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Canada Water: Why 2024 is a significant year for British Land’s regeneration scheme

Developer’s joint venture with AustralianSuper is set to see a bridge and market hall open up

An artist’s impression of Asif Khan’s bridge across Canada Dock

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Large regeneration projects are a marathon, not a race.

Their benefits often appear incrementally – a crescendo building to something truly revolutionary for an area transforming the lives of those who live and work in it.   

So it is with British Land’s epic 12-year plan for 53 acres of Canada Water and 2024 is set to be the year where a number of the project’s key parts will arrive. 

As those who’ve already read this piece will know, the first of up to 3,000 homes to be delivered across the site are now on sale.

But this article is about more immediate, material changes that are coming.

Nearing completion, for example, are the luxurious red curves of Asif Khan’s boardwalk, dipping pond and pergola which form the centrepiece of a package of improvements to Canada Dock itself.

Those arriving at the station will be confronted by an enriched waterside habitat replete with reed beds, benches and steps down to the dock edge – all aimed at boosting biodiversity, water quality and access to the blue stuff.

But these installations aren’t just a pretty gimmick – they’re a practical statement of intent, guiding visitors more directly towards what will be the new town centre.

In the meantime, the bridge will also bring people to a new foodie destination that is expected to open up at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre.

“While we’re waiting to redevelop it, we’re in the process of taking back the unit that’s currently home to The Range,” said Emma Cariaga, joint head of Canada Water at British Land

“We’re going to convert that into a food, beverage and cultural space, which will start to be symbolic of the sort of programmes we’ll be running locally.

“That will be in place before Christmas and the bridge is set to open around September time. 

“Both should be open before we complete on our first buildings at the end of the year and will be a really good amenity for them.

British Land’s joint head of Canada Water, Emma Cariaga

“They too will have restaurants and cafés on the ground floor – overlooking the water at the front and spilling out into a courtyard at the back.

“What we consistently hear from residents locally is that they love Canada Water but what they need in the short term is more places to eat and drink.

Canada Water Cafe and Leadbelly’s are excellent and this new opening should be phenomenal.

“We also took back a Victorian building near The Engineering And Design Institute to the east of our site, which has now reopened as The Pacific Tavern pub – a grill and barbecue concept that’s doing really well.”

All this speaks to a key benefit of having a single developer involved with a project for a significant period of time. 

British Land, now backed by the financial muscle of pension fund AustralianSuper, knows it has to deliver a consistent, compelling pipeline of amenities and attractions with visitors as much as it is future residents. 

Fortunately it has both the time, money and imagination to do this, having already altered its scheme to include the retention and upgrading of Printworks London as a venue.

“We’ve worked really well with Broadwick, which has run the venue – it surpassed all our hopes and dreams of what it could become,” said Emma.

“It’s seen millions of people pass through its doors over the past six years and, while it’s become best known for electronic dance music, we’ve also had the Canadian Royal Ballet, Secret Cinema, the BBC Proms and a whole range of product launches, conferences and studios using it as a filming location.

“This diversity really gave us confidence that we wanted to keep it as part of the project.

“Ultimately people will come to Canada Water because they live here or work here – but the key to success is also to get them to visit because they enjoy what’s here.

“Printworks has done that – we’ve had visitors not only from across London and the UK but also internationally.

“It has that kind of reach. It will be a catalyst for the site’s ongoing development.”

In addition to housing, plans for Canada Water include some 2million sq ft of office space, 650sq ft of retail and leisure space and 12 acres of new public space.

“We’ll be delivering a really healthy mix – somewhere that people will want to live and work, but also great places to come out and enjoy themselves,” said Emma. 

“We have lots of open spaces all around us with Southwark Park on our western boundary and Russia Dock Woodland to the east.

“Then we’ve got our own spaces including the most significant which is a new public park of three-and-a-half-acres. 

How the first phase of Canada Water will look when exiting the Tube station

“That will be delivered alongside Printworks and we hope to start work before the end of the year once we’ve got planning permission.

“Construction will then take about two years.”

Alongside the cultural venue, Printworks is expected to house 158,000sq ft of flexible workspace, and boast 10,000sq ft of external terraces on its third and sixth floors with views across London. 

Also mooted is a full complement of food and drink establishments to keep both visitors and workers appropriately sated.

Coming sooner to the overall scheme will be The Dock Shed – one of the buildings delivered as part of phase one.

Located next to residential tower The Founding, and just a few seconds from the station, this combines 180,000sq ft of office space over five floors with a new leisure centre to be run by Southwark Council. 

This includes pools, sports courts and a gym spread over the basement and ground floor of the structure.

“We’re really pleased to have this facility, which includes an eight-lane, 25m pool because it will provide constant footfall,” said Emma.

That’s something that, with all these plans progressing, is only set to increase in the years to come. 

key details

The Canada Water masterplan covers 53 acres of space on the Rotherhithe peninsula and will see a new high street and shopping destination created alongside 3,000 homes.

Find out more about the plans here

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Property: How Barratt London’s Bermondsey Heights offers Zone 2 value

Developer’s South Bermondsey scheme is on the edge of major local regeneration projects

An artist’s impression of Barratt London’s Bermondsey Heights scheme

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“People are smart nowadays, they’re not just buying somewhere because it’s a great place to live – they’re looking at lots of different elements and whether they’re going to see capital growth on their purchase,” said Yolanda Jacob, sales and marketing director at Barratt East London

“Even if they stay for five years, they want to see a property will be a good investment for them. 

“Buying at the beginning of regeneration is nearly always the best time to purchase, because you’re going to see capital growth because of everything that’s going on in the area.”

We’re discussing Bermondsey Heights, the developer’s latest south-east London scheme. 

When complete, the Ilderton Road complex will house 163 one, two and three-bedroom homes as well as 32 shared ownership apartments, rising to 26 storeys at its highest point.

This includes the Skyline Collection, a clutch of properties spread over the top four floors with an enhanced specification and, presumably, the best views the scheme has to offer.

Barratt has a bit of a track record in building developments in areas that then go on to see vast swathes of regeneration unfolding, with buyers enjoying the upswing in property values and boost in amenities that result. 

Maple Quays at Canada Water and Enderby Wharf on Greenwich Peninsula would be two examples. 

This could well be true for Bermondsey Heights as well.

The development features views across London from its communal roof terrace

Over the road to the north, Renewal has plans for some 3,500 homes, office spaces and, potentially, a new Windrush Line station on land surrounding Millwall FC’s ground. 

For context, New Bermondsey is a scheme comparable in size to Royal Arsenal Riverside in Woolwich or Kidbrooke Village.

“House prices locally are forecast to rise by 25%, which is huge compared with other areas,” said Yolanda.

“People who bought at the start of similar schemes in Brixton, Shoreditch or King’s Cross will be very happy with their investment after five or 10 years. 

“These are destinations people now go to for socialising, entertainment and shopping.”

