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St Katharine Docks: How Dockside Vaults delivers premium event space underground

Former Medieval banqueting experience has been reimagined as a blank canvas for all kinds of uses

Dockside Vaults is located at Ivory House in St Katharine Docks

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The legacy of global trade has left its mark across east London in vast spaces created to handle the wealth of cargo that once flowed up the Thames.

There were huge docks to safely berth the ships, wharves to unload them and warehouses to store and protect the goods and commodities.

The ongoing regeneration of Docklands has seen this infrastructure repurposed in myriad ways – as housing, accommodation for yachts, bars, hotels, restaurants, watersports centres and many more.  

With many of the spaces being of a significant size and well connected to the rest of London, several have been reimagined as events venues.

The latest of these to launch is Dockside Vaults, a 10,000sq ft underground space beneath Ivory House in St Katharine Docks.

Built in 1852, the building is the only original warehouse still standing in the area and is today filled with residential apartments and restaurants at ground level.

Apt, perhaps, that its brick vaulted basement, which was once used to store imported barrels of wine is once again being used for hospitality and entertaining, having been the site of a Henry VIII-themed Medieval banqueting experience for decades.

“Funnily enough they were doing an immersive show long before the likes of Secret Cinema and those theatre concepts,” said Ben Gamble.

“The banqueting started in the 1970s with a fine dining, silver service dinner – but by the time it closed it certainly wasn’t that.

“It had become a tourist trap – all you could eat and drink for £30.”

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Dockside Vaults is offering Wharf Life readers 50% off venue hire for events of 50 to 450 people that are booked and held before the end of 2023 – perfect for last-minute festive celebrations. The venue still has some availability before Christmas 2023. T&Cs apply. 

Go to docksidevaults.com for more information or to book
Ben Gamble, owner of Dockside Vaults

The space, however, was what interested Ben.

Having initially locked on to a career as a fighter pilot with the RAF, a shortage of training places prompted a rethink and he fell into the events industry after landing a job with the London Film Museum, having hawked his CV around the capital in search of gainful employment.

After establishing it as a venue for corporate shindigs at County Hall on the banks of the Thames, he left to start his own events business shortly after its relocation to Covent Garden.

“Having been involved with the owners to launch that and at a point I was just about to be earning good money, I handed in my resignation to start by own business,” he said. 

“During my time at the museum I’d met a lot of events companies and had realised they were the ones with the big clients, big budgets.

“It seemed, as venue finders, all they would do is come round with the client and talk about the blooming obvious, which of course is not how it is at all.

“But I’d built up enough contacts, spoken to a few of them and told them I was thinking of doing my own thing.

“I asked them if they would trust me to find their venues.

“So that was the initial idea – it seemed like there was a gap in the market.

“I realised that everyone had been everywhere, so there was a need for a company that specialised in finding venues that had never been used before. 

“So that’s what I did for seven years and then the pandemic shut down the industry.”

The venue is in St Katharine Docks

His company, Shout About London, worked across the capital often as a pioneer at venues such as Southwark Cathedral, the Archbishop Of Canterbury’s private library and at the Leadenhall Building, making a point of aiming to be the first company to bring clients into a space.

Gradually the business shifted to representing venues for longer periods of time and working with well-known institutions such as the V&A to create events around new exhibitions or attractions. 

The evolution continued as Ben’s firm shifted into creative production and wound up managing several venues exclusively in the run-up to Covid.

“I actually signed a lease with a nightclub in January 2020 in London Fields, which was bad timing for me – it’s no longer there,” he said.

“Then the pandemic happened, so I went to UCL and did an MBA for two years.

“With hindsight, it was a perfect use of my time as I’ve been able to employ that knowledge in my new events and venue consultancy Nylon Pie, and now Dockside.”

The 450-capacity venue opened in September and features 10 alcoves all joined by an expansive central concourse, which can be used for events with 50 guests or more. 

The venue is a blank canvas for clients to use

“I first saw the venue when I started Nylon Pie and I really liked the space,” said Ben.

“It was still full of mediaeval gear for the banquets so it needed emptying and modernising. Now it’s 10,000sq ft of premium event space with 150-year-old exposed brickwork.

“Tower Hill is synonymous with the old and the new – you have the Tower Of London and Tower Bridge with The Shard in the background.

“We’re from the same period as Tobacco Dock but we’ve got large TVs at the end of each of our alcoves and lighting where the colours can be changed at the touch of a button. 

