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Canary Wharf: How Creative Virtual’s Gluon software is next level for chatbot tech

Founder and CEO of the Cannon Workshops-based company, Chris Ezekiel, talks global growth

Creative Virtual founder and CEO Chris Ezekiel – image Matt Grayson

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All in all, 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for Chris Ezekiel and Creative Virtual – the company he founded on the Isle Of Dogs in November 2003. In 12 months time, he and his colleagues will be celebrating its 20th birthday.

But before that happens, there’s the small matter of becoming a father for the second time and – business-wise – the firm is set for a major release of its V-Person software, named Gluon.

The software is the platform that has allowed Creative Virtual to grow into a global concern, from its base next to Canary Wharf at Cannon Workshops

From there, housed in the honey brick of the Grade II listed former cooperage beside West India Quay, Chris and his team compete with the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Google in the field of conversational artificial intelligence (AI).

Together, they have built a business with global reach, servicing clients across the world including the likes of HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group – one of the firm’s first clients and still a customer today. 

In 2022, Creative Virtual has operations in the UK, the US, Europe, Australia, Singapore and in India. It’s a Docklands business trading with the world.

“We’re still independent, which is a bit unusual for a tech company in the fast-paced world of AI,” said Chris.

“I always started it for the long-term, and over the years we’ve had quite a few offers to purchase the company, which I continue to refuse.

“I’m just enjoying it and we’re competing in that area we’re operating in – conversational AI is all the rage now.

“For me, it’s about working with incredible people who are passionate about innovation, creativity and technology – some things are more important than money.

“We don’t have investors so what we do isn’t linked to their short term goals.

“While Elon Musk has recently bought Twitter, I reflected the other day that he could not buy Creative Virtual. It’s great to have that independence.”

The company’s position comes through its success developing and implementing chatbots for clients. 

These might be used by a firm’s customers, employees or its customer services personnel as a resource to assist clients.

Gluons hold quarks together at a subatomic level so they can become atoms and ultimately everything in the universe

With almost 20 years in business and numerous accolades – among them a Queen’s Award For Industry in 2017 – Chris said the company continued to prioritise innovation, investing its profits to grow.

“It was always the dream to become a global company,” he said. “But you don’t often get a chance to step back and consider what you’ve built.

“We pride ourselves on having a really quirky, passionate team – a really eclectic mix of individuals. It also allows us to be adaptable and to work in markets all around the world.

“Travelling to these different locations really brings it home and having the fantastic customers we do really helps. 

“Being able to explore creativity and innovation with those companies and partners has been amazing over the years. It’s what keeps us going.”

That ongoing drive has resulted in Gluon, which Chris said would be the foundation of Creative Virtual’s work for many years to come.

It’s aptly named after an elementary particle that holds quarks together to form subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons – the basis for atoms and ultimately everything in the universe.

It’s also a reflection of the Creative Virtual founder and CEO’s love of physics.

“I have a picture of Richard Feynman above my desk with his quote that you should not fool yourself and that you’re also the easiest person to fool,” said Chris.

“That’s something I always focus on because it’s really important to keep things in perspective, to keep them real.

“With Gluon we’re very excited because, while we do small software releases every month or so and major ones roughly every 12 months, this is the kind that only comes along once every four years.”

Gluon as software bears some similarities to gluon particles in that they both connect elements to create something of greater complexity and function.

Gluon is designed to work within the composable enterprise system

“First of all, the new software allows us to integrate our system with lots of other systems at a large enterprise,” said Chris.

“That might include CRM systems and data management systems, for example. 

“There’s a lot of buzz around AI and we’ve seen chatbots that use machine learning as a black box without any control over the responses the system is giving.

“We’ve always taken a different path, combining AI with humans overseeing the system, and Gluon will make that easier.

“The way we’re combining those two elements is unique in the industry and Gluon makes it super easy for organisations to use.

“The way it’s configured and the reports that come out of it make it really efficient and also controllable.

“There’s also a lot of interest in something called the ‘Composable Enterprise’ which is all about plugging systems together.

“Gluon fits perfectly into that to become a key piece of the jigsaw.

“We intend to launch in the early part of next year. We already have a test version available and have done 50 demonstrations so far.

“The feedback has been incredible. We sell direct to customers, but we also work through some partners in the world and everybody’s been unanimous in their positive responses.

“It’s a great way to develop, because the feedback is very specific.

“Taking our time is very important, because we’ve been able to listen to what people are saying while we are developing the software.

“We can be more flexible with our customers because we don’t have pressure from investors.

“It’s funny for me on a personal level, because people wondered whether having a 16-month-old now and another on the way in February would change my view about the company and whether it would be time to sell – but it hasn’t one little bit.

“I am often asked how difficult it is to separate the business from my personal life, but my view is that you should give up doing that because it stresses you out.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to build it into your life – it is your life and you have to find a way to do that.

“Having a supportive group of people around you, both inside work and outside, and having some hobbies and interests is essential. I snowboard and watch West Ham to relax.

“But at the end of the day business is business, you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

“That might sound odd from someone who has to pay all the bills and make sure the people who work for me can pay their bills – but knowing there are more important things in the world keeps me level-headed.

“It’s a balance and as long as you can say overall you’re happy with that balance, then you’re in a good place.

“That’s why I can’t imagine retiring.”

Read more: Discover the 2022 Greenwich Theatre panto

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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 Laura Zabo makes jewellery from waste rubber bike tyres

See Laura’s pieces and others from Craft Central makers at its Open Studios and Winter Market

Laura Zabo wears her most popular necklace, the Curlywurly – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

When Laura Zabo moved to Tanzania in 2015, she was seeking change.

