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Stratford: How Awoke Plants is serving up peat-free greenery to east Londoners

Sioḃán Wall’s mini-garden centre can be found at View Tube on the edge of the Olympic Park

Sioḃán Wall, founder of Awoke Plants

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Coincidentally, Sioḃán Wall’s career has consistently featured the earth beneath our feet and the places that we live in.

Having studied German literature at university, she embarked on a career in logistics, working for DHL as it consulted on what to do with all the excavated matter from the forthcoming construction of Crossrail. 

A move into project management saw her transfer to Bechtel, directly working on the epic scheme she’d helped plan – shifting millions of tonnes of material, dug out for the Elizabeth Line’s tunnels, to help build Wallasea Island Wild Coast – an RSPB nature reserve covering the Crouch and Roach estuaries in Essex.

Following that, a job in the housing industry beckoned, as head of construction and logistics at Barking Riverside – the vast east London regeneration scheme on the banks of the Thames.  

“After nearly four years, I was made redundant and I really wanted to work for myself,” said Sioḃán.

Awoke Plants is my first little business and I opened it last year.

“My local garden centre – Growing Concerns, on the edge of Victoria Park – had just closed down and I’d been doing community gardening with the local Women’s Institute.

“We were all mutually disappointed by this because we felt there was a need for one. People still wanted to buy plants locally, get advice and enjoy browsing.

“Garden centres aren’t just about plants – you can get everything you need – gifts, cards, pots, tools and accessories.

“Outside London they are often day trip destinations – you get a lovely experience, cake in the cafe and so on. In the capital we miss a bit of that. 

“I started Awoke to learn the trade and switch over to gardening.

“I did a future gardeners course, sponsored by the London Legacy Development Corporation, which employs Idvere – a garden maintenance firm.

“That included work experience on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and really introduced me to horticulture as a career.

“It also allowed me to make contacts at Idvere, so I continue to work part-time for them – this winter I was out on the park.”

Sioḃán took all that experience and poured it into a small unit at View Tube on The Greenway in Stratford – a community of small businesses, housed in former shipping containers at the edge of the park.

Awoke Plants, in addition to a wide selection of grown specimens, sells seeds, pots, gifts and kids’ kits – pretty much anything the urban gardener might want available online or in person.

Awoke Plants boasts an extensive array of plants, products and gifts

Reopening its doors in March, the business sells troughs, baskets and upcylced containers of plants – all of which have been grown without peat.

“It’s a natural resource that can’t be replaced in our lifetimes,” said Sioḃán.

“It takes hundreds of thousands of years to make – it’s essentially rotted down mosses, leaves, vegetation and trees, that lived millions of years ago and decayed to form bogs, moorland or fens.

“For centuries humans have been draining the land, drying out the peat and digging it up to use in horticulture.

vBy doing this we’re taking something that absorbs and holds carbon and releasing it. 

“It’s currently hard to find plants which have been grown entirely without peat, but that’s what we offer here.

“And there are great alternatives. I’m using a mix of coia, which is chopped up bits of coconut husk, worm castings for nutrients, sand or grit and compost.

“All of these hold moisture and micro-nutrients, which help support a healthy root structure and growth period.

“In this area, gardening is all about how to decorate our small gardens and balconies with as much attention as we would give to our kitchens, dining rooms or bedrooms.

“There’s so much you can do. You can grow food, flowers or exotic plants in small spaces.

“The key elements are making sure you’ve got a container which will fit in the space and some light.

“Then, you just need to remember to water, feed and look after the quality of the soil.

“We can also fill our homes with houseplants.

“I’d like to encourage people to experiment. Some species will work on widow sills, for example. 

“If you’re thinking of growing vegetables, then summer leaves, micro-greens – seedling salad leaves, bean shoots and so on – only need to grow to one or two inches before they’re ready to harvest – they’re a really quick turnaround for salads and are packed with nutrition.

“They can be the most expensive things to buy in a supermarket, and they’re so easy to grow.

“If you do have some outdoor space, even if it’s small or north-facing, think about having flower boxes on the railings, or use a corner to do a rockery-type garden – a container with sedum or mosses, and low-growing plants that love shade.

“All of this is possible in London.

This potted specimen costs £9.99 at Awoke

“Not only do plants give you something to look at, they can be used to screen you off from tall buildings and they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

“They’re also generally good for your mental health and wellbeing.”

Sioḃán has big plans for her small garden centre, including expanding to a bigger site when the time is right.

“It was really exciting to open last year and it’s evolved since then,” she said.

“Once I’d got myself into the mindset, with my children now at school, I thought that I should just go for it. 

“Working for myself, the only limit is my self-belief in how far I can go.

“I really want to make my business meaningful for this area – there’s a lot of possibility and a lot of growth potential.”

Watch this space. 

  • Awoke Plants reopens to the public in March, 2024. In the meantime, orders can be collected from the garden centre or Bridget’s Cafe in E20. Bike delivery options are also available in selected east London postcodes for a fee of £5.  

Find out more about Awoke Plants here

Awoke Plants is based at View Tube near Pudding Mill Lane DLR

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Stratford: How London College Of Fashion is opening itself up to the community

UAL’s East Bank campus hosts Designed For Life exhibition showcasing fashion as a force for positive change

The Decolonising Fashion And Textiles Project, part of the Designed For Life exhibition at the London College Of Fashion

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Even partially open, the enormity of East Bank cannot be overstated.

Its buildings on the edge of the River Lea may appear compact when viewed crossing the water from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

But this is largely an optical illusion due to the sheer scale of Stratford – the towering structures of International Quarter London and similar behind. 

But, if the physical space afforded to the likes of the BBC Music Studios, V&A East and Sadler’s Wells East is considerable, then the cultural, economic and psychological impact on Newham and the surrounding area is greater still.

Tom Daley splashing into the pool at the London Aquatics Centre and West Ham kicking a small round inflatable about may be sporting legacies of the 2012 Olympic Games.

But their true legacy – more than a decade later – is in the regeneration of the area and the prosperity this will bring in the long term.

How many students will walk through the doors of UCL East (part of East Bank, albeit located on the other side of the river)?

How many dancers will tread the boards at Sadler’s Wells’ new venue?

What music will be played for the BBC?

What sights will be seen at the V&A?

How many lives will now be enriched and shaped by what goes on in these buildings in a part of London that 15 years ago looked very different? 

These are tantalising questions with thrilling answers that will undoubtedly shape Stratford in the years and decades to come. 

Heartening then, that the first of the gang to open at the main cluster is already making significant early efforts to use its space for good.

Designed For Life is displayed over five publicly accessible parts of LCF

University Of The Arts London has consolidated the London College Of Fashion (LCF) at East Bank in a purpose-built tower, which opened earlier this year.

One of its first acts has been to fill five of the publicly accessible areas of the building with Designed For Life, an exhibition featuring textiles, design, film, photography, artefacts, personal testimonies and community building intended to showcase “the transformative power of creative action in shaping our world”.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on.