“Having great audio and visual tech is important and we have in-house microphones if people want to do speeches, too.

“The idea is that everything is plug-in and play.

“Of course, if you’ve got a big budget, we can do projection mapping on the brickwork and go all out – but if you don’t, we can operate on a minimum spend basis at the bar.

“We’re a cashless venue, but we’re also the largest venue in London to take payment in Bitcoin.

“So far we’ve done about 20 events including screenings of things like the Rugby World Cup – we had 450 South Africans here for the final. 

“First and foremost we’re a corporate events space, however, and we’ve worked with Identify – one of the best events management companies in the UK – on a two-day conference. 

“That showed a good use of the space, for smaller immersive events with 150 to 200 people.

“The alcoves can be used as breakout spaces and can easily be given a personal touch with branding, signs or logos.

“We’re also keen to be a part of the local community – not a closed door – and we’d love people to get in touch.” 

Find out more about Dockside Vaults 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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Wapping: How Northeastern University London is set to grow at St Katharine Docks

Expansion is on the agenda as seat of learning prepares to launch dually validated degrees in 2023

Northeastern University London is based at Devon House in St Katharine Docks
Northeastern University London is based at Devon House in St Katharine Docks

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“I want studying here to be filled with new experiences, meeting people and fun – a place which our students will remember as one where they grew intellectually, socially and personally and which allowed them to have choices,” said Rob Farquharson, CEO of Northeastern University London (NU London).

Founded in 2012 by the philosopher and writer AC Grayling as the New College Of The Humanities (NCH), the institution has been through a period of growth and development in a relatively short space of time – not least its arrival at St Katharine Docks.

In 2019 it was acquired by Northeastern University, an American seat of learning based in Boston, but with 11 regional campuses in the US and a clear mission to expand globally.

Then in 2020, NCH was first granted the right to award its own degrees and then to legally call itself a university – both after lengthy assessment processes.

Having outgrown its original premises in Bloomsbury, in 2021 it moved to Devon House – a modern warehouse-style building on the banks of the Thames overlooking Tower Bridge. 

It’s an apt location on the site of the historic Bull’s Head pub where it’s not impossible to imagine thirsty Brits finding refreshment as they prepared to emigrate to America over the Atlantic from the nearby docks.

Today, NU London’s presence represents fresh connection between the area and the US, as it looks to the future with the sensitive retirement of the NCH name.

Northeastern University London CEO Rob Farquharson
Northeastern University London CEO Rob Farquharson

“Boston and London are the two pre-eminent seats of higher education in the world,” said Rob.

“One of Northeastern’s key drivers is international expansion – being able to offer its students and staff a global experience.

“You have to connect with the world and understand it to make a positive impact and Northeastern doesn’t want to be constrained by a single location.

“We’re the first campus outside North America, but I can guarantee we won’t be the last. Northeastern wants to have a global student body and to give people the opportunity to study in different locations and experience different cultures – you need to have that physical presence on the ground to facilitate that.

“We moved to St Katherine Docks for more space and we’re just about to take another building here for use as office space so we can grow even further.

“We’ve added a lot of non-humanities, non-social science subjects to the ones we already teach – we now offer courses in business, engineering, chemistry and physics, for example. 

“There’s a big emphasis on artificial intelligence, partly because that bridges the history we have in humanities and the strengths Northeastern has in Boston, such as computer science and data science.

“At the moment we have about 1,200 students in London and we aim to have about 1,500 by the end of the year.

“In September 2023, we’ll be launching dually validated degrees, which we’re very excited about. It means students will be studying for degrees that are accredited in both the UK and the US.

“The structure for those at the moment is that in the second semester of the second year, students will have the option to study in North America – in Boston or at a West Coast campus, although it’s not compulsory.

The university boasts extensive facilities at Devon House
The university boasts extensive facilities at Devon House

“Students will also be able to do a fourth year in the US as their degrees tend to be four years and there will be an option to do a masters there too.

“One of the reasons we need more space is so we can create facilities such as wet labs for students who want to come over here from the US to study as part of their course. 

“We won’t be able to cover the full range of courses they have in Boston, but we do want to allow students to have some time in London and we want to be able to support them.”

At present, NU London offers undergraduate degrees, masters degrees and apprenticeship courses designed to help businesses develop their workforces.

NU London is also eager to play its part in the local community as it grows and expands its offering, whether that’s welcoming local residents on its degree courses or helping others gain new skills.

