Cabot Square
Artist Ian Berry, pictured surrounded by jeans in Cabot Square

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Artist Ian Berry wants his work to be seen in real life – so apologies to anyone reading the this.

These reproductions might give you an idea of the kind of pieces he creates, but 2D reproductions on paper or digital screens just don’t cut it.

Based in Poplar, but hailing from Huddersfield via High Wycombe, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands, the constant in Ian’s life is also his medium – denim.

Cutting, layering and gluing, he creates images and installations using a palette of jeans, constantly pushing to make the material accurately depict all manner of scenes, lighting effects, substances and surfaces.

The reason you’re looking at one of the pieces from Ian’s Behind Closed Doors series is that he’s just embarked on a project in partnership with Canary Wharf Group.

With used clothes donated at Jubilee Place last week, he’ll be stripping out the denim and using it to create an artwork, which will be unveiled on World Environment Day – June 5.

Detail for one of Ian's pieces for his Behind Closed Doors series
Detail for one of Ian’s pieces for his Behind Closed Doors series

“My work needs to be seen in real life to be understood,” said Ian, who works from a studio overlooking the Limehouse Cut canal.

“I don’t really feel like a real artist to those who haven’t seen my work in that way.

“I’d spent the pandemic having seven different shows in other countries – most of them solo and that was tough with all the quarantines and shipping issues.

“I’d just got back from Chile when I got an email from Canary Wharf asking about this project.

“At first I thought it would be great just because I could walk there rather than having to take pieces on aeroplanes.

“I walk through the estate when I catch the Jubilee line, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my work seen by more people in real life.

“But it also sounded interesting because of the estate’s sustainability credentials – it’s something that’s taken very seriously whereas some other places just use it for marketing. I’ve not spoken much about sustainability in the context of my work.

“Others have – as recycling or upcycling – but when I started 16 years ago it wasn’t the buzzword it is now.

“The project I’m doing with Canary Wharf Group reflects sustainability and the environment – denim’s terrible in its impact at the end of the day – but there are also good things happening in the industry.

“I don’t believe there’s a material that better reflects contemporary times, good or bad.”

Detail from Ian's Secret Garden
Detail from Ian’s Secret Garden

That really is the crux of things for Ian. While we talk it becomes clear there are all sorts of tensions at work between the artist, his medium and the subjects he chooses.

He tells me denim stands for freedom, democracy and the West to the point where it was banned in Russia and Belarus, where it’s still worn symbolically by dissenters.

Then again, it’s also the clothing of capitalism, excess and greed, with designer jeans selling for astronomical sums.

“I’m interested in people and in the denim industry, in workers’ rights,” said Ian. “I know everyone in the sector and there’s a lot of greenwashing going on – a lot of lying and they even tell me what their lies and exaggerations are. It’s frustrating.”

While Ian’s pieces are necessarily shot through with such issues – how noble attempts to pass on clothing to do good can come unstuck as second-hand garments wind up flooding foreign markets or simply get dumped overseas, for example – the denim he uses is also, importantly, just the stuff he uses to capture the world.

“I use it literally as my paint to represent contemporary life and issues you see every day,” he said.

“I have struggled for 16 years to know what to call them –  they’re not paintings, they’re collages, but using just one medium.

“In some there are 16 layers of denim, so they are very sculptural, 3D pieces, and they can be very effective, with the texture of the denim as well. All that gets lost if people look on their phones or laptops.

“The magic in my work is finding the gradients in the denim, the fades, the cat’s whiskers – where it goes from indigo to lighter shades. You can connect them together and get quite a photo-realistic piece.

“Sometimes I achieve that too well and people don’t realise it’s jeans, but you need that ‘aha’ factor for people to connect.

“It happens in America especially, where people look for a while and then get closer and closer and, at about 50cm away, they say: ‘Oh, my God, it’s blue jeans’. I don’t want it to be seen as a gimmick, though.

“I hope people appreciate the craft, the love and attention to detail and they are amazed that the piece is made out of denim.