There’s a dress made from a decommissioned refugee tent, an interactive living room reflecting the lives of people in east London, a cloth dragon in a trenchcoat, textile artworks created by migrants together with fabric portraits of them and much more. 

Far too much, in fact, for this article to do the whole thing justice. However, the feel of Designed For Life is very much of using LCF as a platform to tell stories from the area – bringing people who might not usually be represented in such a building inside and putting them centre stage. 

It makes sense, then, to focus on just one part of the exhibition and dig a little deeper into what visitors can expect to find among the swirling cast concrete staircases of the latest addition to Stratford’s educational scene.

Head down a level from the entrance and you’ll find items and a short film showcasing UAL’s Decolonising Fashion And Textiles Project.

Dr Francesco Mazzarella, senior lecturer at LCF’s Centre For Sustainable Fashion

Dr Francesco Mazzarella, senior lecturer at LCF’s Centre For Sustainable Fashion, who is leading the initiative said: “The project runs for two years and has received funding from the Arts And Humanities Research Council.

“First I did some ethnography to immerse myself in the context – the three boroughs we are concentrating on – which are Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

“I wanted to understand the needs and aspirations of the local communities there.

“Then we did storytelling sessions with participants who are refugees or asylum seekers based in London.

“The stories were of identity, cultural heritage and migration – but also the participants’ skills, needs and aspirations.

“In the sessions we were asking them to bring clothes, textiles and objects that meant something to them.

“We are very mindful that refugees are often interviewed, investigated or monitored, so we didn’t want to do a study of them.

“Instead, as a team we all took part by bringing our own objects as a way to share each other’s lives and also build empathy.

“People coming to view Designed For Life will see more than 40 artworks created by participants and ourselves with statements written to express our feelings.

A migrant himself, Francesco created his own artwork alongside workshop participants, including fabrics to remind him of Brazil, Holland, South Africa and Italy

“It’s really a celebration of the untold stories of refugees – which are often overlooked – with the exhibition aiming to shift negative or dominant narratives to show how people can bring their skills and talents to a local community and economy.”

Francesco worked with local photographer JC Candanedo – a Catalan-Panamanian migrant who has a studio in London – to capture images of people taking part in the sessions. 

The headshots were then transferred to fabric, with participants using multiple techniques to decorate, embroider and alter them.

Each work has its creator’s statement printed on the reverse so visitors can discover more about the people they are seeing.

“What’s beautiful is that every story is unique and challenges what it means to be a refugee or asylum seeker in London,” said Francesco.

“People come here to escape from war, violence due to religion, gender discrimination or politics.

“What I like is the collective sense of all these stories – it’s bigger than the individual parts.

“The coming together of all of this gives a sense of community and the mutual support which builds for refugees.

“People participated for different reasons.

“Some were interested in fashion and textiles, wanted to learn some skills, or perhaps worked in the industry and are aiming to rebuild their careers here.

“Others just wanted to meet new people and use crafts to enhance their wellbeing – especially those living isolated in hotels in very poor conditions.

“Meeting other people has helped them to rebuild their confidence, and making new connections has helped them to rebuild their lives.

One participant created two artworks during the project, this one during a pilot session

“One participant has two artworks in the exhibition.

“The first was created for a pilot we did last summer. 

“It is very dark, with blood coming from the eyes.

“As a researcher I have tools to help people unpack their stories.

“At first she had an identity crisis about her heritage.

“She’s from Singapore and, as a trans woman, she was the victim of rape, and when she reported this to the police, she was blamed for being trans.

“She came here and joined our project.

“At first she didn’t care about fashion or want to pursue a career in fashion.

“She thought it was unreachable and not very inclusive.

“She wanted to wear more western clothes to feel more integrated into society here.

“She has very traumatic memories of her own country and wants deliberately to erase her own past. 

“All through this project we tried to highlight something small that she had which could keep her grounded, and she realised that she always wore a necklace given to her by her mum before she left.

“You can see that in her second work.

“She wanted to add some glitter to this artwork as a sense of hope for a brighter future.

The second piece she created

“Through this process she met many other people, and now she’s volunteering for several charities and is feeling much more confident.

“You can see here that she has really embraced her gender and identity and is also tapping into different aspects of her culture and heritage by including batik from Indonesia, where her auntie is from, for example. 

“In the second piece – called Smiles And Pain – she wants to unpack what it means to be an asylum seeker, where she says that, even if we wear a smile and are resilient, behind that there is a mountain of trauma and pain.

“She also wants to say that everybody wants to be treated with tenderness and deserves love and safety.

“Refugees may not have many material possessions, but they really hold onto their material culture and their heritage. 

“Working with vulnerable people, we can’t ask them to tackle the climate emergency from a sustainability point of view– they have more pressing issues socially.

“By plugging into their heritage, however, they can start gaining agency – a voice – and make connections locally that may point to education, employment and entrepreneurship.

“That’s using fashion to drive positive change.”

Remember, this is just one of five displays covering multiple projects at Designed For Life. Set aside an afternoon to explore the exhibition fully.

  • Designed For Life is free to visit with no booking required.
  • The exhibits are available to view at LCF at Stratford’s East Bank, 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday and will be in place until January 19, 2024.

Find out more about the exhibition here

Designed For Life features a series of installations including a recreation of a textile worker’s front room

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Stratford: How Bamboo Mat is bringing Nikkei cuisine to east London

Second site offers fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cooking plus options for a bottomless brunch

Padron peppers with mango miso at Bamboo Mat, £5.50 – image Matt Grasyon

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You would not expect a Moldovan teenager to know much about Japanese food. But that is where Denis Gobjila’s story starts.

Well, like all of us, it actually started with him as a baby, but we’ll skip to the food part.

Today the 34-year-old is co-owner of Stratford’s Bamboo Mat, a rare London restaurant serving Nikkei food.

The cuisine brings together the clean simplicity of Japanese cuisine with the fiery exuberance of Peruvian food and has developed organically since the late 1800s, when a wave of east Asian immigrants arrived in South America.

“The first time I tried Nikkei it was sour and then boom, flavours in your mouth,” said Denis.

“It was so fresh and I thought: ‘This is the next level of food’.”

Bamboo Mat’s menu includes Padron peppers drizzled with mango miso, grilled octopus paired with lentil mash, crispy chicken thighs coated in anticucho sauce, yellowtail kingfish dotted with yuzu truffle soy and a smorgasboard of sushi, sashimi and nigiri.

Much like these dishes, the venue was created using a fusion of skill, patience and passion.

But it is literally hundreds of miles from where Denis started.

He grew up in Moldova helping his grandparents tend their small farm and baking with his mum.

“I followed my cousin to culinary school and my starting passion was cakes, but now I can do very little and don’t really like pastry flour,” he said.