Her business in Hungary had failed and she needed a new passion.

What she found there were dirty old tyres. She loved them.

“Africans recycle everything and, one day, I was walking through the local Maasai market and found some brightly painted sandals made out of car tyres,” said Laura.

“They were so pretty and colourful and I found this a brilliant idea – that such an unwanted material could become so useful.

“I realised I wanted to show the world that we can recycle tyres and we have to, because we just have too much waste.”

She immediately started buying supplies and tools and learning how to transform the rubber into wearable objects such as belts and shoes – sometimes working 15 hours without eating.

“I just felt like: ’Wow, this is the mission of my life,’.” she said. “I was sure, with my creativity, that I could make pretty items people would want.”

By the time she moved to London, jewellery was her focus and she began selling at markets in Spitalfields and Greenwich and at craft events in between day jobs in marketing and hospitality.

It revived the entrepreneurial spirit she had first discovered aged eight – selling beaded jewellery at school – but which had been dampened by the failure of her homoeopathy business.

Earrings at Laura’s Craft Central studio – image Matt Grayson

“When that happened I was really depressed and was just surviving because I really didn’t know what I should do with my life,” said Laura

“I moved to Africa to reset and find something interesting that I could really dedicate my life to.”

After she discovered it, London called to her because of the freedom it offered.

“I come from a much more conservative country – the UK really has the vibe of opportunities,” she said.

“If you come here and believe in something, you can make it happen.”

The 43-year-old has lived across the capital including in Lewisham and Margate – she’s now on a boat in West India South Dock.

But when it came to her business she realised she needed a more permanent base and landed at Craft Central on the Isle Of Dogs’ Westferry Road in February.

“I was making from home before, but it was really uncomfortable, after so many years,” she said. 

“Sometimes I would finish working at midnight and the next morning there was rubber everywhere. I knew that if I had my own workspace, I could focus much more.

“I find the space at Craft Central so inspirational and I really like that the Isle Of Dogs is like a piece of countryside in London”

Her supplies mostly come from a tyre recycling firm but she often pops to Canary Wharf to collect supplies from NipNip’s bike servicing and repair shop at Westferry Circus.

You won’t find her pedalling though, as Laura isn’t a fan of cycling – or the cleaning required when tyres arrive.

“Everything is dirty and has to be sorted because each type of tyre has a different purpose,” she said.

“When I’m sorting them I get completely dirty and then the tyres have to be cut in half and soaked for a few hours in disinfectant before I start scrubbing.”

Laura with one of her creations – image Matt Grayson

Once they are dry, the inner tubes are ready for crafting into delicate necklaces and earrings but the tyres, which she uses for belts, have to be painted to make them perfectly black. 

Laura can make around 30 pieces a week and her biggest seller is the Curlywurly Necklace, which she said would be impossible to make from any other material.

Prices range from £12 for a pair of leaf earrings to £89 for her statement necklaces and Laura said it had been a conscious choice to charge as little as possible.

“I come from a very poor family and know how bad it is when you like something and you just don’t have money for it,” she said.

“I didn’t want someone to be unable to afford my pieces.

“Also, some customers are unsure how people will react if they buy recycled bicycle inner tube jewellery, so I don’t want the price to put them off.

“More sales means I can spread my message.”

It has been working. Sales have increased fourfold this year and Laura has been inundated with requests for collaborations and photoshoots.

“I am so happy people are valuing my items,” she said. “I really feel the buzz from every direction and like it is becoming something very popular. 

“Obviously, this is what I wanted when I started this business, but for many years people laughed at me when I told them my job was to recycle tyres and said I was not normal.

“Now it’s becoming an industry and it’s brilliant.”

Belts made by Laura – image Matt Grayson

Laura believes her success is down to a change in her mindset.

“I have read about 80 books since November about business and personal development and feel much more focused on my goals,” she said.

“I think once your way is clear, you feel more stable in your journey and good things happen more easily.”

Unlike many makers who guard their processes, Laura is now keen to share hers widely.

“My next call is to open a shop and teach my techniques to make people realise anyone can make money out of upcycling,” she said.

“It has been a game-changer in my life. When I craft, it is like meditation. 

“Even if you sell it very cheaply, the fact you created something and someone wants to buy it, will really change your life.

“Upcycling also teaches us what we throw away and that our main focus should be on creating instead of useless hobbies like shopping.”

Laura, who buys 95% of her clothes second hand, added: “I find fast fashion so useless and super stupid.

“People work so hard, then buy valueless items nonstop and it just doesn’t make any sense for me. I would love to inspire people to try crafting instead.

“I think every market should have one person who sells upcycled tyre jewellery.

“I hope to be the person who teaches them how to do that.”

Craft Central’s event takes place from November 19-20, 2022

SHOP LOCAL – CRAFT CENTRAL OPEN STUDIOS AND WINTER MARKET

See the work of Craft Central experts, including Laura Zabo,  up-close at Craft Central’s home at The Forge from November 19-20, 2022, 10.30am -5pm.

The charity will be hosting an Open Studios and Winter Market event, which is free to visit and includes Silphi ‘s Venetian coloured glass jewellery and Pon Studio’s playful homeware.

The gallery space will be full of items to browse and buy, including Frank Horn’s leather accessories, Sato Hisao’s pop-up cards and paper craft and other products such as home accessories, jewellery, fashion, prints, ceramics, stationery and textiles, from £2.50 to £500.

There will be drop-in, pay-what- you-can workshops from noon-4pm in badge making on the Saturday and Christmas decoration painting on the Sunday.