“I do set myself technical challenges – how to depict shiny, metallic objects or water using this matt material. But the main thing is the subject.

“With the Behind Closed Doors series I wanted to depict this busy city we’re living in, which can be lonely. 

“That really connected with people – two out of three were saying: ‘Wow, that’s me’ – and it was kind of special.”

Detail from The Game by Ian Berry
Detail from The Game by Ian Berry

Ian, whose granddad was from east London, said he wasn’t sure what kind of piece he would create from the jeans donated in Canary Wharf.

He said: “Hopefully the piece I create will cause discussion and make people think. 

“I can’t give too much away at this stage in case the idea changes but I think it’s going to have an element of my hanging Secret Garden, which turns plants into cotton, into jeans and then back into plants again. 

“There’s a nod to sustainability in that – it’s nice because we can make something permanent out of the jeans. 

“If you wear a pair for 10 years and then throw them away, it might be just about OK, but now we have a world where people buy them, wear them two or three times and throw them out.”

Ian’s piece will be added to the Wharf’s permanent art collection.

Detail from The Roosevelt, LA, by Ian Berry
Detail from The Roosevelt, LA, by Ian Berry

Read more: Find out where to make your own cloth with Freeweaver Saori Studio

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Isle Of Dogs: How Freeweaver Saori Studio runs mindful and productive classes

Craft Central-based maker will also be participating in workshops for London Craft Week in May

Erna Janine of Freeweaver Saori Studio
Erna Janine of Freeweaver Saori Studio – image James Perrin

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Decompressing after a hard day at work used to be about sweating at the gym or partying in bars.

But, post-pandemic, people have been seeking out gentler ways of relaxing – sitting at a loom, for example.

Freeweaver Saori Studio at Craft Central is fast becoming a haven for those who want to embrace a slower pace of life, even if only for a few hours.

“Half my students are fashion students and the other half come for the mindful aspect of it,” said Erna Janine, owner of the Isle Of Dogs-based business.

“Stressed out businessmen from Canary Wharf want to do something relaxing that’s totally off the grid with no screens.

“It’s rhythmical and a mindful way of gathering your thoughts while doing something with your hands to create a simple piece of cloth.”

Erna will be hosting two workshops during London Craft Week (May 9-15) – one to introduce the technique of Saori weaving and the other showing how to integrate the cloth it produces into  existing items of clothing. 

Erna at her loom in Craft Central
Erna at her loom in Craft Central – image James Perrin

She is also reinventing the pinstripe for the event and the finished result will be on display at Craft Central in Westferry Road.

The 45-year-old, who grew up in Holland, discovered the Japanese technique of Saori seven years ago.

Instead of following a rigid repeating pattern like traditional weaving, the freestyle method encourages weavers to use their creativity to create  totally unique pieces of cloth every time they weave. For Erna, it was a revelation.

“Weaving is in my family, “ she said. “I always felt an affinity with it through my maternal grandmother, who made all her own clothes and wore traditional costume. Weaving was also part of the curriculum at my schools. 

“When I was 18 I got an apprenticeship in Iceland to be part of a weaving workshop in the remote highlands for a few years, then I did a textile degree in Iceland. 

“It has just always been part of my life. But that was very formal with mega big looms that took days to even set up.

“When I found this Japanese way of weaving, I found myself as a contemporary weaver.”

Woven cloth can be used to men clothes
Woven cloth can be used to men clothes – image James Perrin

Erna travelled to Japan to study Saori – invented by Misao Jo 50 years ago as a reaction to the country’s technological boom.

“There was this throwback where people started questioning their relationship with technology,” said Erna.

“She was one of the people who made a stance against it by weaving her own clothes in a way that you could see they were handmade. 

“She was 99 when I met her and died aged 104, as something of a cult figure in Japan.

“She said the human being was full of creativity and playfulness and that should be visible in the things we surround ourselves with. They should be based on the innovation around us, but also the joy of making things. 