Enter Japanese cuisine. After training, he got his first job in 2007 at Sushi Studiya in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and over a period of three years, worked his way up to head chef.

Co-owners Denis Gobjila, left, and Victor Rosca – image Matt Grasyon

On arriving in London he then landed a job as sous chef at Vietnamese restaurant Namo near Victoria Park.

But it was a random interview at a new restaurant opening in Hackney that set his tastebuds ablaze.

“They said Jordan Sclare had created some of the dishes and they were so good I went straight home, googled him and found he was executive chef at Chotto Matte,” said Denis.

“I went there the next day knocking on the door and asking for a job.

“The sushi head chef, Keita Sato, said they didn’t really need anyone but made me an offer for, I think, less than £16,000. I said: ‘No problem’.”

Denis instantly became immersed in the world of Nikkei, learning new skills in cutting fish, cooking rice, preparing vegetables and decoration – all the while refining his techniques in sashimi, sushi and maki.

“They gave me opportunities and I was ordering ingredients all the time and creating dishes,” he said.

It was also here he met his now business partner Victor Rosca who previously worked at Sushisamba, Roka, and Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay.

Denis began creating his own menu in his head, but it would be another five years before he actually got to serve the dishes.

“I got married and, in hospitality, it’s hard to maintain family life, so I left the kitchen for five years and worked in my wife’s accounting company,” he said. 

“But the dream was always in my mind because, for me, an office job is boring. I kept looking for something and finally it happened.”

Bamboo Mat in Stratford – image Matt Grasyon

Fate stepped in when a friend’s seafood restaurant in Leyton collapsed after Covid.

“They were very upset and had some outstanding balance to pay to the landlords, so they were going to take that place from them but I quickly stepped in and took it over,” he said.

“I had been looking for something smaller, like a takeaway concept but, when that opportunity came up, we quickly changed our plans and designed the menu.

“I’d had it in my mind for the past five years, so it didn’t take long.”

The venue opened in May 2022 but what they did struggle with was ingredients.

“The fish was the hardest to get because we were looking at central London suppliers and they had never come East before,” said Denis.

“I used to drive to Heathrow Airport to get the fish every three days until finally we got more sales and convinced them to come out this way.”

In fact, the duo had an explosion of popularity overnight, thanks to a few carefully written paragraphs in the summer of 2022.

“Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian changed our lives because after that, it was crazy, crazy,” said Denis. 

“In a nine table restaurant, we went from doing a few a night to minimum of 60 covers a day. It was a bit of a shock but very good.

“We believed in the restaurant and knew it would be quite successful, but we definitely didn’t expect it that quick.

“Maybe we deserved it, or maybe we were lucky – I don’t know.”

Sushi and vegetarian ceviche at Bamboo Mat – image Matt Grasyon

Keen to capitalize, by August they had found the Stratford venue and this time they got to design it from scratch.

It is a much bigger space, with room for 68 people inside as well as a 10-seater private dining area and 25 seats outside.

“It is the same concept as Leyton, but because it’s bigger, it has more opportunities in the kitchen so we can create more,” said Denis. 

“It’s a good location, green and peaceful and as we are quite young as businesspeople, our budget was not too big because we don’t have any investors.

“We basically made everything here by ourselves or with friends and created it organically with our own hands.”

From the outside, it looks, dare I say it, pleasantly dull.

But inside it is joyous with a neon rope interior created by Peruvian designer Sabastian Salas.

The vivaciously colourful food includes a newly launched bottomless brunch at weekends.

This features signature sushi, seabass ceviche with aji amarillo tiger’s milk, sweet potato, red onion, chancha corn and artichoke tostada with salsa criolla and salsa verde and a brunch special- fluffy pork or nasu (Japanese aubergine) bao buns.

The restaurant opened in December last year with what was supposed to be a soft launch.

“It wasn’t at all soft,” said Denis. “I think we did 250 covers for the first four days. It was really, really hard.

“When you create something, it’s scary because you invest everything and don’t know how people will react – you only know its nice for your own taste.

“When people appreciate the food you feel really positive because people like what you’re doing.

“So it’s enjoyable to get that busy and get crazy shifts, especially because this cuisine is not well know in the industry here.

The restaurant’s interior – image Matt Grasyon

“There aren’t many Nikkei restaurants in London. I think that’s because it’s quite tricky. 

“It’s a bit sour, a bit spicy and different flavours but our menu works because it is a good balance.”

There is, however, one dish which is secretly very traditional for Denis. It pays homage to the person who gave him his love of the freshest ingredients.

“We have one salad on the menu inspired by my grandmother,” he said.

“Moldovan cuisine is very different because it is a poor country, so we cooked what we grew in the garden.

“My grandparents had a small farm and, in the summertime, she used to cook Romano peppers on charcoal and it was just amazing – so smoky.

“At Bamboo Mat, we have a fresh salad with cabbage, carrot and beetroot served with a smoked sauce.”

Family is in fact still the driving force for Denis. Many young chefs seem swallowed up by their success and struggle to have a personal life outside work. But the Romford resident is home most days by 5pm.

“I have two kids, a son aged three and a seven-month old daughter and that’s the priority,” he said.

“If you manage everything properly, and it is under control, you can have the free time. Also, my wife is a very, very good woman, very supportive.

“Sometimes she’s mad at me, but I’m trying to make life better for my family, not just for myself.”

I’d call that perfectly balanced fusion.

Find our more about Bamboo Mat here

Lamb chops in anticucho sauce, £18 – image Matt Grasyon

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Stratford: How Westfield Stratford City puts community and sustainability at its heart

URW head of shopping centre management talks passion and outreach at the east London mall

Katie Wyle of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield – image Matt Grayson

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Katie Wyle never intended to go into retail.

Growing up, she worked in the village shop her parents ran and swore off the sector when she went to university to study English and drama.

“But what do you do as a student? You work in shops,” she said.

“I worked for Tesco, Jigsaw, Disney and more.

“I did a wonderful ski season after university, but then realised I had a loan to pay off so I went to work at Marks And Spencer, initially in the men’s pants and socks department as a Christmas temp.”

It was the start of a journey that would see her rise to deputy manager of the brand’s Bluewater store.

A stint at Fortnum And Mason followed and then Selfridges as assistant store director before she became assistant general manager of Westfield Stratford City in 2014.

Now head of shopping centre management for the whole of the UK at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) – the company that runs the massive malls – her responsibilities include overseeing its east London operation, the busiest in Europe by footfall.

And, despite the pressures of catering for more than 51million visitors each year, she’s smiling.

“It’s just so varied,” she said. “You can come in, have a conversation about toilets, fire safety, Christmas, the community, capital investment or how we’re planning our budget processes for the next five years.

“You have to change your thought processes completely from one meeting to the next and the people we work with are all so genuinely passionate about this business. 

“I think everybody should work in retail and hospitality at some point because they give you experience of so many areas.”