Also, Carb Club will host Paint Your Own Pieces ceramics workshops all weekend and, on the Saturday, Sarah Richards will run an upcycling DIY Christmas Jumper workshop for £15 adult, £10 child.

Both require pre-booking.

Read more: Discover Wilton’s Music Hall’s festive show for 2022

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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: Why M restaurant is serving up greens grown by Crate To Plate

Isle Of Dogs’ facility can produce all year round with 95% less water than traditional farming methods

M's Mike Reid and Crate To Plate's Sebastien Sainsbury
M’s Mike Reid and Crate To Plate’s Sebastien Sainsbury – image Matt Grayson

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It turns out there are two farms on the Isle Of Dogs.

Mudchute is filled with rare breeds and is a favourite spot for residents (and the occasional Wharfer) to take a restful stroll among the sheep and llamas.

The other, however, is much less obvious. 

Built inside three shipping containers sat in a brick-walled car park, just off Westferry Road, locals can easily be forgiven for not knowing Crate To Plate is there at all. 

But packed inside its metal boxes are racks of hyrdoponic tech, carefully calibrated to grow crops in nutrient-rich water under LED lights.

The business supplies restaurants in London and also grows produce at sites in Stratford and Elephant And Castle.

Its Isle Of Dogs containers make it, almost certainly, the closest producer of ingredients to Canary Wharf.

That means delivery times and mileage are negligible and Wharfers eating dishes created from its ingredients are consuming some of the freshest products available. 

One restaurant that’s making the most of the facility is recently opened M restaurant – located on the lower floors of Newfoundland tower.

M's Crate To Plate Salad, £7.50
M’s Crate To Plate Salad, £7.50

Owner Martin Williams and executive chef Mike Reid are both big on sustainability and cutting waste. The restaurant proudly works to assess and minimise its impact on the environment. 

The steaks it serves are carbon neutral, thanks to a partnership with charity Not For Sale, which offsets their impact through reforestation projects in the Amazon and helping to protect local people from modern slavery. 

Order M’s Crate To Plate salad as a side and you’ll be dining on leaves grown less than 20 minutes’ walk away, in the mix.

“It’s as fresh as it can be, as close from farm to plate as possible, and that’s so rare – it’s a privilege to have that in Canary Wharf,” said Mike, who did a degree in business and marketing before apprenticing as a chef and going on to work with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux Jnr.

“Sustainability has become more of a focus for us in the last five years and it’s always been part of my philosophy as a chef.

“You want to cook as sustainably as possible and use as many local ingredients as you can, which has always been a challenge at M because it’s a brand that showcases international food and flavours.

M executive chef Mike Reid in one of the containers
M executive chef Mike Reid in one of the containers – image Matt Grayson

“Now it’s about how we interpret that, about the relationships we have with our suppliers and building partnerships.

“Crate To Plate is probably the perfect example of that. We create dishes with their produce in mind and at other times they grow things speculatively. It’s very much a collaboration.

“I try to visit the farms as much as I can and the last time I was here they had the most beautiful wasabi flowers.

“Normally you’d only get them five weeks a year, but here they grow all year round. 

“It’s one of my favourite flowers to cook with, because the flavour is literally a punch in the face, but in the most subtle and beautiful way, and they’re gorgeous.

“To have that available all year long is incredible.

“You’re not beholden to the seasons, so you can keep dishes on the menu with ingredients that are not impacted by the weather.

Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury
Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury – image Matt Grayson

“From a chef’s point of view, we chase consistency more than perfection and Crate To Plate’s products are phenomenal.

“For me the flavour’s better too – there’s no pesticides, none of the nasties and the lettuce, for example is crispier and the taste fresher.

“It’s vegetables and herbs the way they’re supposed to be – whatever you’re tasting in the supermarket, times it by 10.

“When I first came to visit the farm I wondered if I was in the right place, but this is pure genius.”

Mike’s words will be music to the ears of Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury.

Part of the dynasty that created the supermarket chain, he spent time as a banker with interests in hospitality, before turning to vertical farming in urban environments as a way to help tackle some of the world’s problems.

Crops are started as seedlings and then planted into vertical farms
Crops are started as seedlings and then planted into vertical farms – image Matt Grayson

  “When I was in banking in 2007, I did research on food security and population growth because it really concerned me where our food was going to come from,” said Sebastien. 

“If the number of people in the world kept on rising as predicted, it would mean the end of organic food 

“That remained in the back of my mind and in 2015 I was at Expo 2015 in Milan where I saw a hydroponic farm. 

“It’s not a new idea, it’s been around for thousands of years – think of the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon – and there are people doing it all around the world, but what’s changed is the technology.

“We don’t even use the term hydroponic any more, even since we installed the three farms on the Isle Of Dogs in 2020 – Crate To Plate is really ‘controlled environment agriculture’. 

“Every aspect of each plant’s growth, from the amount of light it gets to the light wavelength recipe, the nutrients in the water, the watering schedule, the ambient temperature, the humidity and even how long the lights are on or off – because plants need rest – is very closely monitored and regulated.

“It’s all automated, bar seeding, transplanting and harvesting and that’s just where we are today.”

The company’s model not only allows it to place farms close to its customers, minimising transportation, its technology means it uses approximately 95% less water than traditional farming methods. 

It hopes to cut that to 99% with newer root-misting systems – crucial in a world where natural resources are destined to become increasingly scarce.

The plants are then grown hydroponically and harvested
The plants are then grown hydroponically and harvested – image Matt Grayson

Crate To Plate can grow produce year-round to order and is unaffected by the weather. Its systems are not immune to problems, but these tend to be ones of maintenance rather than the lottery of droughts and floods.