“We have students with us who are residents of Tower Hamlets, but we’re keen to get local people from all the boroughs around here and we want to be a valued member of the community,” said Rob.

“If anyone has any ideas how we can do that, then we’re more than happy to hear from them.

“One thing that we do is work with the GLA and the Department For Education to run free digital boot camps. These are open nationwide, but we’re particularly keen for local residents to join.

“The next one starts in January and it’s a 13-week programme for people aged 19 and over, to help them understand a bit more about the digital skills they may need for a career or a new or different job.”

The boot camp is run in partnership with cloud platform ServiceNow, which counts government agencies, prominent consultancies and major brands among its clients.

“We love being here at St Katharine Docks,” said Rob. “It’s a little oasis – close enough to the busy areas of the City, The Highway and Commercial Road if you want to go there, but quiet so you can study.

NUL moved to St Katharine Docks in 2021

“We feel we’ve become part of the community but hope to go further still.

“One of our key priorities is widening participation, to make sure that under-represented groups have the ability, the ambition and the understanding to be able to go to university.

“We have staff whose job it is to spread the word locally.

“They visit primary schools, secondary schools and colleges in Tower Hamlets and other boroughs to demystify university – especially for those whose family members have not been.

“We want them to know that they can come here, meet a diverse group of people and have choices.

“Some might want to make money in financial services while others might want to be social workers.

“What we want is to give them the ability to make those choices.

“Once they are here, we have a careers team that supports students from the practical side of things – writing CVs and interviews – through to clubs and societies.

“We’ve just launched an entrepreneur club, which will bring in recent graduates who have started businesses as well as people from funding organisations.

“We also have programmes which give students an idea of how businesses work. Your passion might be English Literature, but it’s useful to know other things as well.

“You may want to be an English professor, but that involves working at a university, which is a business that pays people and spends a budget – It’s about having that depth.”

NU London is set to host an open day for prospective students on November 26, 2022.

NUL is expanding its offering as it prepares to launch dual UK and US degrees

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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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Wapping: Why photographer Jonathan Goldberg travels to islands in the Thames

Jonathan will present a talk about his work at the Classic Boat Festival in St Katharine Docks

Photographer Jonathan Goldberg
Photographer Jonathan Goldberg

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Did you know there are 180 islands in the River Thames? That’s 180 mysterious pockets of land most of us will never set foot on.

If your interest has been piqued, you’re in good company, because I was enthralled when photographer Jonathan Goldberg began to tell me of his journey into the unknown.

He has visited 65 islands over the last four years for his series Estuary Hopes, Upstream Dreams, which captures life on their shores including an abandoned torpedo factory and an artists commune.

“I’ve always been fascinated by islands in general, and my projects are often based around my backyard,” said the Willesden Green resident.

“Other photographers might want to go to exotic locations and travel far, but that leaves a big carbon footprint and there’s so much on your doorstep you might not know about. 

One of Jonathan's images of Taggs Island
One of Jonathan’s images of Taggs Island

“The Thames islands are every bit as intriguing as the more publicised locations precisely because they lie under the radar. 

“I’m always quite fascinated by things that are seemingly so close yet a little bit hidden.”

He will be sharing details of his journey at St Katharine Docks this summer as part of the Classic Boat Festival, which in turn is part of the Totally Thames Festival.

The 49-year-old will be discussing his work with author and journalist Sasha Arms, whose book, Carl Goes London Islands informed his travels.

Some photographers do not have a predilection for verbosity and there is an argument that art should not be explained.

But Jonathan gallantly attempted to answer my questions about his travels, which he said gave him a greater awareness of the layers of history and many quirks to be found along the river.

His first stop was Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, one of 60 inhabited blobs of land in the Thames.

One of Jonathan's Eel Pie Island images
One of Jonathan’s Eel Pie Island images

“People of a certain age tend to know about it because it’s got a very colourful history,” he said.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a venue where a lot of the big music performers of the day played – The Who, Pink Floyd and David Bowie.

“It’s sort of private now, but it’s home to a lot of artists’ studios and they have an open day twice a year, so I went in the summer and it piqued my curiosity.”

He took the easier road (or waterway) next, travelling to the islands that are designated parkland or open to the public.

“I fixed on the people who frequented the islands and tried to find interesting and diverse characters and the everyday goings on,” he said.

One of his favourite discoveries was Tagg’s Island near Hampton. 

“It’s quite exotic-looking because the landscape gardener has planted numerous plants and there’s a lagoon in the middle of the island,” he said. 