Alongside New Bermondsey, British Land’s 12-year redevelopment of Canada Water – complete with a new town centre – is also within walking distance of Barratt’s scheme and will benefit buyers.

But what will those future residents actually be purchasing? 

“Each apartment will have outside space – either a winter garden or a balcony,” said Yolanda.

“They have open-plan living areas and kitchens with all your appliances, finished to a high specification. 

“Buyers can have the option to choose a colour scheme – they can bespoke the apartment and pick flooring, tiles, carpets and bathroom decor.

“The designs are very fresh, clean and bright. 

Apartments feature open-plan design

“We also offer furniture packages, with designers who can come in and help buyers personalise their home.

“Then there’s a concierge service at the development as well as a podium garden and a roof terrace for residents.”

While some developments come stuffed with facilities, Barratt’s approach in South Bermondsey is to pare back its offering to keep service charges down in a move it believes will be attractive to buyers.

“These days new-builds offer so many options,” said Yolanda. “There are developments offering cinemas and golf simulators, but you’re going to pay a lot for those facilities.

“What we want to do is make sure we’re building homes that are affordable, and where they don’t have the worry of having to pay thousands of pounds a year on service charges, for facilities they may not use that much.

“In the middle of London such amenities can easily be found and we don’t want to tie people into spending lots of money on things they don’t want to use. 

“Our aim is to cover the basics and then leave it up to personal choice.

“That way we can keep the service charge to around £3 per square foot, which is attractive to buyers.”

Bermondsey Heights is located within 10 minutes’ walk of South Bermondsey station for services into London Bridge. 

Residents can also walk 15 minutes to Surrey Quays station for Overground services on the Windrush Line and connections to Canary Wharf within two stops.

One, two and three-bedroom homes are available

“It’s a largely unregenerated area at the moment with industrial units, workshops and warehouses – but there’s a major injection of funding coming and it has brilliant backup with its neighbouring places,” said Yolanda.

“You’ve got Deptford down the road, which has seen quite a bit of a resurgence in popularity as well as Surrey Quays and Elephant And Castle, which have already seen extensive regeneration.

“Then there’s New Bermondsey in the pipeline.

“Bermondsey Heights for people looking for affordability and somewhere they can put down some roots.

“It’s an interesting proposition in terms of pricing – statistics from JLL show we’re about 19% lower compared with other Zone 2 developments across the capital.

“That’s been a huge draw for people whether they’re buying for investment or to live in because they can see lots coming here and that the infrastructure is going to improve.”

An explanation, perhaps, for the fact Barratt’s scheme is already more than 50% sold.

Be quick.

need to know

Properties are now on sale at Bermondsey Heights through Barratt East London.

Prices start at £490,000. 

A new show home is set to launch at the development in May, 2024, with further details available online.

Find out more about Bermondsey Heights here

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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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Rotherhithe: How Debut’s classical concerts are returning to the Brunel Museum

Lizzie Holmes’ monthly series presents musicians performing in the historic Thames Tunnel Shaft

Debut performances take place in the Thames Tunnel Shaft

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Debut has returned to the Brunel Museum, bringing a fresh series of classical music concerts to the venue’s subterranean Thames Tunnel Shaft.

The monthly events – set to run this year from March until September, 2024 – combine the delights of cocktail pop-up Midnight Apothecary, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from Lo Viet and performances by musicians for audiences of up to 65 people sat at cabaret-style, candle-lit tables.  

The vibe is welcoming and accessible, based on a format created by Debut founder – curator, host and soprano Lizzie Holmes.

“I launched the company back in 2015, with concerts in different locations,” she said.

“The Shoreditch Treehouse was our first regular series and it became really popular.

“I’d attended an acoustic pop gig there through Sofar Sounds and told the owner that it was an amazing experience but that they needed to get some classical pianists and opera singers in to match the size and volume of the venue’s Steinway Model D concert piano.

“We also did performances in places like the Old Operating Theatre and at the Cutty Sark, but that’s more challenging as there’s no piano. 

Debut’s Lizzie Holmes

“Then a friend mentioned the Brunel Museum – we went along and saw the Grade II listed Thames Tunnel Shaft and remarkably, there’s a piano that lives down there.

“The environment and the atmosphere are beautiful – the acoustic is like a church and it’s steeped in history.

“It dates to the 1840s and so much classical music was created around that time.

“With Midnight Apothecary on the roof, it’s a match made in heaven.

“It’s very exciting to be able to breathe new life into the space and to encourage audiences to discover it.”

A typical Debut evening begins at 6.30pm with botanical cocktails created by Brunel stalwart Lottie Muir and her team.

“At 7pm the Tunnel Shaft opens with the first performances starting at 7.20pm.

“There’s a half-hour interval at 8pm, with the second half finishing around 9.15pm with the bar (and its fire pits) open until 10pm.

“When people come to a concert, first of all they’ll be greeted on arrival and then encouraged to chat to the performers,” said Lizzie, who trained at the Royal College Of Music.

“In London, or any big city it can be hard to find connections and we want everyone to leave feeling they’re part of a community – that they’ve had a communal experience for an evening.

“The energy is electric. During the concerts the musicians will share anecdotes to connect with the audience – something we often don’t get the opportunity to do, having performed to thousands of tiny faces at bigger venues.

The Brunel Museum’s roof garden above the venue

“We make sure that audiences are never spoken down to – we just share the music.

“If a performer just enters a room and breaks out into an aria, people’s jaws will be on the floor. Sometimes you don’t need to do any more.

“It can be amazing and thrilling, but it has to be presented in the right way with the right story. 

“People like seeing that the incredible skills of an instrumentalist or a singer are coming from a normal person who you might see going to the shops or queuing up at the dentist.

“It’s about creating that sense of normality alongside the extraordinary.”

Debut’s next date at the Brunel is set for March 14, featuring mezzo Leila Zanette, flautist Rianna Henriques and pianist Przemek Winnicki alongside host Lizzie and resident piano improviser Sam Peña.

Lizzie said: “People love Sam, he takes lots of requests and is also a brilliant collaborator.

“Prezemek is a superstar from Poland who has a big following on Instagram – he’s flying over from Europe.

“The whole idea is that people get a real mash up of different composers and musical feelings throughout the evening.

Audiences sit cabaret-style in the Thames Tunnel Shaft

“Leila is a wonderful singer who I met six years ago and Rianna is a woman of many talents who is joining us for the first time – she also plays clarinet and saxophone and has just graduated from the Royal College.

“We’ve got Debussy, Chopin, a little bit of jazz, Offenbach, Bizet, Mendelssohn and Mozart, with the Flight Of The Bumblebee to finish.

“It’s nice to have that variety and a combination of rising stars and people who are firmly embedded in the industry and making waves already.

“We’ll always have a guest singer and a guest instrumentalist, and sometimes a duo, such as guitar and flute. It’s always a very healthy mix.”

Lizzie finds musicians for Debut through her extensive contacts, word of mouth and via direct application.

She said: “We get about one a week applying and our doors are always open.