The passion of her colleagues is one reason Katie continues to smile throughout our interview.

“Westfield naturally faces problems and challenges, as any business does – especially on a site welcoming millions and employing thousands.

Westfield Stratford City is the busiest shopping centre in Europe

But there’s an underlying pride in the mission, which is about much more than providing retail units to big brands.

“We take being part of the community very seriously,” said Katie.

“That’s not just the managers in the centre, but everyone in the team – we are all focused on the social impact of our roles.

“The company set itself objectives when it first came into the UK from Australia – to create jobs and value locally around each of our centres.

“We have a community manager and her job is to work at grass roots level with individuals, organisations, local employment support groups and schools.

“We are so focused on improving our social value every year – what we can do to keep it going and build on that.

“We assess what’s going on in the community and where investment and support is needed.

“She then works up a community resilience action plan for each centre that is bespoke to its needs.

“That’s in partnership with the London Borough Of Newham here and Hammersmith And Fulham over at Westfield London.

“Then we measure that impact. That’s not just URW, that’s our contractors as well.

“If you talk to anyone here, community and sustainability are our biggest themes, as they affect everybody.”

On the community front, Westfield Stratford City is a founding partner and official sponsor of the Foundation For Future London – a charity founded in 2015 to connect the various cultural institutions that are coming to East Bank with local people.

“The team here has done this huge project with the East Bank Creative Futures Fund – £10million of investment – which is now in its fourth year,” said Katie.

“It’s phenomenal, with 155 community organisations funded and more than 23,000 participants.

URW has invested £10million in the East Bank Creative Futures Fund

“Each year the applications for funding are open for small, medium and large projects, ranging from £3,000 to £50,000.

“So far they’ve awarded more than £2.5million for a wide spectrum of organisations including community facilities for cycling and skateboarding, local creative businesses and talent development programmes.

“We know our customers want to feel more holistic and joined-up when they come here and the regeneration of both Shepherds Bush and Newham has been a testament to the success of the Westfield centres.”

On the sustainability front, URW is pressing forward with its Better Places 2030 strategy, which aims to reduce its centres’ environmental impact.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Katie. “It’s not just about reducing the energy we use, but making sure we’re only getting it from green, renewable sources.

“We already operate with zero waste to landfill – all of our food waste, for example goes into a digester which processes it down into pellet form and now we’re working on how we can transform that into compost so customers can come and take a bag for their gardens.

“We want to create a complete cycle.

“There are so many initiatives – we already have rainwater harvesting and we’re looking to install ethically sourced solar panels on both Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush this year.

“It’s vital we know where they are coming from and that there’s no involvement with modern slavery.”

It’s this attention to detail that indirectly should also prove  attractive to future residents of Coppermaker Square – URW’s residential venture in Stratford.

“This is somewhere you can now live, work and play,” said Katie.

“They are fabulous buildings and the scheme will be finished next year.

“There are nine blocks and it’s the first time we’ve done build-to-rent in the UK so it’s really exciting for us.

“Why would you not live somewhere like this? The facilities will blow you away.

“There’s a co-working space, a fitness centre, lounge, roof garden, outdoor terrace, concierge service – it’s what people expect now.

Westfield is set to host a Future You event at Stratford in October for young people

“The surrounding area is so beautiful with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and all the other attractions of east London.

“It’s incredible and has transport connections to Essex, Kent and all across London including the Elizabeth Line from east to west, which is amazing.

“Our centres continue to have major brands invest in them, showing their trust and faith in what we’re doing.

“For example, Sephora is set to open its second UK store at Stratford in November and we’ve already seen the halo effect with other beauty brands doing well around it after it opened in Shepherd’s Bush.

“Westfeld Stratford City is a beautiful shopping environment and, while retail is having a tough time at the moment, that means we need diversity. 

“Young people don’t necessarily just want to come and spend money on buying things – they want experiences and we need to cater for that too.”  

Younger shoppers are very much on Westfield’s radar, with another of its Future You events set to take place from October 19-22 aimed at engaging with 12-to-18-year-olds. 

Katie said: “We’ll be putting on loads of free activities. Last year there was a really popular one with Finfluencers and FinTokkers, although I’m not really cool enough to know about that.”

As a measure of the success of Olympic legacy and regeneration, it all makes for an impressive achievement.

  • Prices for homes at Coppermaker Square start at £2,480pcm.

Follow this link for more information about Westfield Stratford City

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Stratford: How Stratford Padel Club puts community at the heart of its operation

Strong demand at the club sees its owners planning to expand with new courts in the pipeline

Stratford Padel Club is located just off Stratford High Street

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The idea for Stratford Padel Club came when the venue Javier Fernandez Aguirre and Anka Mandelson had been playing at closed down.

With its owners unable to find a suitable site to continue, Javier decided to have a go himself, enlisting the help of Anka, initially as an investor.

“Luckily we found a location on Stratford High Street and, having initially tried to get plans for a sports centre going, he decided to see if he could open a padel club,” said Anka, who now acts as co-owner and runs the business with Javier.

“He raised the money pretty quickly but we took a massive risk because we didn’t know if we would get planning permission and that took two years.

“But we got approval and, in a record amount of time, we got the building in September and had to open in December.

“We launched on December 8 with three courts and a tournament for 30 players – we had no idea who would come, but it was an adventure.

“We were capital positive by the following April and reached capacity very quickly.

“The day we filled our peak time slots, we made £100 in profit and we thought the business would work.

Stratford Padel Club co-owner Anka Mandelson

“It meant incredible hours of working for us, but the risk paid off and, just before lockdown, we’d decided to add more courts because we couldn’t cope with the demand.”

Covid was a tough time for the club.

With no government support, Javier and Anka put money back into the business to keep it going and players started a funding campaign that ended up raising £25,000 to help keep it running.

Having expanded to five courts, and very much recovered from the ravages of the pandemic, the club is once again battling demand and has applied to build a further four courts to accommodate all the people who want to play.

Anka puts its success down to the approach she and Javier have always taken.

“Our belief is that our club has to be a community,” she said.

“We treat everybody as though this is their second home.

“We know every player’s name and we have built a team here that shares that approach.

“Whether people are regular players, coming for an event or just trying out the sport, they are part of this community.

“We didn’t embark on this venture for the money – it’s a reflection of our values, our personalities and what we believe in.

“We want to make sure that anybody can come and play at this club – that checkout workers can rub shoulders with bankers on our courts. 

The club now boasts five courts and intends to build more

“The UK is a nation of chronically ill people, and I think padel tennis can help solve this problem.

“It’s accessible and delivers physical and mental engagement for individual players, families and older people – it’s definitely something you can pick up later in life.

“We have players here aged up to 78, who are coming on a regular basis and it’s important that councils and landowners understand what padel tennis can do.

“I fear that the sport may be moving to exclusive price points that won’t address these areas. 