“Farmers are suffering and they will suffer, but not because of us,” said Sebastien. “It’s because of climate change.

“We consume about 18million heads of lettuce a week in Britain and farmers supply about 90% of that, which means there’s still 1.8million being imported.

“In 2018, for example, we had the longest heatwave for 40 years and crops were all lost. Droughts are just as bad.

“With us, restaurants can give us an estimate of what they’ll need and we grow that for them, planting varieties that create less waste – flatter romaine lettuce, for example, for burgers so restaurants don’t throw out the middle of a baby gem. 

“Our head of farming, John Sticha, spent about four years doing research and development in a container in the US to find the right plants – we tried more than 220 varieties, a dozen Genovese basils and more than 14 different types of lemon basil.”

The company’s drive to improve is relentless, with new tech emerging all the time. Its next project is a plan for a bigger, fully automated farm in Royal Docks

“When I was a banker, I was on the right, but now I’m on the left – I’m all about social responsibility,” said Sebastien. 

“People laugh when I do nothing but talk about lettuce, which I knew nothing about five years ago. Being a vertical farmer is fun and it’s productive. 

“We’re growing stuff that people are loving – sometimes it blows my mind how positive people are about our produce. I’m not a young man any more, but I feel completely regenerated.”

With all that extra energy, who’d bet against a robot vertical farm in east London?

A Crate To Plate lettuce ready for the table
A Crate To Plate lettuce ready for the table – image Matt Grayson

Read more: Discover ceramics with Made By Manos

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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 nitrous oxide use can lead to damage to nerves in the spinal cord

Queen Mary University Of London professor and students launch awareness campaign about risks


Nitrous oxide use is widespread in Tower Hamlets and east London
Nitrous oxide use is widespread in Tower Hamlets and east London

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How do you feel about your nervous system?

How do you feel without your nervous system?

Jokes might seem appropriate here – after all, this article is about laughing gas.

Nitrous oxide, which comes in canisters of various sizes, is sold ostensibly for use in the baking industry as a means of creating robust whipped cream.

You have to be over 18 to buy it, but there are few practical obstacles to obtaining large quantities. 

That’s perhaps why the gas is now also the most popular recreational drug for those aged 16-24. The effect of inhaling it – typically from a balloon – is described as a rapid rush of euphoria and a feeling of floating or excitement for a brief period.

Fits of giggles and laughter can also occur, hence the nickname.

Anyone walking around the Isle Of Dogs or east London will have seen multiple discarded canisters. It took me five minutes to find some to photograph for this piece.  

A quick search on Google reveals a number of “baking websites” that subtly embrace a new found source of revenue, offering text alerts for discounts on cream chargers and next-day delivery for those who need their ingredients quickly.

Users have little trouble getting their hands on the canisters locally and antisocial behaviour associated with its use led to Tower Hamlets Council bringing in a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) covering the whole borough last year. 

This allows officers to issue fixed penalty notices of up to £100 or launch prosecutions with fines of up to £1,000 for using the drug and engaging in behaviour such as littering, noise nuisance and vandalism.

Since the PSPO came into force in April 2021, there have been 125 enforcement actions taken by officers, including a man who was fined £400 in court after failing to pay a fixed penalty notice. 

The council says tackling use of the gas is a priority and that its enforcement officers regularly patrol the borough and take action against those using it.

It is also looking into boosting awareness around the dangers of inhaling the gas and the antisocial behaviour it can lead to.

Nevertheless, widespread nitrous oxide use continues locally. That may partly be because there’s a perception the gas is safe for recreational use. 

This ignores the very real danger of inhaling the stuff directly from a canister, which can lead to a spasm in the throat that stops the user breathing.

More worryingly, there’s emerging evidence that use of nitrous oxide is leading to spinal injuries. 

A steep rise in cases observed by Alastair Noyce, professor in neurology and neuroepidemiology at Queen Mary University’s Wolfson Institute Of Population Health, led him to launch a campaign this year to educate teenagers on the neurological risks of using the gas.

N20: Know The Risks is being led by students in the university’s Public Health And Preventative Medicine Society – supported by Professor Noyce – and has started to deliver sessions in Tower Hamlets through youth groups and housing associations.

Queen Mary University student Devan Mair is leading the campaign
Queen Mary University student Devan Mair is leading the campaign

Fourth year medical student Devan Mair, who is leading the campaign, said: “Our campaign focuses on the neurological dangers of taking nitrous oxide because they’re not very well known.

“This substance is a colourless gas which people inhale into their lungs.

The way it creates a high is to deprive a user’s brain of oxygen for a few seconds – it’s a very short high.

That in itself can create a risk, because people who do it a lot have been known to pass out and faint.

“The neurological risk is to do with the gas’ effect on the spinal cord – the clump of nerves running down the centre of the back that is connected to branches all the way around the rest of the body.

“Users of nitrous oxide risk damaging the myelin sheath – an insulating layer that forms around nerves made up of protein and fatty substances that allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells.

“Symptoms can include feelings of weakness, problems with balance, difficulty in walking or an inability to walk at all, constipation, urinary incontinence, pins and needles and in some cases a feeling like an electric shock going up the back.”

These problems stem from nitrous oxide’s ability to interfere with the body’s absorption of Vitamin B12 – a nutrient essential to a healthy myelin sheath. 

The rise in cases has become so severe that Professor Noyce and local colleagues in east London are now working with neurologists around the country to establish the first national guidelines on treating nerve damage linked to laughing gas.

He said: “We are seeing more patients than even a year or so ago, and often the cases are more severe. 