“In 2020, we also ran an artists development programme called the Horizon Project, which attracted 150 applications.

“This year we held an open stage for the first time where we had 25 new musicians we hadn’t worked with before coming along to play a couple of pieces. 

“It was like a Debut night, but without an audience.

Midnight Apothecary’s botanical cocktails are available at the events

“To perform with us, you need to be a brilliant musician, but it’s also about personality.

“The audience will miss so much if you can’t show them that inner person and so that event was really helpful in identifying the right performers for Debut.

“For some musicians, it can be quite disarming to be that open with an audience – it’s an interesting balance.”

Lizzie often performs at Debut nights herself, but says her main interest is in providing a platform.

“I do a solo here and there – I love to sing – but I revel in seeing other musicians flourish,” she said.

“Discovering new talent and sharing it is such an amazing thing.”

Tickets for Debut’s March 14 concert at the Brunel Museum cost £32.

Other events at the venue and Shoreditch Treehouse are also available.

Find out more about Debut here

Audiences begin the evening in the roof garden

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Leamouth: How Uber Boat By Thames Clippers is cutting emissions of the river

CEO Sean Collins on the launch of hybrid vessel Earth Clipper and forthcoming cross-river services

Uber Boat By Thames Clippers CEO Sean Collins

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The passenger craft Sean Collins has been running on London’s great river have always had a futuristic edge to them.

Starting with three Hydrocats in 1999 – each able to carry 62 people from Greenland Pier in Rotherhithe into the City – the zippy little twin-hulled craft helped carve out an image of Docklands’ modernisation that boosted the area’s ongoing regeneration.

As Canary Wharf, east and south-east London have grown and developed – so too has the river bus service, now based at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Today, the vessels in Uber Boat By Thames Clippers’ fleet are larger – long slender craft that hug the water as their engines blast them rapidly along. 

While to the untrained eye, the sleek lines of the 220-passenger vessels might appear similar, don’t be fooled.

There’s change afoot – a journey that started with the arrival of Venus Clipper in 2019 as the service targeted green improvement. 

The next step on that path, somewhat delayed by the pandemic, was the recent launch of Earth Clipper – a vessel that is aesthetically similar to the rest of the fleet, but is also completely different.

Earth Clipper runs purely on battery power in central London

Firstly, at 40 metres long, she can carry an extra 10 passengers. 

But this is a mere tweak in comparison to the main difference – the way she is propelled. Earth Clipper uses a hybrid combination of electric power and biofuel power to slice through the brown waters of the Thames.

In central London, she uses only an electric motor with a biofuel engine kicking in out east to recharge her batteries and push water through her jets.

“Earth Clipper has been just under three years in the making.

“We started working on the specification in 2019,” said Sean, CEO of Uber Boat By Thames Clippers.

“We needed extra capacity, to be able to serve our routes with the expansion down to Barking – the increasing volumes that were there and those in the pipeline, such as Battersea.

“We’d just commissioned their predecessor – Venus Clipper – and we were already focused on reducing weight and therefore power in that vessel.

“That was already a 20% emissions improvement on the core boats in our fleet for the same carrying capacity.

The boat is similar to other vessels in the fleet but produces 90% less CO2 emissions

“With that one, we were asking how we could make the boat lighter while providing an enhanced level of comfort and all the facilities our passengers expected.

“We worked on that whole design with 123 Naval Architects and came up with Venus.

“From that, we decided we had to move it on to the next level.”

The drive to do that came from the company’s goal to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to achieve net zero for the overall business by 2040.

Sean said: “Boats have to last 25-30 years – they haven’t got a similar shelf life to most other above ground vehicles. 

“With that in mind, to reach our sustainability goals, we realised we had to have a significant step forward.

“We looked at the options, took a lot of data from the operating profile of Venus and used it to establish what might be achieved by using a hybrid model. 

“From that, we realised we were not going to be able to achieve 100% battery power at high speeds, but that we could when going more slowly, as we do in central London.

“We formulated a specification and went to the shipyard that had built our previous five vessels and signed contracts to move on with building Earth Clipper.

She has a biofuel engine that charges her batteries and provides power outside the centre of London

“It does exactly what we wanted it to do.

“The model has resulted in a 90% reduction in our CO2 emissions and a 65% drop in oxides of nitrogen and sulphur.

“Those are figures based on measurements we’ve taken during actual running on the Thames.

“There are two more in build – Celestial and Mars – which will both have joined the fleet by spring 2024.

“We all have a duty of care and a duty to deliver on improving the environment.”

There are other benefits too.

Earth and its two sister ships hail from the Wight Shipyard Co on at East Cowes on the Isle Of Wight – a boost to the local economy with 65 people involved in their construction, including 14 apprentices. 

There are also other operational benefits closer to home – welcome news as passenger numbers are already exceeding levels seen in 2019.

“Earth is significantly quieter and smoother on battery and that’s even the case when the engine is running,” said Sean.

“From a noise perspective, it’s a significant improvement and there’s absolutely no compromise at all from the customer’s point of view.

“The seating is also an upgrade in design – we’ve managed to make all 230 lighter, improving the efficiency of the vessel.

“We had to add nearly nine tonnes of additional weight with cabling, batteries and the motor to enable us to use this method of powering the boat.

“So that’s a process we’ve been through with every component.

“When stepping on Earth Clipper, we feel a sense of achievement.

“We’re really inspired by feedback from the public and also the crews that are working on the boat.

“They really love it – the technical advances and the sense of having taken that step forward.”

The use of battery-only power in central London equates to an extra 16.5% reduction in emissions in comparison to using the biofuel engine alone.

In the future, Sean said hydrogen would likely provide further cuts in emissions as electrical power was currently impractical as a way to deliver high speed services on the river, given the charging times needed.

Earth Clipper can carry 10 extra passengers

A Rotherhithe – Canary Wharf Crossing

However, Uber Boat By Thames Clippers is also pressing ahead with plans for an all-electric cross-river service for pedestrians and cyclists.

The aim is to have this up and running on the company’s Rotherhithe-to-Canary Wharf route by spring 2025 and then use it as a template for similar services elsewhere.

Sean said: “We’re committed to delivering that as part of our plans to invest £70million in new boats up to 2030.

“There are also opportunities between Silvertown and Charlton as well as Thamesmead and Barking in the east.

“We’re also aiming to add more stops including a pier that has planning permission at Blackwall Yard, which the developer will hopefully build over the next few years.

“One of the things that happened over the pandemic is that more people discovered the river and we’ve had three record days this year. 

“Our figures for 2022 were higher than 2019 and Canary Wharf, for example, is thriving. The footfall at that pier is exceeding pre-Covid levels.”

Find out more about Uber Boat By Thames Clippers here

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Canada Water: How Phantom Peak offers a total escape from the real world

Immersive experience welcomes visitors into a mysterious world of canals and platypuses

Phantom Peak co-founder Nick Moran

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…we’re on the trail of a missing package, but something sinister is going on. There’s blackmail, a robotic AI doctor that’s scathing about our putrid human bodies, a curious undertaker, odd business cards, a disgusted scientist and TVs that play sinister messages when tuned to the right channel. Oh, and there’s something just not quite right about that mayor…

Welcome to the strange, uncanny world of Phantom Peak.