“The reason it has become so popular in Spain is because it was played in the poorer parts of the cities at courts made of concrete on industrial estates – not with fancy glass.

“We will always be a club that remains accessible.”

Padel, for those who don’t know, is a game for four people played on a smaller court than tennis with hard walls that come into the action when balls bounce off them.

“The scoring is the same as in tennis.

Court pricing at Stratford Padel Club starts at £16 per player for 90 minutes at off-peak times, rising to £19 at peak times for non members.

There are cheaper options for two and three-hour sessions. Various membership packages are also available, which reduce the fees further. 

Stratford Padel Club co-owner Javier Fernandez Aguirre

Children aged three and a half and over are also welcome and coaching sessions for adults and kids at all levels are available. 

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they have had wasted time or wasted their money, so we’ve created a £10 starter package that everyone begins with,” said Anka, who accidentally discovered padel while trying in vain to find a court to play a tennis match on. 

“With that package, you get a coaching session for 30 minutes, a player rating from the coach and then a free membership for 30 days.

“The rating is your point of entry into matches, tournaments and lessons.

“Regardless of your level, we want to make sure that you’re going to have a positive experience at the club – the people you play with will be plus or minus five points from your rating.

 “If you come as a beginner, you know that you’re not going to play with advanced players, that lessons will be customised for your level, that tournaments are going to be appropriately challenging – so it’s never going to be a daunting experience and you’re not going to be out of your depth.

“It will also give you a road map of what you need to do to improve. We know people play more if they feel they are getting better.

“We have a very detailed matrix on our app – we’ve put a lot of time into it to help people do that.

Padel is always played as doubles with four people on court

“The 30 days also give players time to see if they like the club, whether they want to embrace the community and if everything feels right.”

The club, which hosts the largest padel tournaments in the country and is partnered with the Lawn Tennis Association – the governing body for the sport in the UK – and boasts a beer garden, equipment shop plus changing and shower facilities. 

It also offers table tennis and gym facilities to complement its core offering. 

Its more than 11,000 registered players represent a complete spectrum from total beginners to those playing the sport at the highest elite levels. 

It is located within easy walking distance of both Stratford station and Pudding Mill Lane DLR and is also accessible directly from Canary Wharf via the D8 bus.

As for the future, things look bright.

There’s the mooted expansion at the Stratford site, which has a lease until 2025, while Javier and Anka are eyeing fresh openings in other parts of London.

Watch this space.

Find out more about Stratford Padel Club 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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Stratford: How Grappelli Food Hall offers a wide range of Italian produce at The Gantry

Hotel-based grocery and restaurant offers fresh ingredients and imported flavours at East Village

Grappelli Food Hall features an extensive range of imported produce

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British hotel lobbies are not known for their shopping options.

Sure, in higher-end places there might be a gold and glass case of tasteless and astonishingly expensive jewellery.

In Wales, at the mish-mashed pile that is the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, I once saw BMWs being flogged beside an unhappy looking installation of Penderyn whisky bottles.

But generally, all that is to be found in such establishments is a cheery concierge, a branded umbrella or two and sometimes a vending machine.

Not so at The Gantry in Stratford.

While Grappelli Food Hall is cut off from the hotel by a see-through foldaway wall, it’s very much part of the hotel building.

Half Italian grocery and deli and half cafe, bar and restaurant, it’s incongruous as part of a hotel, but somehow right for Stratford. 

Sitting on the imaginary border between Westfield and East Village, this is a place that is very much for the locals as well as the visitors.

After all, who comes to a hotel and buys fresh vegetables and meat? 

Grappelli Food Hall owner Alessandro Grappelli

“It is incongruous, but the people running the hotel came to us and said they had a space,” said Alessandro Grappelli, the man behind the new opening. 

“The venue is incredible and it was a no-brainer. I look at it as a shop that happens to have a hotel above it.

“It’s in an area that’s been super developed, a new city built with all the experience of building the old city.

“For us it was an opportunity.”

Opportunities are very much Alessandro’s forte.

Originally from Rome, he came to London to learn English for six months and that was 26 years ago.

“I found a job and, 25 years and six months later, I’m still here,” he said.

“My family is here and I’ve spent most of my life in the UK.

“London has given me so much. There is so much meritocracy here.

If you’re good at what you do, you have the chance to prove yourself – unfortunately in Italy it still doesn’t work this way, although I do miss the weather.

“I came to London with £150 in my pocket and I started out washing dishes.

“Then I was a salad chef, then pasta, starters and main courses.

“After I’d been in the UK for three years, some of my friends came over and decided to open a restaurant in Fulham. I joined them and it was a great success.

“However, after a few months, they didn’t really want to live in London and so they told me to take the restaurant and pay the rent.

Grappelli offers a range of produce including meat and veg

“That’s how I got started – I was 22. I was lucky, of course, but I also made the most of my chances because they don’t come that often in life.”

Today, Alessandro runs upmarket Roman restaurant Grappelli in Cobham, Surrey, as well as Taverna Trastevere and Pizzicheria Grappelli in Clapham.

The latter was very much the blueprint for his latest venture in Stratford, offering mainly imported groceries from Italy but also making use of local produce.

“We use Dingley Dell Pork, from Suffolk, to make our sausages fresh,” said Alessandro.

“For us it’s about finding the right meat – the chicken and the pork – to make things fresh.

“The idea for the first grocery and deli came after Covid, when we were selling produce to locals close to our restaurant in London.

“We didn’t want any other influences, just Italian – people loved it because it’s a beautiful experience.

“We have the produce people can buy and a kitchen, so customers can see how to turn the ingredients into a meal. 

“Our chefs are highly skilled, but they also follow our philosophy – we make simple things but using amazing ingredients and the results are incredible.

“For me, the concept is to get as close to eating with my family at home as I can. It’s about selecting the right produce and suppliers. 

“For example, we have our own brand tomato sauce that, when you look at the ingredients list, is just tomatoes and basil. There are no additives. 

“When you try it you feel just like your are in Italy and that’s my passion – the real flavour of simple things.”

Fresh vegetables at Grappelli Food Hall

Something that will certainly appeal to hotel guests and locals alike is the dining side of Grappelli which offers an extensive array of quick bites.

There’s a selection of pasta dishes starting at £9.50 with Gnocchi Ai Pomodoro, ranging up to a Lasagne Alla Bolognese for £11.50. 

Foccacia sandwiches come packed with the likes of mortadella, Parma ham and bresaola and range in price from £8.90 to £9.50.

There’s also a range of antipasti including bruschetta, veal meatballs and buffalo mozzarella alongside the canny inclusion of variations on a theme of avocado on toast, for the less traditionally inclined.

“Even with these dishes, we make them with fantastic sourdough bread and an Italian twist,” said Alessandro.

“I think people don’t really know what to expect from us yet.

“When we first opened our doors, we had people who said that they couldn’t believe they had just had our carbonara in Stratford. Some came back again and again.