“I thought she captured that so well in the design of her equipment, which allows everyone to express themselves uniquely.

“With a traditional weave, you follow instructions, but this is the opposite. It’s about fun, making something new and trying things out. It is a vehicle for creativity. 

“I immediately loved it and found it very liberating because I had spent so many hours at school weaving samples and, if a small mistake showed, the cloth would be cut off and thrown away.” 

Erna said Saori was much more welcoming for beginners and she knew straight away she wanted to teach it.

“I could be a regular weaver in London and make scarves, but you can only make so many,” she said. “It’s so much more interesting to teach people how to make these simple things themselves.”

In 2017, Erna landed at Craft Central, a charity set up 50 years ago to support makers, after getting permission to teach Saori in London.

“I liked the area and its proximity to Canary Wharf and Greenwich and the maritime history,” she said. “It’s enveloped in the history of this area and it’s nice to be by the river. 

“Every time I’m a bit tired I can walk there and have a stretch – there’s so much space and it has so many textures – I always come back inspired.”

Saori is about free expression
Saori is about free expression – image James Perrin

She has about 40 regular students who she has taught to weave who now visit the studio for sessions on a loom.

“They come in by the hour – a bit like a gym – and make what they want to make,” said Erna.

“They just want some time with other people doing something creative in a beautiful setting. 

“It’s not too heavy on the technical and is really more about enjoying the colours and textures and just coming to terms with these simple techniques that surround us from birth. 

“Everything we wear is textiles and most of it is woven, so it’s a good way to connect with our distant ancestors as well, who had to create them by hand.”

Classes are held most weekdays and one weekend a month. She also organises the biannual Japanese Textile And Craft Festival with other makers and the Festival Of Natural Fibres (May 28-29)  in conjunction with the Gandhi Foundation. This year, silk spinners will be over from India to talk about their techniques.

“People are looking at objects and the things around them in a different way,” said Erna. “We see it with food – people being more picky – and I think fashion will be the next thing where people start to choose with more care.

“People should see fast fashion as pollution. I have travelled to India extensively as I work with organic cotton farms and silk spinners.

“It’s horrible to see the river bright pink because it’s in this season. I don’t think severe change is necessary, though – just slow progress because people need employment.”

Erna does her bit by avoiding acrylic yarns and using recycled materials saved from landfill.

She splits her time between Deptford and Stroud, where she has a home studio in an old textile mill.

She also weaves outside and forages in the forest. 

“I created my first clothing collection there in lockdown,” she said.

“People often ask if I go home and weave after teaching a whole day. I answer: ‘Yes of course, it’s so relaxing’.”

Craft Central has a number of workshops taking place for London Craft Week 2022

LONDON CRAFT WEEK WORKSHOPS AT CRAFT CENTRAL IN 2022

  • May 10 – Rework Your Garment Using Creative Sewing And Saori Weaving
  • May 11 – Saori Weaving With Natural Fibres + Bengala Dye 
  • May 11 –  Sewing A Japanese Komebukuro Rice Bag
  • May 13 – Ikebana Japanese Flower Arrangement
  • May 14 – Make Your Own Botanical Illustration Inspired 3D Paper Rose 
  • May 14 – Paint Your Own Ceramic
  • May 14 – Pyrography Fire Drawing Workshop
  • May 14 – Makers Market 10.30am-5.30pm. A wide range of items will be on sale at Craft Central including interior products, jewellery, prints, textiles, fashion, ceramics, and woodwork
  • May 15 – Jesmonite Casting

Find our more about these workshops here

Read more: How one couple are bringing Brazilian street food to Wapping

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Property: How Canary Wharf-based Impact Capital Group is set to transform Romford

Developer’s eco-friendly plans win approval for former ice rink site next to Queen’s Hospital

Rom Valley Gardens is set to be built next to Queen's Hospital
Rom Valley Gardens is set to be built next to Queen’s Hospital

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“Mega, mega, mega going back to Romford” sang Underworld vocalist Karl Hyde on 1996 hit single Born Slippy, made famous by its inclusion on the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Trainspotting.