“We used to see people with tingling and numbness in their legs or difficulty walking, but this year we’ve had several people who literally can’t walk at all when they come to hospital.”

It’s cases such as those that have galvanised Devan and his fellow students into action.

“My motivation in getting involved is that I wasn’t aware of the risk until I was told about it – it’s something people simply don’t know,” he said.

“After school I did a gap year, working in special educational needs, so I got a taste for working with young people.

“We’re not here to lecture or scare anyone – we want to empower people with knowledge of the risks of nitrous oxide, to inform them if faced with the decision to take balloons, so they can make educated choices.

“If they’re presented with the evidence, they can make decisions for themselves. 

“Our campaign has two main ways of raising awareness.

“Firstly, there’s social media – we have accounts on Instagram and Twitter where we provide infographics aimed at young people to explain what’s happening and how to get help.

“We also run interactive sessions where we deliver activities in a fun and engaging way – we don’t do too much talking but get people involved to help them understand what could happen in their bodies and why the damage is taking place.

“We also give people cards with the acronym NERV on – ‘N’ for notice the symptoms, ‘E’ for emergency help, ‘R’ for replacement of vitamin B12 and ‘V’ for value your health.

“We need this campaign to constantly be there because the problem isn’t going away. We’d definitely like to roll it out over a wider area – it’s just students here at the moment, so it’s quite small – we would like to make it bigger.

“It’s definitely something that’s relevant. In June we had two days at an event in Tower Hamlets where we collected data from 246 people – 97% said it was the first time they’d heard about nitrous oxide causing spinal damage and 86% felt confident after our session that they could tell their friends about the risks.

“We feel what we do works, now we want to grow it to reach more people.”

Read more: Quiet Rebels invade the stage at The Albany

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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 Craft Central’s director is reaching out to the local community

Jo McLean says she’s excited to play her part in building the makers charity back up after Covid

Jo McLean has taken over as director of Craft Central
Jo McLean has taken over as director of Craft Central

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

For the last two years it has been heads down at Craft Central to keep things ticking over.

The creative charity on the Isle of Dogs had to bring in outside funding for the first time as the effects of the pandemic took hold.

But there is a new director at the helm – Jo McLean – who is ready to build the organisation back up and is looking around her to find its future direction.

“I took the job because I was really excited by the idea of a creative hub,” said the former professional musician, who knits and silversmiths in her spare time.

“I’m very much driven by community engagement. I think artists should sit at the heart of communities and be a really great resource for them. I see the potential for that to happen at Craft Central.”

A classically trained French Horn player, Jo spent 12 years touring internationally before packing away her instrument and starting a career in arts organisations.

“My first proper job was at Cove Park, an artist residency centre in Scotland,” said the 52-year-old.

“I was in charge of a capital project bringing in more accommodation and supporting the visual arts and crafts residences. That was when I first got interested in design and craft.”

A graduate of the Royal Northern College Of Music in Manchester, Jo lived in Scotland for 25 years working for organisations such as Uz Arts and The Touring Network and overseeing the creation of her own home, which gave her a new appreciation of architecture and buildings.

“I’ve always been really interested in good design and craft,” she said.

“So that’s kind of where my path into this area has come from.

Craft Central is based at The Forge on Westferry Road
Craft Central is based at The Forge on Westferry Road

“I’ve led organisations across all genres of arts, from performance through to visual arts, theatre, literature and lots of consultancy work as well around organisational development, which is, I suppose, where my real interest lies.

“This job brings together my two passions, which is great.

“It’s been a turbulent few years and the charity wanted somebody who was going to come and build up the organisation again and I have the skills to do that.”

It was love as well as work that brought Jo to the capital as she met her husband, a Londoner, and they tied the knot a few years ago.

“We had a long-distance relationship for quite a long time and decided we needed to come together,” said Jo, who recently dusted off her French horn to play on a new album by The Bluebells’ of Young At Heart fame.

She first moved to London just before the pandemic to work for Clod Ensemble, based on Greenwich Peninsula, but returned to Scotland after a year. When she saw the role at Craft Central she knew it was her chance to move down here for good.

“I was ready for a challenge, said Jo, who now lives in north London. “I’ve done organisation internally in CEO type roles but this role was very much building based, which I’d never done.

“The pandemic has left its financial mark on the organisation. 

“It’s always been self-sustaining, but the next couple of years are slightly trickier in terms of how we make the business model work as well as it used to.

“All the parts are there, it just sort of needed an architect to put them all together and help everybody to make it work, which is what hopefully I’ll do.”

She had never set foot in the area before, but had heard of Craft Central from friends who have studios there.

Formed in 1970, the arts organisation spent 40 years in Clerkenwell, but in 2017 moved to The Forge on the Isle Of Dogs – one of the last buildings from the golden age of shipbuilding in the area. 

Located on Westferry Road, it was built in 1860 for CJ Mare And Company and constructed the keel for battleship HMS Northumberland.

It fell into decline in the 1900s, but was restored and transformed into studios and workspaces used by Craft Central, by the construction of a virtually freestanding two-storey birch plywood structure within the existing Flemish bond brick walls.

“I was blown away – it’s a stunning, incredible building,” said Jo, who is currently hunting for a facilities manager to help take care of the site.

“What I really liked about it is there’s a connection to the west coast of Scotland, which has a really rich shipbuilding heritage and I’ve been told that a lot of Scottish people moved to the Isle Of Dogs for the shipbuilding industry down there. 

“So being in that sort of very heavy industrial building feels quite comforting to me.”

The Forge's studios are home to more than 70 makers
The Forge’s studios are home to more than 70 makers

With around 77 makers based there, the studios are almost full, but Jo is concerned about the effect the cost of living crisis will have this autumn.