The comic book adjectives seem appropriate for an immersive experience that aims to place those attending right in the middle of a larger than life narrative.

Located a short walk from Canada Water station inside and outside a disused industrial building, the venue promises a fully realised steampunk town complete with canals, waterfalls and residents to interact with.

But things don’t stand still.

The place may have opened a little over a year ago, but it’s just launched its fifth season – the latest chapter in a complex, involved saga designed to keep people coming back for more.

Each time it resets, there are fresh characters to meet, new mysteries to solve and adventures to go on – an approach that for co-founder Nick Moran is akin to another medium altogether.

“When you come to Phantom Peak, you’re essentially coming to a real-life, open world, role-playing video game,” he said.

“It’s up to you whether you walk to the hills and carry on walking or spend your time crafting minerals – you can do what you like. 

“It’s all about player agency, creating a world where people can explore and experience many different things.

“You can do all the events that the townsfolk run all day, or you can follow the trails and the stories.

“It’s not like immersive theatre where you don’t know what you’re doing – you’re guided through the experiences.”

The setting is Phantom Peak, a cultish sort of town in the grip of corporate entity Jonaco, which rebuilt the place after a suspicious blimp accident, founded and controlled by the buff, messianic figure of Jonas.

Part of the vast Phantom Peak installation in Canada Water

Visitors are encouraged to download an app and answer questions to find a quest to follow – although everyone is equally free just to wander around chatting to the townsfolk, playing games and indulging in the street food and beverages on offer from the various outlets.

It’s extensive, expansive and – because of the myriad paths on offer – filled with eager puzzle-solvers hunting solutions, intrigue and adventure.

Oh, and there’s a platypus hooking game in honour of the town’s peculiar mascot.

“This place was an abandoned warehouse and a car park when we came here,” said Nick.

“We’ve transformed it and it’s impossible to do everything at Phantom Peak on a single visit. 

“Each time – whether you come with your friends or your family – it will be different, with new stories and trails to explore.

“Then, each season, we create a new chapter in the life of the town – some characters may have gone, others will remain, but there will always be something new and it allows us to move forward or backwards in time with the narrative. “

That’s an aspect Nick and the team take extremely seriously.

Following a degree in classics he trained in writing for the stage and screen before working to create live experiences around newly published books.

This led to a job as creative director of Time Run – a pair of escape room-style games that welcomed thousands of competitors through their doors.

He then performed the same role for The Game Is Now, an immersive experience – officially tied into TV series Sherlock – which he co-wrote with Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

The puzzle, which features Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Andrew Scott, continues to run in west London.

But, having teamed up with set-building expert Glen Hughes, Nick wanted to create something that went beyond the medium of escaping from a room.

“We decided we wanted to do something that would combine all the things we liked about immersive experiences – gamification, storytelling, open world, choice and being able to sit and relax too,” said Nick.

“Escape rooms are all about high engagement, high throughput and pushing people from one thing to the next.

The level of detail at Phantom Peak is phenomenal with much attention paid to props, characters and design

Phantom Peak isn’t like that. It’s about being as engaged as you want to be. It’s all about stories – less a fundamentally passive theatre experience than a place where you can take on a role.

“We wanted it to be a world of play – man-made canals, platypuses, a huge muscular impresario named Jonas.

“From there the stories write themselves – but we take it seriously. It’s like making a TV show.

“There’s a writers’ room where we think about the characters and how we can make the narratives resonate with people.

“It’s novelistic – a place that has real depth, where there’s lots to explore but also lots to do.

“It’s like the platypus itself, the mascot of the town. It’s neither one thing nor another – not quite a mammal, not quite a bird.

“But it’s the symbol of the place and the townsfolk love it.

“Some of the actors we have working here have been with us since we opened and they’ve really grown with the town.

“They are as much a part of the place as anything in the stories and it’s been a real pleasure to see it develop that way.” 

Nick and Glen are currently raising funds to expand Phantom Peak globally. 

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Rotherhithe: How Rotherhithe Playhouse is embracing new traditions this Christmas

Founder Phil Willmott is putting on The Christmas Wife and the Wizard Of Oz at theatre’s new home at The Hithe

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s Phil Willmott – image by Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Declarations that it is “The most wonderful time of the year” are being blasted at us from all angles.

That perfectly trimmed TV turkey, the handmade centrepiece online, families decorating in matching Christmas jumpers.

Fomo is more rampant than ever, but with the shadow of Covid just over our shoulders and the cost of living crisis in our faces, do we really need to embrace it?

Phil Willmott from Rotherhithe Playhouse knows no-one wants to be Scrooge, but thinks it’s important to highlight that we don’t have to be Stacey Solomon either.

The theatre, which launched in summer 2020, is marking its second festive season with The Christmas Wife – a dark comedy offering couples the chance to pause and reflect.

Showing from December 15-30 at the theatre’s new home in The Hithe, it is an adaptation of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, which tells the story of a wife whose perfect Christmas starts to unravel due to one bad decision.

It will be tempered against family favourite The Wizard Of Oz, also showing December 15-30, 2022, which launches a new scheme offering up to four free childrens’ tickets with a paying adult.

I sat down with Phil to find out more about the plays and the theatre’s plans for 2023.

The Christmas Wife is set to play at Rotherhithe Playhouse

why this play for Christmas?

We’re all about getting people to go to the theatre who haven’t been much.

There’s a great tradition in this country of doing theatre for families and children at Christmas and I wondered if it might be possible to present slightly intelligent plays that could be a Christmas night out for adults. 

I looked for something that would be thrilling and entertaining and The Doll’s House is one everyone has heard of, but not many people have seen.

why rename it?

The original is set during Christmas and I have upped the ante slightly on the angle of providing the perfect Christmas and how the pressure makes the wife start to buckle.

Often men don’t take responsibility for the perfect Christmas, they just expect it to be there and don’t see the hard work. 

I had seen The Doll’s House and liked it, but when I read it again, I realised there was so much more to it.

It’s extraordinary how this was written about a Victorian couple but we could so easily be eavesdropping on any modern house.

There are the same kind of money worries, the same stresses and strains that come about when a family is thrown together so intensely in the festive period.

what’s the aim?

It shows that the struggle to get through Christmas is a sort of universal thing. It pulls on your heartstrings and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

Perhaps if we opened up the discussion a bit more there wouldn’t be the pressure to recreate the mystique of the perfect family Christmas with an elaborate dinner and a beautifully decorated house.

If it was more collaborative, there would be a shared responsibility for it.

what happens in the play?

The character is the perfect housewife, during the perfect Christmas. She’s got the perfect husband – he’s just been promoted – and perfect children. 

They are having a party and the house looks gorgeous, but to pay for it, she gets the equivalent of a payday loan. 