“That gives me so much satisfaction.

“We want people to try our food and then to go back to their offices, their friends and their families and say that they’d just had the best pasta.

“Across all of our restaurants we sell carbonara to thousands of customers and, according to them, it’s the best in the UK.

“That’s why the whole Grappelli team and I are really excited to work alongside The Gantry on this new venture.

“We really pride ourselves on the research that goes into selecting our products and we hope that this will be reflected in the customer experience.”

Grappelli Food Hall is located at The Gantry on Celebration Avenue and is open every day from 7.30am to 7pm.

Read more: How Kinaara on Greenwich Peninsula offers authentic Indian flavours

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Stratford: How the Prost8 Challenge helps fight the UK’s third most lethal cancer

Lee Valley VeloPark event targets growth organisers aim to emulate Race For Life’s success

Malcolm Grieve created the Prost8 Challenge following a cancer scare

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Over the course of the next 45 minutes, a man will die from prostate cancer in the UK.

Affecting only men, it is the third most lethal form of cancer, having overtaken breast cancer in 2019.

Around 475,000 men are currently living with and after prostate cancer, with around one in eight being diagnosed with the condition.

That statistic rises to one in four for black men.

“A lot of really great work has been done on breast cancer, which has led to a reduction in deaths,” said Malcolm Grieve, managing director of Eighth Floor Events.

“At the moment, to get tested for prostate cancer, a man has to identify that he may have a problem himself and seek medical advice – there is no screening programme. 

“A few years ago I had some symptoms myself – I thought something was wrong and I knew it was a urology-type issue, but I certainly didn’t think it could have been cancer.

“I was in my early 40s and I didn’t really think it could be anything like that. But the PSA test I took indicated it might be.

“When the word ‘cancer’ was mentioned, I was glad I was sitting down. You try to come to terms pretty quickly with what that means.

“I’ve got three kids and while they’re all grown up, the prospect that the disease could accelerate – that they could lose me and I could lose them – was a pretty horrible thought.”

Former Olympic athlete Dwain Chambers will start the 2023 Prost8 Challenge

The more reliable physical examination – literally a finger up the bottom – resulted in Malcolm getting the all clear, PSA tests being notorious for false positives.

But the experience got him thinking.

“When you go through something like that, there is a realisation that there are other people out there who experience very different outcomes,” he said.

“Broadly, you see that there is a lack of funding and messaging to help people get diagnosed early and I wondered what I could do to help.

“I didn’t want to set up a charity in competition with any others – instead I wanted to create something and then partner with a charity to raise money and help drive the message that way.

“My background is in project and programme management and I saw this as an issue that was becoming dear to my heart because of the experience and thought’s I’d had during my own cancer scare – something I could do to help others.”

The result is the Prost8 Challenge, an 8km run or walk, scheduled to return to the road circuit Lee Valley VeloPark for its second iteration on July 9, 2023.

Participants run or walk five laps of the one-mile track to travel a total of 8k – a distance selected in honour of beneficiary, the Essex-based charity Prost8 UK.

The organisation campaigns to widen the availability of new prostate cancer screening methods, to fund focal therapy equipment to help treat men suffering early stage cancer in NHS hospitals with fewer damaging side effects and to raise awareness of all the treatment options available for the disease.

The challenge costs £15 to enter (finishers get a sustainable goody bag and medal), with participants encouraged to raise sponsorship and donations for Prost8. 

This year’s race will be started by former Olympic athlete and multiple European record-holder, the sprinter Dwain Chambers.

“Dwain heard the statistic that 25% of black men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and that’s why he wanted to get involved  this year,” said Malcolm.

“He was very surprised by that figure and will be our celebrity ambassador this year through our partner, sports nutrition company Bio Synergy.

“He’s said he’ll run at least the first 100m.”

Malcolm is a man who likes to take action.

Having joined the Royal Navy straight from school, he spent 13 years serving on submarines before injury set him on a course for the banking industry. 

Having worked for Lloyds and then HSBC in Canary Wharf, he’s now set his sights on building the Prost8 Challenge into a multi-location event inspired by the success of the likes of Race For Life, which has raised nearly £550million over the last two decades to help fight breast cancer.

“We’re starting small, but thinking big – I don’t think there are any limits to what this could become,” said Malcolm.

“We’d love to emulate the success of Race For Life and the levels of funding that achieves.

“Ultimately I would like it to be one day a year when many people across the country take the Prost8 Challenge and to do that we intend to grow the number of locations that host it so we can raise as much as possible. 

“We want to support Prost8 in its aim of getting at least eight focal therapy units into NHS hospitals.

“But it’s also about the awareness, because men are often a bit sensitive about what’s going on downstairs. 

“They might feel it’s a threat to their masculinity to admit they may have something wrong with them like that and the difficulty with any cancer is that the longer you leave it before testing and diagnosis, the more dangerous it becomes.

“That’s why screening could potentially be so important in the future.”

Richard Jacobs co-founded Alba Partners, which is supporting the Prost8 Challenge

Malcolm is supported in his endeavour by Alba Partners, a consultancy firm co-founded by Canary Wharf resident Richard Jacobs.

“We met in 2014 working together in financial services in Canary Wharf and we’ve remained friends ever since,” said Richard. 

“About 18 months ago he threw out the idea that he was going to be putting on the Prost8 Challenge and was looking for input and ideas.

“It sounded really exciting, and like a cause I could get behind. We’d had a scare and some history in the family as well.

“Since we originally met, I’d started Alba with my sister and, as a growing business, we wanted to sponsor the event – something we’ll keep doing for the foreseeable future. 

“It meant something to me and it was a cause we were happy to really throw our weight behind.

“The first event last year was great fun.

“There was a real buzz when we arrived with a DJ and a party atmosphere.

“The VeloPark was an Olympic venue, so it felt great to really be at the heart of sport. 

“It’s a serious problem that the challenge is addressing, but events like this also help to lighten things up and we’ve made it one of our annual team event days.”

Registration is now open for the latest Prost8 Challenge, which kicks off at 10am on July 9, 2023.

Eighth Floor Events is also looking for support and sponsorship from local businesses and organisations for this year’s challenge and going forward. Follow this link for contact details.

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Stratford: How Alexa Ryan-Mills’s garden is set to celebrate Sadler’s Wells East

East London-based designer is preparing for her first RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May

Garden designer Alexa Ryan-Mills

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I‘m just looking out at the rain and wondering when it’s going to start warming up,” said Alexa Ryan-Mills.

While idle talk of the weather is ubiquitous in the UK, for the Walthamstow-based garden designer – and all those in her profession – precipitation and temperature are a constant preoccupation. 

That’s especially true when there’s a deadline looming and, for Alexa, the 10 days leading up to May 23-27 are fast approaching.

That’s when she and her team will create her first garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show – arguably the biggest stage in British horticulture.