“Artists are going to be really hard pushed to afford the luxury of having a studio,” she said.

“I am anticipating people will have some very difficult decisions to make and I’m thinking about how we can make sure that we have a full space and keep the business model working.

“Our rent review will be due next year and I’m sure the utilities will go up. We are going to have to face some harsh realities about increases to our costs. 

“I’m going to do my very best to make sure we don’t pass those on to our studio holders, but it will largely depend on whether we can find some support to help us.”

The pandemic already saw bosses seek outside funding for the first time, from the Foyle Foundation and Garfield Western Foundation. Jo said more would be needed this year to make the figures work.

“My ambition is that in two years we won’t be relying on any sort of trust, foundation or public funding in order to operate as a centre for craft, but we would be looking for funding to run programmes with the community,” she said.

Jo is hoping to forge relationships with companies in Canary Wharf and beyond to help spread its work further into the Island.

“Craft Central isn’t just about the building – it’s going to be really important to take the brand beyond that,” she said.

“I’m trying to find as many places to connect to as I can, locally and more widely. I’ve inherited a really fantastic team and we’re looking forward to the future.

“For a while its been head-down, let’s hold this together and the team did a fantastic job of that. Going forward, it’s our ambition to be much more embedded in the community. 

“Ways we can work with residents and local groups is going to be a definite focus.”

 Jo already plans to register Craft Central as an Arts Awards venue to help broaden its work with young people.

“I think it’s really important that we engage with children,” she said. 

“Craft isn’t taught so much in schools any more and I think a part of what we can offer is a window into another world for young people.

“We want to work more with older people, because the motor skills associated with craft are a recognized benefit in ageing as well.

“There are so many benefits associated with art of any type, but particularly in craft. It connects you to yourself.”

Craft Central's makers work in a range of different areas
Craft Central’s makers work in a wide range of different areas

Read more: How Canary Wharf’s Junior Board is shaping the estate

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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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Isle Of Dogs: How David Grindley is set to star in his own play at The Space

The Island resident and original SpaceWorks member will stage a show from July 26-31, 2022

David Grindley is set to star in David's Play at The Space
David Grindley is set to star in David’s Play at The Space – image James Perrin

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Adam Hemming joined The Space in 2004, subsequently stepping up to the role of artistic director a couple of years later.

Not that it’s a competition, but David Grindley has been involved with the Westferry Road venue for longer than that – about 19 years, in fact. 

“I get a lot out of it,” said David, whose speech and movement is affected by cerebral palsy.

“It saved my life. When I was in a home, I was shut away a lot, but when I came here, I could do drama.”

Now the Isle Of Dogs resident has decided, as an original member of in-house company SpaceWorks, that he’s going to star in a production and that there’s really nothing Adam or anyone else can do about it – even if they wanted to. Actually, they’re complicit.

“This is the second play that we’ve done with David,” said Adam.

“The first was 2015’s The Man Who Found His Freedom, which was about a period in his life when he was in a care home and how he escaped to live a more independent life in east London. It was quite a hard-hitting drama.”

Whatever David’s Play turns out to be after the machinations of writing, rehearsal and devising, it won’t be that. Audiences are in for laughs.

“With this show we wanted to have a bit more fun,” said Adam.

“It’s a backstage comedy based on the last 10 years of David’s life – his time at The Space and the adventures he’s got up to since he’s been here.”

 Adam and David discuss the production
Adam and David discuss the production – image James Perrin

David’s disability hasn’t deterred him from consistently pursuing starring roles, something that’s key to the forthcoming show.

“The main thread of the story is that David is a part of our company SpaceWorks, where local people take part in creating theatre,” said Adam.

“At the end of each production we would talk about what we were going to do next, and David’s suggestion was always My Left Foot – I’d always shut him up.

“There are complications around staging My Left Foot, which was a book originally, then a film with Daniel Day-Lewis, but David was always suggesting it so that he could be the star of the show.

“In the end we decided that, rather than doing that production, we should create a play for David, which he could then star in, so that’s how it all began.”

David’s Play will be directed by Adam, David and deputy artistic director at The Space, Matthew Jameson, who all appear on stage as versions of themselves. 

“Nothing can go wrong,” said David. “I think we’ll feel better with the first night done, but I’m sure it will be alright – I hope people like it.”

Adam added: “It’s quite a rare thing to see someone like David on stage, but we’ve laughed a lot in creating the show and doing the read-through, so we’re hopeful people will find it funny.

“David keeps telling me off because I keep trying to do serious acting.”

The Space has raised cash to help put the show on – partly through a crowdfunding campaign – with David suggesting on the accompanying video that, should sufficient money become available, it would allow him to hire a better director than Adam.

The Space is still accepting donations for the show, although it’s unclear if this could affect Adam’s position.

In some ways, the fundraising efforts feel apt, given David’s own commitment to generating money for the charity that runs the theatre.

“I’ve worked on the box office, been on various committees and done a lot of fundraising,” he said.

“I recently did my annual sponsored walk across the Isle Of Dogs, which I’ve been doing for 10 years.”

David's Play is set to play at The Space from July 26-31
David’s Play is set to play at The Space from July 26-31 – image James Perrin

“David takes his fundraising very seriously and he’s very good at it,” said Adam.

“David has 24-hour care and this is one place where he can come without his carer and get involved in what’s going on.

“He’s seen more shows here than I have, but he’s also organised lunchtime music recitals as well as creating work like this – it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

“David’s participation with SpaceWorks has helped to raise understanding about what someone with cerebral palsy is capable of.