She didn’t quite make the payments back and due to a series of coincidences, the guy who organised the loan ends up at their house.

She becomes terrified her husband will find out and about the repercussions. Will he stand by her and be sympathetic? 

We see what she decides to do and what that says about their marriage.

is that a common scenario today?

I did some research and the main reason people divorce is money.

The main time the cracks begin to show is at Christmas.

So there’s a sort of double whammy of creating this amazing time, not spending too much, but also not being a Scrooge.

is it more stressful this year?

Yes. We are in the middle of an economic downturn and there is still the pressure to create the perfect Christmas.

You’re also worried about whether you’ve had the heating on too long. 

My elderly parents are certainly thinking twice about it.

The pressure has doubled down and you find yourself thinking: ‘What if it isn’t a great Christmas?‘ or ‘What’s wrong with me?

Why aren’t I happy like the rest of the world?’. In fact, the rest of the world is thinking the same.

The festive season is very strange like that. Coming in, you should be happy and making a fresh start. Also, 10 years ago who knew we all had a credit rating?

Suddenly it’s something you have to worry about. We are confined by something that’s almost entirely artificial and has been sort of forced on us.

what are you like at Christmas?

I’m a gay man in a relationship, so we don’t really have those same pressures, and we’ve often just taken ourselves off for a nice weekend or something. 

But I remember seeing it in my parents when I was growing up and looking back, I see things I didn’t understand as a kid. 

My grandma had quite severe, MS and my granddad was her main carer, but somehow on Christmas Day, he produced dinner for 12. That must have created a great amount of stress.

As kids we took it for granted.

what causes the stress?

Everyone wants their children to have the most magical Christmas.

Then there’s the pressure for the extended family to come together and siblings might not get on, but because its Christmas, you have to.

Very few people are motivated by just pleasing themselves at Christmas.

how has the Playhouse evolved?

After last Christmas, we took a break to think about how to do things better.

We used to set up a theatre in a different venue for each production, but decided it would be good to have a home, so people know where we are.

This is the second production in our new home at The Hithe. It’s a hub for startup businesses  and we’ve got one of the biggest studios upstairs.

We wouldn’t normally be able to afford it, but I approached them and made the case – because the owners are tuned into our philosophy of lifelong learning and trying to keep theatre alive, they have let us have it for just under market rent.

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s home at The Hithe

why did you want a home?

We used to move around because, as Covid lost its grip, there were lots of institutions and buildings, which needed to show the public they had opened again – a play was a good way of getting people through the doors.

That’s become less useful now and it’s more useful for the community to know there’s a place where every school holiday, there’ll be something for kids for free.

If people choose, they can come back and see some of the greatest plays ever written with tickets you can afford.

does the future feel more secure?

I think so. We’re very reliant on people’s goodwill and it’s taken a little while to build that up. We had a good momentum but then disappeared for six months so we need to build up the audience members again. 

This project is not entirely make-or-break, but if we can’t turn the corner with a production of The Wizard of Oz, then we are doing something wrong.

We’ll sit down at the end of this and look very carefully at the box office figures and hopefully, the books will tell us people are enjoying coming and we should continue. 

I suspect we will carry on. There’s enough interest in the project that we can keep building it. The ultimate goal is to get everyone paid properly and make it sustainable.

is The Christmas Wife a gamble?

Yes. Will people exhausted from work want to see it? I don’t know. The other reason I decided on The Wizard of Oz is that’s such a well-known title and hopefully, the 50 seats will fill themselves. 

It will be an added bonus if people come back for the drama, which will have 30 seats.

is it still a minimalist set?

Yes. I don’t want to do those great, long lumbering, stodgy productions with bits of scenery cranking about.

At its heart, this is about an audience sat around in a semicircle, with very good actors telling a story very clearly and carrying people along with it. 

is it hard to find actors these days?

The arts are still decimated after Covid, so many people have left the profession because there was no work and a lot of them have stayed in permanent jobs. 

There’s a shortage of actors who want to give up long-term stable employment to take a short-term contract.

We try to keep rehearsals and performances outside of office hours so it’s possible to maintain your survival job and also practice your craft.

do you still have a day job?

Yes, I’m still also a professional journalist, but this has become more my main job, although it doesn’t pay like it.

It wouldn’t operate without a high level of focus on my part. 

I’d like to delegate more, but you need a certain calibre of person that you are happy to leave things to.

We are so open to anyone getting involved. Even if you don’t have any experience and would like to volunteer,  we will teach you.

plans for 2023?

It is quite dependent on how people react to these plays. 

The only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that every holiday and half-term I want to do a piece of kids theatre where the tickets are free for kids so that they don’t just go to the theatre a couple of times during their childhood. 

I want it to be something they can do regularly so that it demystifies the process and it makes it feel natural and comfortable.

Read more: Greenwich Theatre villain takes the panto reins

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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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Canada Water: How British Land is building a new, 53-acre town centre for Rotherhithe

As the first concrete cores rise, we take a snapshot of the mammoth mixed regeneration project

An artist’s impression of British Land’s new bridge over Canada Water

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Before we begin our walk across the 53 acres that British Land (BL) is regenerating on Rotherhithe peninsula, Roger Madelin indulges in a raspberry croissant at Canada Water Cafe (only £2.70 for those who fancy a treat).

The place is packed. Local residents are meeting, chatting and working at tables. It’s the kind of image developers like to mock up on computers to show the thriving neighbourhoods their schemes will hopefully create.

It’s also cause for Roger to reflect on the fact that BL has a very rare opportunity at Canada Water – a project it describes as a chance to “build London’s first new town centre in 50 years” at the heart of a mature, expectant community. 

Carpeted with mostly suburban housing in the first flush of Docklands regeneration, the area is already home to residents, increasingly attracted by its close proximity to both the central London and Canary Wharf, thanks to the Jubilee line, but also to east and south London via the Overground.

Roger tells me it’s within 45 minutes of more places in the capital than anywhere else.

As joint head of Canada Water at BL, there’s a glint in his eye as he talks about the firm’s ambitions for the area.

Having spent 29 years at developer Argent overseeing the projects across the country such as Brindleyplace in Birmingham and the rebirth of King’s Cross in north London, there’s a sense that he couldn’t quite resist this one.

“BL noticed I was leaving Argent and asked if I wanted to come and run Canada Water,” he said.

“At first I was sceptical, I didn’t want to do a residential development, which is what I thought it would be.

“But then I came down here and realised it would be an opportunity to build a new town centre – what an extraordinary privilege.

“Then you get to ask what that is and I think it’s about health, environment and sustainability.

“Everyone in the world should regard urban places as very important and I think both Canada Water and Canary Wharf can be exemplars for how to reposition areas as urban centres.”

British Land’s joint head of Canada Water, Roger Madelin

While Canary Wharf continues its transition from pure business district to a place that’s home to companies, residential housing and a potent blend of leisure and hospitality attractions, Canada Water is still in the first chapter of its journey.