Its lyrics paint an abstract picture of the travails of journeying home to the Havering town from the point of view of an overly-inebriated narrator who’s just rolled out of a pub somewhere near Tottenham Court Road.

Fast forward 26 years, though, and not only is travelling from Soho and other parts of London to Romford set to get much quicker, it’s an area that’s experiencing a degree of mega change.

The opening of Crossrail’s central and eastern section – rumoured to be happening in May – will not only mean direct connections to Tottenham Court Road but also radically shortened journey times to whole swathes of the capital including Canary Wharf.

That’s something, presumably, the founder and CEO of One Canada Square-based Impact Capital Group, Robert Whitton, is looking forward to.

In addition to being born and raised in Romford, he’s created a company that is part of that change.

Impact Capital recently won planning permission from Havering Council to build the best part of 1,000 homes on the site of a former ice rink within walking distance of the town’s Crossrail station.

“I used to go skating there and I remember watching the Romford Raiders ice hockey team play,” said Robert. “I also used to take my children there to use the facilities.”

Artificial slippiness at the site – a piece of land encircled by Rom Valley Way adjacent to Queen’s Hospital – came to an end around a decade ago when the rink was demolished and another opened elsewhere in the town.

For the past nine years, various plans have been tabled for the area’s regeneration, culminating in Impact’s successful application.

While approval from the Greater London Authority and a Section 106 agreement remain outstanding, the hope is to break ground on what will become Rom Valley Gardens by the end of the year.

Impact Capital Group founder and CEO Robert Whitton
Impact Capital Group founder and CEO Robert Whitton

“The proposed scheme will see 972 homes built as well as 223 care units for later living or residential care, a medical centre, retail and cafe spaces, gym facilities and other amenities.

Impact’s intention is to use its modular construction factory to deliver much of the development, which will have a strong focus on sustainability.

“It feels good to have reached this point – there’s a lot of support for it,” said Robert.

“When it does come forward people will be very pleasantly surprised, because we are trying to do something that’s very different.

“It’s not going to be an ordinary development – we are looking for this to be a zero-carbon development, pushing the boundaries and looking for new concepts like inter-generational living and creating a real sense of place and community.

“That’s why we’ve included a lot of additional provision for these things within the plans, which we didn’t have to do, but wanted to.

“There will be facilities, both for residents and other community groups – an indoor gym and an outdoor gym and a big public square, where we hope to hold big outdoor events.

“There are residents’ lounges and a mixture of public and private open spaces to create a real neighbourhood – in many ways an urban village.

“We’ve put in there what is now termed ‘independent living’ with extra care provisioning, which is a great concept – it’s the idea of integrating that within a larger development, which will have elements that will also attract younger people, such as the private rental homes, and larger units for families. We want that whole mix of generations.

“I don’t live very far from it now, and have lots of friends and family who live in the area, so it’s very much my home town. It’s a great honour and privilege to be able to bring forward such a transformational project as this.”

An artist's impression of how Rom Valley Gardens will look when work is completed
An artist’s impression of how Rom Valley Gardens will look when work is completed

Robert said Impact, which will manage the development in perpetuity once it is built, would use its factory in Peterborough to ensure a high level of quality control in the building process, helping it deliver on its eco-friendly ambitions for the project.

“Construction and the built environment are the biggest polluters in the world, so we want to have a neutral footprint in delivering this neighbourhood,” he said.

“That way everyone living there will know this new neighbourhood doesn’t have a negative effect on the environment at large.

“They will also notice their energy bills are very, very low – the buildings will be firmly thermal-efficient with double or triple glazing and we’ll be making use of renewable energy.

“Because they’re built in a controlled factory environment, we can get the air-tightness of those units much better than traditional construction methods, and speed up the time it takes to get the project built.”

The development’s proximity to Queen’s Hospital – something that will be particularly beneficial to its older residents – is also an important element in its delivery.