“All around it are these houses which look really interesting because they are technically houseboats but never move – they are moored permanently.

“Something about the architecture is really ornate and quirky.”

The softly spoken photographer, who started his career on newspapers such as the Hendon Times and the Ham And High in the 1990s, was mostly welcomed ashore.

But he recalls one island that “looked like an 1980s housing estate” where his subjects were extremely reticent about appearing in front of the lens and all but escorted him back to the river after 30 minutes.

In contrast, he has spent “too much time” on Canvey Island and some of its most easterly neighbours.

One of Jonathan's images of Lots Ait
One of Jonathan’s images of Lots Ait

Jonathan said: “Sheppey is one of my favourite places to photograph because it feels rather like the end of the world and is a bit weird with loads of diverse things going on –  an industrial corner, a nudist beach, a tacky holiday resort and a nature reserve.”

The furthest west he has been is Osney, near Oxford, and Fry’s Island near Reading, which is almost entirely given over to the Island Bohemian Bowls Club.

He has plans to explore that area further, ahead of an exhibition in Henley next year which will showcase part two of the project.

“I’ll keep going because there are some islands that really interest me and I want to represent a few other facets of island life in my photos,” he said.

However, there are some islands he knows he will probably never get to set foot on.

“Magna Carta Island, which was where the Magna Carta was signed, has just one big mansion that’s owned by a private individual.

“I don’t feel like I’m going to get a chance to photograph that,” he said.

While that piece of history has been allowed to slip away from public view, others like Platt’s Eyot have benefited from their remoteness.

“It’s home to an enormous warehouse and used to be where World War Two torpedoes were constructed,” said Jonathan. 

“It’s semi-derelict but preserved, so they’re not allowed to knock it down. 

“I think that if this warehouse had been on the mainland it might have been demolished for housing.”

This project follows his series The Runway Stops Here, which documented a different kind of island – an ecological one. 

He spent five years visiting and photographing Grow Heathrow – a sustainable community living entirely off-grid in protest at the proposed expansion of the airport.

One of Jonathan's images of Trowlock Island
One of Jonathan’s images of Trowlock Island

“I would sit around the campfire, help out, make food and that played quite a formative role in my life,” he said.

“It was really great to hang out with a lot of people who were really committed to environmental protest and living sustainably.”

Jonathan said he is often lured by the siren call of the islands to make his own escape from mainstream society.

“I often get a real yearning to snap up a property and think it would be lovely to live there,” he said. “But then again, there are practicalities that need to be considered.

“Some have flooding issues, some you have to get a boat to and, in the winter, they’re not as appealing.”

For now, he’s happy to document these snippets of land that are imbued with so much history and encourage others to look more closely at the landscape around them.

“Hopefully, my pictures will encourage people to seek out places that are surrounded by nature and wildlife, look around more and have a greater interest in the natural world in the immediate vicinity,” he said.

“The islands are a really great place to be a bit more at one with nature because, with water all around, you are, by definition, surrounded by nature.

“You get an amplified sense of the changing seasons and time of day and beautiful sunsets and sunrises – a feeling of tranquillity.”

Thames Islands: Presentation and Discussion is set to take place on September 10 from 3pm-4.30pm. Entry is free.

A free exhibition of Estuary Hopes, Upstream Dreams will be held throughout September at Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford.

The Classic Boat Festival at St Katharine Docks
The Classic Boat Festival at St Katharine Docks

EVENTS + TALKS AT THE CLASSIC BOAT FESTIVAL

The free three-day boating extravaganza returns with around 40 vintage and preserved vessels assembling in the central basin of St Katharine Docks. 

They will include the Dunkirk Little Ships, Bates Starcraft and other working vessels. Visitors will be able to board some of them and meet their owners.

The festival is set to run September 9-11 in the afternoon (3pm-5.30pm) on the Friday, and from 11am-6pm on the Saturday and 11am-5pm on the Sunday.

The opening and closing will be marked each day with a salute of horns.

There will also be food stalls, entertainment, nautical goods and services available on Marble Quay. Talks will be held on the SKD events platform and include:

  • Tom Cunliffe – Fri, 4pm
  • The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana – Sat, noon
  • The history of St Katherine Docks with Dr Oliver Ayers – Sat, 1.30pm
  • Thames Islands – Sat, 3pm
  • Gloriana as above – Sun, noon
  • Association of Dunkirk Little Ships – Sun, 3pm

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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