“As a condition, it’s not that well-known, but he’s built up quite a good network of friends.

“He had a group of people go with him on his sponsored walk and then we had a barbecue fundraiser here before some other friends took him on to a pub quiz at The Ship – it was a pretty full-on day.

“The number of people supporting him during the day is a pretty good indication of how well-liked he is.

“One of the stories that we’ve used in David’s Play is about the year we decided to do a sponsored walk in Greenwich.

“I wasn’t with him that year and it turns out there are strict rules there about what you’re allowed to shake a bucket for.

“You have to have advance permission – it’s a bit different to the Isle Of Dogs.

“Anyway, some people asked David to stop and he didn’t take too kindly to that and in the end some mounted police became involved.

“Another story that’s featured is that there was an unfortunate incident where David fell down some stairs coming out of a pub so an ambulance had to be called and, on the way home, he asked the ambulance to stop outside The Space so he could get a drink before last orders.

“About 10 years ago David decided to stop drinking and hasn’t had a drop of wine since.”

David said: “My life has improved a lot since then. I don’t think I’d be here now if I’d carried on drinking.”

Created by David, The Space’s literary manager Mike Carter and the company, David’s Play is set to be performed at The Space from July 26-31, 2022, with shows at 7.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and 2.30pm on Sunday. 

Tickets for the shows cost £15 with 20% off for bookings made by July 12 (so get in quick).

Anyone who would like to donate to support the production or The Space can find more information here.

Read more: Discover Drag Syndrome’s Liberty Festival performance

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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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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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Isle Of Dogs: How The Sushi Co has ambitions to spread throughout the UK

Brand intends to open 13 takeaway restaurants in 2022 serving sushi made to order without the chill

Sushi from The Sushi Co on the Isle Of Dogs
Sushi from The Sushi Co on the Isle Of Dogs – image Matt Grayson

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When branches of The Sushi Co have swept the nation, with outposts in every major city and restaurants every couple of miles in London, remember that it all started on the Isle Of Dogs.

The business opened its first restaurant and takeaway at the eastern tip of Westward Parade opposite Crossharbour DLR in January and already it’s one of three locations in the capital. 

Targeting rapid growth, with plans for at least 13 restaurants this year, its owners believe they’ve spotted a gap in the takeaway market and they’re moving fast to claim it as their territory.

“We already had a background in food, running pizza franchises,” said Sam Reddy, who oversees operations on the ground for The Sushi Co.

“We’d seen the trend for sushi and initially we thought we’d become franchisees but we decided to create our own brand instead. 

“Doing that gives you a lot more freedom – you are able to determine the quality of everything and you can make decisions much more quickly.

“Personally, two years ago, I’d never even tried sushi so we had to do a lot of research. We ate in so many places, we must have tried every brand in London.”

Peng Zheng and Sam Reddy of The Sushi Co
Peng Zheng, left, and Sam Reddy of The Sushi Co – image Matt Grayson

That included eating at the restaurant of Peng Zheng, whose food impressed so much that The Sushi Co approached him to join the project. 

“Peng has designed the whole menu from scratch,” said Sam. “He’s our head chef, so while we’re good at building the sites, finding the best suppliers and investing the money where it needs to be, he can concentrate on creating the right food.

“We told him our idea – to create a UK-wide brand – and he really liked it.”

Part of the reason for that is a shared commitment to the quality of the food. Walk into The Sushi Co’s Isle Of Dogs branch and you’ll see a chiller cabinet with a selection of drinks and a couple of cheery signs explaining that the kitchen hasn’t run out of food, but that all dishes are made to order.

“When we were doing our research, we realised there were lots of brands storing products in the fridge,” said Sam.

“But that’s not sushi. It should never be stored that way and you shouldn’t eat it chilled. It should be eaten warm and freshly made.

“That is what we do. It’s not instant, customers have to wait five or 10 minutes. But because they want to eat good quality sushi, they’re happy to do that.

“Whether a customer has come to the restaurant to collect the food, or it’s being given to a delivery driver, it’s all made and served to order.

“Top sushi restaurants would never put their products in the fridge, so why would we?”

While the first restaurant has some seating for diners to eat in, The Sushi Co has primarily been conceived as a takeaway and is available through Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat. 

Sam said: “Our main target is that customers should receive food from our restaurants in under 25 minutes.

“Our focus now is on scaling up because there’s nobody else in this market in terms of delivering fresh sushi. There are some independent restaurants, but we want to grow quickly.”

The Sushi Co is located on Westward Parade
The Sushi Co is located on Westward Parade – image Matt Grayson

With an eye on maximising accessibility, Peng and the team have developed a menu rich in sushi and sashimi but that also includes a range of poke bowls, gyoza dumplings and hot meals as an alternative to the core dishes.

“Some people think sushi isn’t for them, but it is for everyone,” said Sam.

“To be honest, I had that feeling two years ago, but not anymore and that’s because I experienced it.

“When people see that it’s raw, some wonder if it’s safe to eat, but our brand follows the highest standards of food hygiene.

“We think we’ve developed a really good product, quite different to pre-prepared boxes you might buy at the supermarket and now we just really want people to try it.

“Once people come to us, they will realise how much better sushi that hasn’t been chilled really is. 

“The feedback from customers has been really great – in the end you can’t build a business if the product isn’t right.”

All of the brand's sushi is made fresh, never chilled
All of the brand’s sushi is made fresh, never chilled – image Matt Grayson

As for the future, The Sushi Co plans to roll out branches across London first, with slightly larger outposts in big cities across the country being an ambition for the future.

Food-wise, having found its feet, there are also plans afoot to collaborate with chefs on signature dishes on a regular basis.