“Included in the plans is a 3,000sq m diagnostic centre for the hospital,” said Robert.

“Timing for that is dependent on agreement with them, but that’s great for local residents.

“The hospital has also told us it has big issues with recruitment and retention, so having housing and facilities close to it will be good to help address that.

“Havering Council will work with the NHS so key workers can get prioritisation within the social housing element.”

For Wharfers interested in spotting trains – estimates vary, but Elizabeth line services could cut the commute from Romford to Canary Wharf by about 16 minutes per journey – more than half an hour a day, or two and a half hours per week.

Oh, and incidentally, Born Slippy was named after a racing Greyhound that members of Underworld once watched run in Romford – mega.

Read more: How Velocity is set to trial its revolutionary toilet on the Isle Of Dogs

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Isle Of Dogs: How Velocity’s revolutionary toilet is set to save huge amounts of water

Inventor Garry Moore is set to run trials of his domestic loo at at Alpha Grove Community Centre

Garry Moore has created a domestic version of his air flush toilet

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

He might look like a sombre-suited Clark Kent but Garry Moore is actually a superhero.

He has invented a way of saving something vital to life on this planet. Water.

His superloo uses the power of air to blow away waste – saving countless litres of our most precious resource.

And he has chosen Alpha Grove Community Centre on the Isle Of Dogs as one of the first venues in the world to trial the toilets, produced by his company Velocity.

“There is amazing pressure on water sustainability in the UK,” said Garry. “People think it rains a lot here but it’s not enough to be self-sufficient. 

“We need to make sure we are not wasting what is a precious resource. It’s clean drinking water and we flush it down the toilet and turn it into raw sewage. That’s a luxury that can’t continue.”

His toilets are the first domestic designs in the world to use a pressurised air flush. They use 1.4 litres of water to clean the bowl, rather than the nine litres used on average by a traditional toilet, a reduction of 85%.

Garry said it meant his design was eco-friendly and also more pocket friendly, paying for themselves in four years through a 25% average saving on water bills. 

He said the superloo also required no behavioural change from users and would help achieve water neutrality when developments were built – meaning the impact on water availability would be the same or less than previously. 

“I’m a very practical person and have an inquisitive mind,” said Garry. “I’m always questioning how things are built and why they are built that way. 

“So many things we interact with every day have been invented by someone and I like to consider whether they could be designed better.”

The married father-of-two has self-funded and developed the toilet from his home workshop in Westcliff-on-Sea and at the Innovation Centre at the University Of Essex in Colchester, with a team of six experts.

“They include a ceramic sanitaryware specialist, a mechanical engineer and a microbiologist.

An artist’s impression of Velocity’s toilet

Garry and his team are now getting ready to bring the innovation to market within the next year. He said the Isle of Dogs was the perfect place to test the invention.

The area holds great meaning for the 57-year-old. His parents were born and raised in Canning Town, surviving the Blitz and working in the docks before moving to Ilford to raise their family.

It was at the University Of East London campus in Docklands where Garry developed his first air flush toilet with Propelair during the 1990s and 2000s.

It was aimed at commercial use and went on to be installed in the Barclays and Citi buildings in Canary Wharf as well as at branches of McDonald’s and Moto service stations.

He parted ways with the company on bad terms in 2018 and thought his dream of revolutionising the toilet industry was over.

But inspiration hit once again during lockdown.

“I realised working from home was here to stay and, with COP26, people were not saving water using those flushes at the office,” said Garry.

“So I formed a home working group with my original design team and set about designing Velocity for domestic use.”

The original 20-year patents that his Propelair design was based on had expired, so Garry was free to have another shot at his superloo.

“It wasn’t my choice to leave Propelair,” he said. “I spent 16 years building the company up, 10 years unpaid and to just have to walk away was really difficult. 

“I had secured £1million to develop a domestic version, but it just hadn’t happened.

“Then, during lockdown I just realised we had to do it – society needed it, because 75% of the market is domestic. 