Concrete cores are rising on the first of its new buildings, which will include a new leisure centre for the area and social housing on the site’s eastern periphery. 

But these first structures are very much the vanguard in what will be a transformation of a plot that includes the whole of Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, the old Harmsworth Quay Printworks and connects Southwark Park with Greenland Dock and Russia Dock Woodland.

“With the planning permission we have, we can create a new urban centre,” said Roger.

“We have the ability to flex from 3million sq ft of commercial space to 4million – likewise we can build a minimum of 2,000 homes or a maximum of just under 4,000.

“Similarly, we can build up to 1million sq ft of retail and leisure space – we may not do that, but it will be a substantial amount. With the current shopping centre and leisure park, the area has about 350,000sq ft.

“As an overview, we’ll have about 35 new buildings, 20 acres of new public space and a 3.5-acre park.

“Many of our buildings will be five storeys high to protect the view of St Paul’s from Greenwich, so this will be on a human scale and I think that will attract people.

“The development I was involved with at King’s Cross has more people going there at weekends than to work during the week.

“There are dozens of places around London that are teeming with people on Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s great for people that live in them, but we also want people living outside to come here and enjoy themselves.”

British Land intends to preserve The Printworks building as a cultural venue

That attitude has doubtless been bolstered by the success of event and music venue Printworks, which has seen Harmsworth Quays’ immense press halls regularly fill with revellers enjoying some of the very best electronic music in London.

While originally conceived as a temporary use for the vast building in partnership with Broadwick Live, the plan is now to preserve the venue as part of the overall scheme, enclosing and enlarging the existing building and creating a park next to it.

“I credit my wife entirely for the decision to explore retaining the whole building,” said Roger.

“She and I walked round here in the summer of 2015 and she immediately saw the amazing opportunity it presented and asked what we were going to do with it.

“I said the assumption was that we would knock it down because it looked a bit harsh but she said we shouldn’t because nothing like it would get built again.

“Today, of course, you’d start with that assumption because of all the embodied carbon in the building.

“That was a little in my mind at the time, but not as much as today, when the view is where possible you don’t touch existing buildings.

“So, after three years of investigations – drilling, digging and studying – we’re pretty confident it was built a lot better than we even hoped, so we have applied for planning permission to keep it and extend it.

“If that’s successful, we’ll aim to be opening it by the end of 2025 – an amazing cultural venue to complement the others in the city.

“We already know the acoustics are extraordinary, whether it’s an electronic music event or a BBC Prom, both of which have been hosted there.”

Another artist’s impression of how The Printworks could look

This article is, naturally, far too short to do justice to the extent and depth of BL’s Canada Water project.

Even a brief walk to its borders reveals the sheer scale of the project, with plans for a new pedestrian bridge across Canada Water itself, which will also include work to boost wetland habitats and see the water level pumped up.

Already there’s been space made for charitable endeavours, work to help boost startups and a facelift for Surrey Quays Shopping Centre itself, including wallball courts and a new climbing wall.

Then there’s investment in a modular building for TEDI-London – a new higher education enterprise co-funded by King’s College London, Arizona State University and UNSW Sydney and focused on engineering – that was erected in only six weeks.

While some of these are temporary benefits, they significantly add to the buzz of the area and provide a flavour of BL’s direction of travel as the wider project continues to unfold.

“If we could do something here with applied engineering higher education, that would excite me,” said Roger.

“How we deal with the world always involves engineers sorting stuff out and I think, in the UK, the sector has had a bad rap in the past. 

“The other things I think are crucial is what we do with the new high street, which will be along Deal Porters Way – what it means to build a space like that now and how we create the public spaces and routes to the amazing parks, docks and woods that are already here.

“We want to make it so that if you have nothing on your agenda for the weekend and you want to stay in London, then you’ll just go to Canada Water and all the amazing stuff that’s there.

“King’s Cross is great – I think this will be bigger, better and greener from a public space point of view.”

An artist’s impression of the first phase from Canada Water station

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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Rotherhithe: Why UK Wallball is launching courts at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre

Organisation’s CEO wants facility to be used as an urban playground to help boost Londoners’ activity

The courts have been installed at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre
The courts have been installed at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre

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Sunlight streams down onto the freshly minted wallball courts at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre.

I bounce the rubber ball and slap it vigorously with my hand.

My opponent steps in, makes an easy return, I dash forward striking the yellow sphere deftly into the bottom right hand corner of the wall, where it bounces back into the court and lands stone dead. The point is mine.

I lose all the other points, of course, but then my opponent is founder and CEO of UK Wallball and a former European No. 1 singles champion. So I don’t feel too bad.

Dan Grant and the governing body for the sport he runs are on a mission to get as many people as possible outside, active and bouncing balls against walls.

Installed in partnership with British Land, the two UK Wallball courts on the Rotherhithe Peninsula will be free to use (if you’ve brought your own ball) and can be turned to any number of game variations following their forthcoming launch on May 12, 2022.

Dan said: “Wallball is a simple, accessible sport where you hit a ball against a wall with your hands. Lots of people will have done it at school – called it pat-ball, Eton Fives, one-wall handball – there are lots of different names for it, but ‘wallball’ is the one they play around the world.

“This is the one wall version and it’s the international standard.

“Basically, you have one big rectangle marked out on the wall and one big rectangle on the floor. The main thing is – all you need to do is hit the ball with either hand so that it hits the wall and lands in the court.

“It can bounce once before it’s hit again and then you rally away until it either bounces twice or it goes out.

“The way it’s scored is that you get a point for each rally won on your serve – if you lose the rally then it’s your opponent’s serve. Games are usually played up to 11, 15 or 21 points.

“The easiest way to think of it is that it’s like playing squash against one wall – but there’s no line to hit it above, so you can hit it low and kill the ball.

“For the service, the ball has to hit the wall and land in the back half of the court and then it can land anywhere in the box.

“There’s also a blocking rule – if I hit the ball and then don’t move, I’m a legitimate obstruction that the other player has to try and get around.

“You can’t rugby tackle the other person out of the way – it’s a non contact sport – so they have to get round you to get the ball back.”

UK Wallball CEO Dan Grant pictured at the new courts

Having travelled the world playing the game Dan subsequently trained as a doctor, so his interest in promoting sport goes beyond pure publicity and is firmly rooted in the physical and mental benefits of outdoor activity. 

“Our aim at UK Wallball is to try to get as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible active.

“In cities where grey space is increasing and green space is disappearing, we think people should use walls for things like this.

“There are official rules, but our motto is: ‘Any wall, any ball, anytime’. We don’t care how people use the courts, so long as they are being used.

“If people want to invent their own rules, they absolutely can. This whole space at Surrey Quays can be used for a lot of other things – not just traditional wallball.”

The Rotherhithe installation is the first multi-court facility for free use in the country.

Alongside the two playing areas is a third space where those waiting to have a go can hang out, spectator searing and a vending machine selling balls and gloves.