What exactly appears in that garden will, to some extent, be dependent on the weather – although Alexa said she was confident the nurseries she’s working with would have sufficient stock to provide backup options, should the mercury fail to rise to the desired level.

While Wharf Life covers neither Chelsea nor Walthamstow, the reason we are interested in this garden is twofold.

Firstly, Alexa’s design is inspired by the forthcoming opening of Sadler’s Wells East – the fourth venue in the Sadler’s Wells family, which is set to open overlooking Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2024.

But that is still a building site at present, so secondly, there’s a more immediate link – all the plants and materials used in the creation of the garden will be donated to Sadler’s Wells associate institution School 21 in Stratford, where they will be used to improve its outdoor spaces.

“School 21 has been planning and fundraising to do this for a while,” said Alexa.

“I found out about that and we’ve now spent some time going round and identifying areas where we can put the plants after the show. 

“There are lots of different play spaces, which at the moment are quite bare, and we can get the kids involved in planting those up.

“The school also has a great design and technology department that will be able to re-use the materials too.

“For the garden we also recently decided to work with Brixton-based artist Benjamin Wachenje, who will be creating a hip hop-themed mural as a backdrop and School 21 will be able to use this as well.”

An artist’s impression of Alexa’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden

Before that happens, though, the garden itself must be created and shown – a project that has its genesis in Alexa’s change of direction from a career in PR and communications.

“I felt like I’d had enough of that industry and I was thinking about what to do next,” she said.

“Around the same time I met a garden designer, having just bought a house in Walthamstow.

“She designed my garden and I really enjoyed the process and thought I’d like to know a bit more about it. Before I did anything crazy and quit my job, I did some initial training. 

“That went really well and so I decided to invest more in training and that’s how I wound up starting to build a business in east London.”

Having worked mostly designing private residential gardens in the likes of Waltham Forest, Hackney and Newham, Alexa specialised increasingly in planting design, studying for a diploma in the field and collaborating with landscape architects and other designers on a freelance basis.

“While I was studying at the London College Of Garden Design, I knew I wanted to create a garden for a cultural hub and I used Sadler’s Wells as my imaginary client,” she said.

“I found out Sadler’s Wells East was set to open in Stratford, so I created a design that was related to dance – choosing plants that might have an interesting shape or ones that would self seed and move around the garden like that.

“Then I saw a call out from an organisation called Project Giving Back – a grant making charity that provides funding for gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“I realised I had an idea and all I had to do was persuade Sadler’s Wells. They said: ‘Go for it’, so I applied and after various rounds, got the funding.

“Then I had to apply to the RHS because you get the funding, but still have to be chosen for a place at the show itself.”

Alexa says she was inspired by the planting at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford

She was successful and is now set to lay out a six-by-eight metre space under cover in the All About Plants category of the show’s main pavilion.

Featured plants will include the nodding blooms of salvia nutans and three trees, namely hionanthus retusus, styrax obassia and acer monspessulanum.

“I really wanted to make the plants the performers – the dancers – and put them centre stage,” said Alexa.

“It’s all about visitors being able to see the planting and the shapes and enjoy them from different places to sit and walk through.

“There’s a pipe-like sculpture inspired by the saw-toothed roof of Sadler’s Wells East – itself a reference to the manufacturing and industrial heritage of Stratford – that frames different views.

“I’ve chosen plants that have interesting shapes with lots of purples and limes as well as oranges. I want it to feel energetic. It’s about dance. 

“There has been a fashion at Chelsea for lots of calm, muted planting, but this design is not like that at all.”

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Bromley-By-Bow: How the House Mill aims to get its waterwheels spinning again

The world’s largest surviving tidal mill is ongoing as it targets the production of electricity from the Lea

The House Mill at Three Mills in Bromley-By-Bow

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“I just think this plucky building really deserves to survive – it’s been through so much,” said Beverley Charters.

We’ve just ascended an ageing wooden staircase and squeezed through a small wooden portal to pop out onto the roof of the House Mill, a Grade I listed structure that straddles the River Lea in Bromley-By-Bow.

To stand on the duckboards in the v-shaped channel that runs between the roof of the building’s twin peaks is a rare privilege.

It’s not on the official tour for various health and safety reasons, but it does provide a place to locate this extraordinary hub of historic industry in east London.

Beverley points out all the areas and activities that the mill would once have supported, including a vast pig farm with the animals fed on waste products from the site.

Today it’s a sea of regeneration with Sugar House Island and many others, all set to bring new homes and businesses to the area as progress marches on.

Under our feet, however, some 247 years of history await.

Today two mills remain standing at Three Mills although the site has a history of tidal milling that dates back to the Domesday Book in 1086 – the earliest recorded examples of such activity.

Originally Three Mills produced flour, notably for the celebrated bakers of Stratford-Atte-Bowe, with the number of mills dropping to two in the 16th century.

The site later pivoted to grind grain that was used to distil alcohol and the area became a major player in the production of London gin.

Today the House Mill, built in 1776 on foundations dating to 1380, and the Clock Mill, rebuilt in the early 19th century, still stand.

While the latter currently houses the Harris Science Academy East London, the former continues on a journey of restoration and preservation that started in the 1970s when this glorious building nearly became a flat expanse of tarmac.

The House Mill’s Beverley Charters, a trustee, and Geoff Cosson, a volunteer

“It could have been destroyed by bombs during the Second World War like the neighbouring Miller’s House or flattened by developers who wanted to turn it into a car park – but it wasn’t,” said Beverley – a trustee of the House Mill Trust, which looks after the building and who – alongside volunteer Geoff Cosson – shows me round.

“What we ultimately want is a working building that offers all manner of opportunities to educate people so they can see the wheels turning again.

“This is the world’s largest tidal mill, it’s an extraordinary building and it’s our dream to make it fully functioning and sustainable – a place with real purpose.”

Even without the waters of the Lea turning the wheels, the building is remarkable.

Filtering down through its levels – following the route that would have been taken by the grains on their way to the grinding stones and the sacks waiting for the flour on the ground floor – Beverley and Geoff release a steady flow of anecdotes and facts about our surroundings.

Mostly constructed from wood, the place is a baffling maze of hoppers, stores and production floors where the grain would have been sorted, cleaned and fed into the whirling stones whenever the tide was providing the power, day or night.

That force was provided by four massive iron waterwheels, harnessing the green energy of the Lea and distributing it through the building via huge drive shafts.

The overall plan is to restore the House Mill to some degree of working order with the waterwheels spinning once more with the tide, although these will be used to generate electricity to power the building and give it an income, rather than to grind grain.

With much work done internally in the 1990s, including the rebuilding of the bombed out Miller’s House as a cafe, visitor and education centre, a substantial amount of work has already been achieved. 

Wooden blanks in the mill for making metal machine parts

But the trust faces big bills to keep operating and fundraising for a challenging project to dam the river, so work can be done on the wheels to bring them back into use.