“So it has been absolutely fantastic working again on a new project with the team.”

His new toilet is more compact, quieter and has a motion sensor, offering hands-free opening and flushing.

But the main star is the in-built air system, which has shades of Back To The Future inventor Doc Brown.

“I had some big lightbulb moments – the main one being something we call the flush capacitor,” said Garry.

“It came to me while lying in a hammock drinking a beer in the summer of 2020.

“With a conventional toilet, you have a water cistern and, when you flush, water flows from it into the pan and carries the waste out into the sewer. It requires a lot of water. 

“With Velocity, the lid seals onto the pan and when you flush a small amount of water comes in to clean the pan and then air is sent directly in and cannot escape, so it pushes the waste into the drain. 

“With this system, you are not actually relying on water to move the waste, it is only for cleaning.”

Garry will trial the toilet at Alpha Grove Community Centre on the Isle Of Dogs

Southwest Water is testing the design from a regulatory standpoint, while the project at Alpha Grove will check how effective Garry’s design is in a real-life situation.

The toilets are due to be installed at the community centre as part of its redevelopment, which is being overseen by Dennis Sharp Architects. 

Garry’s team is currently capturing six months of data from the site to map out its current water and energy consumption so the company can demonstrate what the savings are with Velocity. 

Garry said installation of 12 toilets was expected to take place in early summer.

“We’re really excited about the first trial at Alpha Grove because it is a residential area,” said Garry. 

“They’re trying to be an exemplar of low water use. It’s going to be a great place for us to do some demonstrations and save them water and carbon.

“We’re also looking at developing additional hygiene benefits, including chemical-free disinfectants. 

“We want to eliminate the use of bleach and develop technology that kills Covid and other viruses.”

The trained engineer said people often laughed when they first heard about his job, but quickly realised the gravity of what he is doing.

“The modern toilet was crucial in preventing cholera,” said Garry.

“I’m pleased to be following in the footsteps of Doctor John Snow, who influenced big changes in public health and the construction of improved sanitation facilities.

“The first flushing toilet was invented hundreds of years ago for Queen Elizabeth I and, since then, the industry hasn’t radically innovated at all.

“As we move into the 21st century, we need to look at a different way of doing it. A royal appointment would be fantastic – you have got to dream big.

“I know the world needs to save water and we are developing a product that’s going to enable it to do that. 

“I would love to see our toilets go into every home in the UK and to know we are really doing some good for the environment.”

Garry’s father, Stan Moore

DOCKLANDS LEGACY – THE MAN BEHIND THE MAN

When Garry’s father, Stan Moore, lived in Docklands, everything was different.

The 95-year-old grew up in Canning Town during the Second World War, when the Alpha Grove was a Methodist Church and the family’s toilet was an outhouse.

“It was my job to tear up the News Of The World, to use in it,” he said. 

Aged 14 he started working for the civil defence association, delivering messages and putting out fires around the Docks.

“It was terrible – the Blitz,” he said. “One day you would walk down a road in Canning Town and the next it was all gone. 

“As a young kid I took it all in my stride. My poor mum was a widow and had to bring up five kids with no pension.

We lost our house and got evacuated. Our family was really lucky to come out of it in one piece.”

In the 1960s his father-in-law helped get him work at Millwall and Royal Docks, but Stan said he was “very suspicious” about risking his house by giving up his £17-a-week job at William Warne rubber factory in Barking.

“There were thousands of dockers waiting to pick up work,” he said of his first day. “I was told by an elderly docker ‘no matter what, you don’t go on the ships.”

By hometime he had earned £17 loading flour and said: “I couldn’t get on my motorbike quick enough to tell my missus.”

The places he  knew have all been flattened but Stan said he loves having the chance to go back and visit with Garry and to see where his son is working.

“He’s a wonderful bloke,” said Stan, “Good looking and everything he does is good.

Read more: How Canada Water Dockside is set to transform Rotherhithe

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