Dan said: “Last year, we did our first proper community court at Bankside, which was also a really vibrant installation.

“That was us working with the Jack Petchey Foundation to target young people in London.

“When it went up it got a lot of media traction, which was awesome. I think a lot of people during the pandemic realised exercise in the open air was a pretty good thing, and that wallball is cheap too – in fact, if you have your own ball, it’s free.

“Off the back of that, British Land, which is regenerating the area around Surrey Quays and Canada Water, saw it, thought it was pretty cool and got us down to find out if they could do something for the community here.

“I persuaded them that they should and so we’ve installed the courts.

“We got our artist back – Dan Gurney – to make them look great. I really like his geometric approach. It works really well in an urban space.

“When you do this kind of thing, you want the courts to feel like they belong, so the design is inspired by both the greenery and the docks on the Rotherhithe peninsula.

“We’ll also have posters telling people how to play and how the design of the courts fits into the local area.

“The way we think of it is as an urban amphitheatre – yes, we want it to be used for wallball, but other sports and arts organisations can get in touch with us and use the space as well.

“It’s also that street to elite philosophy – I want a kid who’s played on these courts, hasn’t had to pay for anything apart maybe for a couple of quid for a ball and then for them to go on and play for Team GB. That would be really cool.”

A vending machine will sell balls on site or players can bring their own
A vending machine will sell balls on site or players can bring their own

Dan, who works as a doctor in emergency medicine and medtech, believes wallball could be the next big thing in the UK – something he believes would be beneficial to the health of the nation should urban environments embrace it. 

“Everything we’ve learnt over the last few years suggests it will catch on in the UK,” he said.

“It’s already big in Ireland, Spain and the Basque Country – it’s huge in the USA. In New York there are 2,500 courts. Wallball is taking off here too. 

“We’ve started working with schools over the past couple of years and the kids love it. It’s not just sport either – when we put a court in a school we can give them a blank canvas and they can design it, so there’s a creative element there too.

“Our ethos is that it’s not super-serious. 

“Of course, there are pathways for GB Juniors to go straight to the top, but if you just want to turn up and play, that’s fine too.

“I feel like if the kids are enjoying it, then that’s good for all of us.

“As a doctor I’m interested in prevention. We know that if you’re just active and walking around, then that’s really good for you.

“As you travel you see people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds have the worst outcomes in terms of health. So, having an urban space that feels safe and fun is much better than the alternative.”

The UK Wallball courts at Surrey Quays are set to launch on May 12, 2022, from 1pm-3pm.

The courts will be in place on an ongoing basis.

Read more: APT in Deptford seeks trustees to sit on its charity board

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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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Canada Water: What Squid Markets’ Canada Water Market offers shoppers

Company behind Wapping Docklands Market expands to Deal Porter Square, south of the Thames

Canada Water Market on its very first day of trading

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Not to be confused with South Korean ultraviolent Netflix phenomenon Squid Game, Squid Markets has reached a milestone.

On the first birthday of its first successful project – Wapping Docklands Market at Brussels Wharf – it unveiled a second, this time south of the Thames. 

Even for its first iteration on Easter Sunday (April 17, 2022), it was clear Canada Water Market is the right thing in the right place. 

Despite hordes of Londoners heading off to see families, the traders, street food vendors and refreshment stalls were doing brisk business at Deal Porter Square – something that will doubtless continue as the market is set to run every Sunday outside the library from 10am until 4pm.

It offers visitors a heady blend of live music, cuisines from around the world, German beer, wine, baked goods, fresh produce, crafts and art – a place to shop, but also to meet, eat, drink and be merry as the sun sparkles on the waters of the nearby dock.

Squid Markets founder Will Cutteridge

The divide created by the Thames itself was indirectly the inspiration for Squid’s latest venture – a physical obstacle that Londoners have been working to overcome (somewhat unsuccessfully) for hundreds of years.

While previous generations have tried tunnelling to connect Wapping and Rotherhithe, for Squid founder Will Cutteridge the solution was simpler – take what already works in one location and replicate it in another.

“We know at Wapping Docklands Market that the majority of our customers come from north of the river,” he said.

“So I thought we should have a market south of the Thames but in relatively close proximity to our first operation. 

“That way we’re able to start to grow the brand both in east and south-east London. That’s when I started looking for sites – literally on Google Maps, zooming into open spaces.

“Because London is so densely packed, if there’s a large open space it’s pretty obvious and I began looking in Rotherhithe and Deal Porter Square seemed the obvious place to do it – it was the right sort of area for what we’re offering.”

Art by Ed J Bucknall on sale at the market – more here

With swathes of regeneration already completed – and a great deal more in pipeline – the peninsula has seen a steady increase in population with new businesses and ventures arriving in the area. So what is Squid bringing to that mix?

“Canada Water is, like Wapping, primarily a food market,” said Will.

“We want people to come and do their weekly shop with us, get all their fruit and veg, their bread and all the standard items, while also grabbing a coffee and catching up with their neighbours.

“One of the most exciting things that we’ve seen at Wapping is that it has brought the local community together.

“People who live in the same building, right across the corridor from each other and have never spoken, have met at the market, and I think that’s the joy of something like this.

“That’s exactly what we want to create at Canada Water – something that brings people together in an old-fashioned way. 

“I think that’s important in this day and age, because people don’t talk to each other in London very much and the market provides a friendly environment where they can.

Produce from Chegworth Valley is also available – more here

“You go to the supermarket, pick up a bunch of carrots and put them in your basket, and it’s not very immersive or interactive.

“If you buy a bunch of carrots from our Chegworth Valley stall, the team running it all live and work on the farm – they pick the fruit, plant the seeds, and you’re meeting the people who grow your food – you have a dialogue with them, come back every week and it’s always the same people.

“We also have a small craft section in all our markets, because we tend to find that there’s a lot of local people who have a side gig making things.

“For example, we have a a guy who hand-makes all his terrariums – Plant And Person – which is quite cool.

“Hosting those pitches is a great way to get local businesses to the market, and it provides a bit of variety in addition to the food itself.

“We also have a local artist – Ed Bucknall – who sells his works, and one lady who takes all of our empty bottles from the wine stall at the end of the day and uses them to make candles.

Cheese from The French Comte – more here

“Street food is, of course, a critical part of our operation – visitors to the market can do their shopping and then listen to some live music, have a beer or a glass of wine and then grab a pizza, some curry, steak or a wide variety of Asian food.

“There’s also a guy selling Portuguese sandwiches and vegan Caribbean food from Joy’s Caribbean Fusion, so there’s a lot to choose from.

“Our plan is to have a total of 35 traders here, which is enough to provide a really good mix of food, produce and services – we’re always on the look out for new traders, so anyone interested should get in touch.

“We might have re-branded, but we remain hugely passionate about sustainability – it’s incredibly challenging but it’s something we remain focused on.

“One of the ways in which Squid does this is to find small businesses through its markets and help them build their brands nationally – we’re always seeking really interesting food producers that we can go into partnership with.”