The brand serves an extensive range of sushi including nigiri, uramaki, hosomaki and futo maki as well as selection boxes. Hot dishes include the likes of curries, noodle dishes and soups.

“Personally I really like the prawn katsu, which is fried in breadcrumbs,” said Sam. 

“But I also really enjoy the rolls we offer, many of which come with special sauces that we also make in-house.

“I really like to eat sushi, but my wife doesn’t, so having that variety on the menu is very important because it means we offer something for everyone.

“Not every takeaway business does this but we think it’s essential.

“There’s still a lot to learn for us on this brand, of course, but the first two branches have been really, really successful and we’ve just opened the third so we’re very excited about the future.

“I really believe you can’t get the quality of food that we’re serving in any other fast food takeaway.

“Of course you can go to an expensive sushi restaurant, but many of our dishes are only £10-12 and we use top quality ingredients.”

The Sushi Co is trading on the Isle Of Dogs and in Chiswick and Holborn with branches in Woodford and Lewisham set to be open by May 9.

Expect to see quite a few popping up over the coming years.

The restaurant does have space to dine in
The restaurant does have space to dine in – image Matt Grayson

Read more: Market Hall Canary Wharf set to open on April 7, 2022

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Isle Of Dogs: Poplar Harca and FAHHA Landmark Pinnacle homes for less

Housing associations unveil show homes for shared properties in Europe’s tallest residential tower

The show homes have been dressed to show the apartments' potential
The show homes have been dressed to show the apartments’ potential

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The areas surrounding Canary Wharf and the estate itself aren’t exactly short of residential towers, but only one can lay claim to be the tallest in Europe.

Landmark Pinnacle stands at the head of West India South Dock, rising more than 230m into the sky.

While the majority of the properties in the tower are being sold privately, a collection of 70 apartments has been made available on a shared ownership basis.

Housing associations Poplar Harca and Funding Affordable Homes Housing Association (FAHHA) have taken on 35 each, with the former handling sales and marketing duties on behalf of both organisations.

Located in the lower third of the 75-storey building, the properties have been designed to offer views of either the sun rising in the morning in the east or setting in the west. 

Poplar Harca head of sales and marketing Helen Mason
Poplar Harca head of sales and marketing Helen Mason

Poplar Harca head of sales and marketing Helen Mason said: “Working with FAHHA, we have a total of about 40 one and two-bedroom apartments still available at Landmark Pinnacle for shared ownership.

Buyers can generally purchase between 25% and 75% and then pay a reduced rent on the remaining equity.

“The scheme is mainly targeting first-time buyers – single, professional business people or couples in full-time employment with a total household income of less than £90,000.

“You don’t have to be a first-time buyer, but you do have to be free of a mortgage and you can’t be on any other deeds to a property part-owned here or abroad. 

“All applicants are subject to a financial assessment to ensure the scheme is affordable and that their savings don’t push them over the threshold of being considered able to buy on the open market.”

Remaining properties at Landmark Pinnacle start at £135,000 for a 25% of a one-bedroom home with a market valuation of £540,000. Two-beds start at £188,750 for the same share.

Poplar Harca senior sales executive Ashton Wylie
Poplar Harca senior sales executive Ashton Wylie

Poplar Harca senior sales executive Ashton Wylie said: “When you actually look at the monthly outgoings on these properties it’s very reasonable, which people might not assume.

“It’s well worth looking into because it would cost a buyer between £1,504 and £1,638 per month to live in a one-bed and between £1,971 and £2,232 for a two-bed. That includes the rent and the mortgage on the portion of the property the buyer owns.

“We’ve kept the rents low – to 1.75% in comparison to a typical shared ownership rate of 2.75% to make sure these properties are affordable.”

Landmark Pinnacle is located within easy walking distance of all of Canary Wharf’s amenities and transport links.

“It’s an iconic building and the location is fantastic,” said Helen.

“For anyone working in the area, it has all that on its doorstep and the estate isn’t Monday-to-Friday any more – there’s so much going on at the weekends.

“There are lots of developments in the area, but people who have seen these apartments have been really pleased with the outlook, the specification and what’s on offer. They’ve been received really well.”

Apartments come with open-plan living areas, fully fitted kitchens with integrated appliances, rainfall showers in the bathrooms, climate control systems and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The one-bedroom homes also feature winter gardens that can be used for a variety of functions. 

The service charge covers access to the concierge service and the building’s indoor garden on the 27th floor as standard.

Unusually for shared ownership properties, buyers can also choose to opt to pay more and gain access to all of the building’s facilities, which include a private cinema, private dining rooms, 75th floor roof terraces, a lounge, a library and a residents’ gym.

The apartments feature an open-plan design
The apartments feature an open-plan design

“If you buy here, you’re buying into a lifestyle,” said Ashton. “We’ve had developments before that might have been amazing but didn’t offer shared ownership buyers the option to access the amenities.

“Here that doesn’t happen and because that’s possible it really allows people to live the lifestyle they want to. 

“Many of the people who have moved in have already expressed an interest in opting in when those facilities become available, which is set to be by next April. We expect more or less everyone to end up doing it.

“You can’t opt out again once you’ve opted in, but if someone buys a flat later on, they can always take up the offer then.”

Poplar Harca has show flats dressed and ready to view at the building. Under shared ownership, prospective buyers typically pay a 5% deposit on the share of the property they’re buying.

That means, for the cheapest home available at Landmark Pinnacle, saving up £6,750 to get a foot on the ladder.

Email sales.enquiries@poplarharca.co.uk or call 020 7538 6460 for more information

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