It’s also having to contend with increasingly frequent flooding of the mill’s ground floor, possibly as a consequence of measures upstream to control the level of the waterways in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which prevents the incoming tide flowing as far up the river.

Nevertheless, there’s a sense of fight and optimism, with the next project aimed at weatherproofing and protecting the rear of the building to match the recently renovated facade. We wanted to complete it pre-lockdown, but it’s finished now and we think it looks rather fabulous,” said Beverley.

“Now we’re somehow going to fundraise for the back and repair some storm damage we’ve had to the roof before returning to the main project of getting the building working again. We hope it will be possible and we think we can do it.”

But why bother expending all this effort to conserve and celebrate a historic building at all?

“I just think buildings like this are fantastic,” said Geoff, a former teacher who became involved with the project after moving back to the Isle Of Dogs from Cyprus and visiting the House Mill with his wife.

“There’s also a degree of connection because both my grandparents were from this area – my grandmother lived in Nairn Street just down the river and got married on Christmas Day at the registrar’s office in Bromley-By-Bow, which is still there.

“I wanted to be involved with something that wasn’t just about ogling things, where there was a bit of history.”

The mill contains examples of machinery used in its operation

Alongside that link to the history of the area, there’s also a major part that the mill can play in east London’s ongoing story.

“We have been in a period of recovery following the pandemic, but we were busy pre-lockdown with weddings, quiz nights, gin tastings and other events,” said Beverley.

“They might not relate to the history of the mill directly but once people are here we smuggle the heritage in.

“What we’ve found is that once people come through the door and see the size of the machinery they just love it and we have lots of stories we can tell them.”

The House Mill Trust is currently seeking funding and volunteers to continue its work.

The building will be open on Sundays in summer for guided tours costing £10 (including a guide book and a hot drink).

The House Mill’s next project is to refurbish its rear wooden facade

Read more: How The Qube is offering creators studio space in Canary Wharf

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Stratford: How Jim And Tonic plans to use Sugar House Island to make gin and rum

Takeover of The Print House at Dane’s Yard includes bar, restaurant, terrace and two distilleries

From left, Jim And Tonic COO Mark Warren, founder Jim Mark and distiller Hendré Barnard – image James Perrin

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A lot can happen in six years.

A long-time fan of gin and tonic, Jim Mark had been on a skiing holiday to Norway and experienced the drink in a new way.

He was served big glasses with quality contents (think Williams Elegant Gin and Fever Tree Tonic), topped off with a variety of garnishes.

Before long he was gently slurring the words “Jim and tonic” and a business idea and brand name were born.

“That experience got me thinking about getting these flavours to everybody and so I bought jimandtonic.com for £20 – that was the beginning,” said Jim.

“We started in 2016 with one van – Genevieve – having agreed to trade on a golf course at a corporate event. 

“It was on a whim really, an idea to try and build a company that was about bringing wonderful gin and tonics with crazy garnishes to people, which not many had seen at the time. It went down really well.”

The day was such a success, in fact, that further sporting events followed as the fledgling company built its business from a mobile base.

“Then we got into Mercato Metropolitano, at Elephant And Castle, which was our first permanent bar,” said Jim.

“That’s where our main distillery is and it really helped our business.”

Jim And Tonic garnished with cucumber and lavender

Further expansion followed, including a partnership with brewery German Kraft, which brings us to 2022.

Jim And Tonic recently took over The Print House at Sugar House Island in Stratford and is in the process of creating a blockbuster home for the brand.

In addition to an extensive outdoor terrace, indoor bar and restaurant, there will be two distilleries – one for gin and one to create rum.

There’s also an events space and plans for a botanical rooftop garden on one of the two buildings the company has taken over.

“We visited this place and fell in love with it – it feels like an open space,” said Jim.

“In terms of hospitality, I think the area is underdeveloped – there’s not much of an offering for people.

“But these are lovely buildings, right by the water – there’s the outside space and we can make this a place that’s great for all.

“We’re a distillery but we want to create great spaces – boutique shops and bars for people to come and enjoy their gin and tonics.”

Located a short walk from Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, Sugar House Island is towards the Bow end of Stratford High Street. 

Jim And Tonic’s patch sits in Dane’s Yard, right on the banks of Three Mills Wall River Weir – a stretch of water that forms a triangle with the River Lea and Pudding Mill River.

With a plethora of wooden benches to choose from, lit by white bulbs strung above them, a bar on an open-top bus and a 40m, multicoloured tower lit by some 600 LEDs, Jim And Tonic makes the area an immensely attractive proposition.

And that’s before you even get to the stuff it serves.

Bar staff sharpen up their skills – image James Perrin

“At the moment we’re producing four gins, and a couple of other products, including a Ugandan project with a water charity to fund wells in Africa,” said Jim And Tonic distiller Hendré Barnard.

“We are a sustainable urban distillery, so we try to source as many ingredients locally as possible.

“Our London dry, for example, has botanicals that can be found within the M25. We also try to work with community gardens, that supply us with ingredients we use in the gin. 

“Our Roobee pink gin uses honey from urban apiaries, literally made in the capital.

“What really sets us apart is that we’re small scale compared to other so-called craft distilleries.

“We produce very small batches but we are looking to grow our sales to both consumers and businesses.

“We’ve got big plans and that’s one of the reasons we came here – to have a brand house, so that people can experience the process, do distillery tours, tastings and allow people to get their hands dirty to a certain extent, so they can see what we do and how we do it.

“We’re also going to be making new products for this area, speaking to the community and using local ingredients.”

One of those new products will be a first for Jim And Tonic – Sugar House Rum.

“Rum’s my favourite spirit and it’s really growing as a category,” said Jim And Tonic COO Matt Warren.

“As well as the distilleries over in the Caribbean, you can see a lot of variations with spiced rums, flavoured rums, and as a result it’s becoming a more popular drink. 

The Print House features an extensive terrace area
The Print House features an extensive terrace area

“It’s great for mixing cocktails and it’s an area that really interests us because there’s a bit of a scene in the UK now.

“Here, we want to expand what we’ve done already, to bring that same vibe we’ve created at other venues to Stratford, with good quality products and music. 

“This is an area that’s developing massively, with offices moving in and a lot of residential property.

“We want to make Jim And Tonic a great place to come, have a drink and some nice food – we have a really great chef here.

“Then add to that distillery tours, gin blending classes and events so we can do private bookings.

“We’ve already had our first wedding, so that’s something we want more of – a full calendar ranging from things like Yoga and community get-togethers to networking events and Oktoberfest.”

With all that in the pipeline, and Jim’s plans to create some kind of gin-on-tap system that delivers spirits at the press of a button, this is a place to try sooner rather than later.

The Print House is also home to Jim And Tonic's bar on a bus
The Print House is also home to Jim And Tonic’s bar on a bus

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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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