Spinach rolls for £4 from Rodgis – more here

Read more: How Canada Water Dockside will transform Rotherhithe

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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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Rotherhithe: How Phil Willmott’s Rotherhithe Playhouse delivers classics

Born in lockdown the theatre company is currently staging its fifth production and looking to the future

Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse
Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

When life fell apart, Phil Willmott found himself broke and bored.

The Rotherhithe resident went from being one of the most commissioned theatre writers in the UK as well as a director, artistic director, composer, librettist, teacher, arts journalist and actor to, well, a man sat in a room.

As he has done since childhood, the 55-year-old turned to theatre, launching Rotherhithe Playhouse just after the first lockdown.

It started with Hamlet on the riverside and progressed to A Christmas Carol, the Rotherhithe Gospels and Great Expectations, each performed in a different open air location with sets built from recycled and found materials.

Current production The Macbeths runs until November 6 in the courtyard of The Ship in Rotherhithe with three shows planned for the Christmas period.

We sat down to find out more about the man behind the company.

How did Rotherhithe Playhouse start?

As a kid, theatre was really important to me. I didn’t go to a particularly good school so I would take myself off on Saturday afternoons to see plays and musicals at Bristol Old Vic. 

It was how I learnt about the world. When Covid closed all the theatres, I realised there was a real danger of a whole generation of kids never being taken to the theatre, who will have never seen the plays they are studying. 

I felt the longer the pandemic went on, the more people would get out of the habit of going to the theatre, so an entire art form could die away. 

There is a beautiful riverfront outside my window so I thought I would get some actors together and we would go and do Hamlet down there.

It was very simply staged and the audience was really transported by it. I just thought we had to keep it going.

What makes it different from a conventional theatre?

Each production is in a different venue in Rotherhithe to help bring them to a wider public. I don’t think I would be interested in the nuts and bolts of running a permanent venue but each month we build a new theatre from scratch – it’s very exciting and you can adapt the performance to the site you are in and make it very special.

Tickets are free if you access food banks or subsidised school meals and for everyone else we run the Pay What You Can scheme. That way I hope it will always be affordable for people to take their kids to see a magnificent piece of literature, which is really life enhancing.

The other innovative thing we do is with the creatives. Because of the pandemic, lots of them took proper full-time jobs and now they find it impossible to give them up for short-term theatre commitments. So we only work outside of office hours so they can participate.

Phil’s interest in theatre was sparked by pantomime – image Matt Grayson

What sparked your interest in theatre?

Pantomime. I was taken as an annual treat and I used to sit there intently watching it so that for months, as I fell asleep, I could run it in my mind. 

I came from quite a working class background in Bristol so there was no-one to explain theatre to me. I assumed it was just the actors. It didn’t occur to me that someone wrote and directed and designed it.

I thought I wanted to be an actor and trained for three years and was relatively successful playing, ironically, upper class twits in light entertainment and ended up in a Science Fiction soap opera Jupiter Moon that they used to launch Sky. 

It was a fantastic cast with people like Anna Chancellor and Jamie Glover. I have never laughed so much and made lifelong friends. But after that, I realised acting wasn’t for me.

I started writing plays and sent one in a brown envelope literally addressed to The BBC, London and a fantastic producer picked it up and they did it on Radio 4. One day I wanted someone to direct a version of it and I decided to have a go myself. Ever since I have had this three-pronged career.

I prefer theatre, as being on TV is more like being in a factory. Theatre is a knife edge and I still feel that now times ten because every day is fighting fires. I just wish I could make a living at it on its own.

How did lockdown affect you?

It was truly shocking and even now I’m struggling to acclimatise. I hadn’t been unemployed for 30 years. Suddenly it all stopped and, from an incredibly busy, stressful life there was just me, sat in a room. I was forced to say: “I’m not my career. Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I want to happen?”.

I discovered I had to make theatre because it was in my blood but I had to find a new way of doing it for life, during and after this wretched pandemic.

Before, I was glued to my diary and didn’t know who I was. Now, ironically, because of this project, I’m still a person rushing around putting on plays but I know why. It was a chance to throw it all up in the air and decide what I wanted to take from my old life into my new life. 

Also, for the first time in my life, I became penniless. I wasn’t wealthy before but never in my life, even as a student, had I had to stop and think: “Can I afford a coffee?”.

That was very sobering and fuelled me to think about how I could help other people in this situation. There are many wonderful people running food banks but I think as humans we have to be a bit more than that.

Why did you choose to perform classics?

I always assume people will be sick of things like Macbeth or Great Expectations and know them inside and backwards. 

But people come who have no idea of the story and who have never heard them and it’s so exciting to give people their first experience of these incredible pieces of work.

Shakespeare is this miraculous, ridiculous phenomenon because there are these words and every time you go back to them they mean something different. It’s endlessly rich and rewarding. 

Have you discovered any parallels between your latest production and your present situation?

Completely. Macbeth starts off with a very certain trajectory and then everything falls apart and it comes from an unexpected quarter, his encounter with the three witches, which feels a bit like our encounter with this strange disease which came out of nowhere.

He’s ruthless and violent and I’m not those things but we were all brought up to think about career and how we advance and get a better job.

Then, suddenly that rug is pulled away and we are in the situation that Macbeth is in. What does he pursue and what feels wrong? Of course he makes all the wrong choices, but watching him do that tells us a lot about our lives and our choices.

Are you happy with your choices?

I’m making the best choices I can and struggling every day to do it better. When we started, nobody showed up and now it has a little fanbase, so I’m sure there is a need for it. But it is endlessly exhausting not having any money.

Everything has to be found on the street or bought in the pound shop. There’s no way it can make money, unless it’s very heavily subsidised, because the pop-up theatres we make seat a maximum of 60 people. 

I haven’t taken another job so far, but will have to change that because it’s impossible to keep living on £20 a week. I just know we have to always be there for our community. So, no matter what, they can go to the theatre and see something fantastic.

How has the community responded?

It’s very difficult to get places to perform. I’m quite cross with some people who won’t let me put our theatre up in their forecourt. It’s troubling and has been a bit of an eye-opener.

Organisations that you think would go out of their way to help you find all sorts of by-laws and nonsense in order to justify saying no. But we are winning people over.

We need about 5m by 9m for our marquee and, if you give us that, we will create something magical for your part of the community. We don’t even need your electricity supply as we run everything on batteries.

What other help do you need?

We had a fantastic general manager, who has now moved on, so I’m looking. I feel there might be recent retirees out there who’d like to learn to project manage one show a year.

My absolute dream would be just to worry about what happened on stage. Also, if anyone has any money and would like to sponsor us, they would be contributing to something wonderful.

Will you perform any new plays?

I only want people who come to see masterpieces – nothing second rate because a bad theatre experience can mean you don’t go for the next 10 years.

I might write something about Doctor Salter and his wife who have statues on the riverbank because not many people know about them. They really suffered for what they believed but stayed and improved the area for everyone. 

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