Beneath the roar of engines and the screech of wheels on the steel tracks of London's railways lies many a vibrant local business. Within the arches, longstanding traders ranging from motorbike repair shops to furniture restorers rub shoulders with creative start-ups: craft breweries, art galleries, and even a Korean barbershop-cum-cafe.
For decades, the comparatively affordable rents and malleable spaces offered by Network Rail have attracted many small businesses who aren't afraid of a bit of elbow grease (tenants are responsible for much of the interior maintenance). And with all that exposed brickwork and domed metallic ceilings, railway arches boast a bonafide industrial chic aesthetic. It's no wonder that plenty of the city's trendiest watering holes are located here. Let's have an explore, shall we?
40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey
We begin on Maltby Street, home to one of London's finest food markets. After a busy Saturday spent perusing posh condiments and stuffing your face with gourmet brownies, plonk yourself and your shopping bags down on at number 40 for a well-deserved glass of vino. The bar is tacked on to the Gergovie Wine warehouse, so if your evening aperitivo doesn't quite quench your thirst, you can pick up a bottle or two to take home with you.
40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey, SE1 3PA
Bar Story, Peckham
Who's up for an £6 negroni, then? Since it opened back in 2003, this wallet-friendly Peckham cocktail bar has become a bit of a local institution, beloved for its expertly-mixed drinks, wood-fired oven pizzas, and a no-frills, laid-back vibe. Rock up between 6pm and 7pm any day of the week and get two cocktails for £7.
Bar Story, 213 Blenheim Grove, Peckham, SE15 4QL
Bermondsey Beer Mile
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It's a pilgrimage for craft beer connoisseurs all over the city, and a way to incorporate some exercise into what inevitably amounts to a binge drinking session — which more than makes up for the potential liver damage... right? The Bermondsey Beer Mile is your chance to knock back the best artisanal brews the capital has to offer, via the legion of brewery taprooms and bottle shops that occupy this long stretch of railway arch.
As you squeeze your way through the crowds on a sunny Saturday (most of the breweries aren't open to the public during the week), it's hard to believe that the area's first brewery, Kernel, moved in a mere decade ago. Since then, Bermondsey has been the epicentre of London's craft beer revolution, with microbrewery after microbrewery bringing everything from Earl Grey IPAs to rich, chocolatey porters to the mile. The name is a little deceptive, though. Thanks to recent expansion you're currently looking at two-mile bar crawl, so wear some comfy shoes.
There's no definitive route, but beginning your pursuit of hoppyness at Maltby Market is always a good shout — that way you can line your stomach with some street food first.
Buster Mantis, Deptford
Located mere seconds from Deptford Station, this laid-back Jamaican-inspired bar — named for the island nation's first prime minister — is the perfect place to kill some time waiting for your train. Watch out though: too much of their famously potent rum punch and you could find your journey plans totally derailed. The venue has recently become a staple of the underground jazz scene, hosting legendary midweek jams which incorporate everything from west African rhythms to future soul, grime and Afrofuturist spoken word.
Buster Mantis, 3-4 Resolution Way, Deptford, SE8 4NT
Camden Town Brewery
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Curious about the life-cycle of your Camden Hells? Let Camden Town Brewery give you the the low-down on how their libations make their way to your charmingly squat pint glass. The team will resume running tours at the Kentish Town brewery in spring 2019, and there's a taproom onsite so you can sample the fruits of their labour.
Camden Town Brewery, 55-59 Wilkin Street Mews, NW5 3NN.
Draughts, Hackney and Waterloo
The rhythmic rumble of the Overground intermingles with cries of outrage arising from a particularly acrimonious round of Articulate at London's first ever board game cafe. Draughts, which opened after a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2014, stocks over 800 games as well as a decent selection of booze. So go forth and chug craft beer over a game of Cluedo, master Monopoly while nursing a glass of Merlot, or opt for a quiet cuppa and a round of Connect 4.
Its second venue, which opened in Waterloo in 2018 also resides in a railway arch, part of the famous Waterloo Vaults and Leake Street area.
Arch 337, Acton Mews, Haggerston, E8 4EA /Arch 16, Leake Street, Waterloo, SE1 7NN
Doodle Bar, Bermondsey
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Completely doodled wall after the last #DoodleJam night when we had some seriously talented illustrators in the house. Are you inspired? Get yourself down to one of our upcoming creative workshops and get your artistic brain working! Link in bio. #aoi #creativeworkshops #kidsworkshops #screenprinting #ceramics #painting #drawing #art #science #okido #arcticexplorers #icebergs #photography #illustration #doodles #burgers #drinks #cocktails #pingpong #goodvibes
Embrace your inner Picasso at a bar that lets you scribble all over the walls. After Doodle Bar was pushed out of Battersea to make way for luxury flats, it found an new home on Bermondsey's Druid Street. There's also a ping pong table for the more athletically-inclined, plus over twenty types of gin to really bring out that competitive spirit.
Doodle Bar, 60 Druid Street, Bermondsey, SE1 2EZ
Little Nan's, Deptford
If you're a sucker for all things kitsch, you'll love Little Nan's. Named in tribute to owner Tristan's late grandmother, this Deptford cocktail bar takes Pat Butcher as its muse: think animal print fabric, Union Jacks, and a menagerie of delightfully wacky knick-knacks. There's even a golden bust of the iconic EastEnders diva on display. In the wrong hands, this could all come off unbearably twee, but it retains the authentic, homespun feel that made it a truly unique south east London gem. The drinks menu is also a lot of fun; pop in for a teapot cocktail or a spiked slushy.
Little Nan's, Arches 13-15, Deptford Market Yard, SE8 4BX
Mother Kelly's, Bethnal Green
You're spoilt for choice at this NYC-style taproom, which boasts 23 ever-changing brews on tap, plus half a dozen fridges chock-full of bottles and cans (just don't expect to find your bog standard, off-licence tinnies here). At the bar, you can find all sorts of colourful concoctions, from amber IPAs to a ruby red Krier lambic. Mother Kelly's gets bonus points for its numerical menu. So if you're not quite sure how to ask for a half of, say, Brouwerij 't IJ you can just quote the tap number instead and avoid outing yourself as a beer novice.
Mother Kelly's, 251 Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, E2 9LE
Night Tales, Hackney
An exotic world of sensory delights lies inside the charcoal-black arches of Hackney's aptly-named Bohemia Place. Here, you'll find one heck of a sound system, an agave bar, and a brilliantly illuminated Japanese-inspired terrace complete with luxury day beds in case you fancy a lie-down. Night Tales is more than just a pretty face, though, and has welcomed the likes of Four Tet, Django Django and Groove Armada to its decks.
Night Tales, 14 Bohemia Place, Hackney, E8 1DU
Renegade, Bethnal Green
Sick of the same old Sauvignon Blanc? Make a beeline for urban winery Renegade. True to its name, you can expect to find all sorts of characterful libations here, concocted in small batches with minimal human intervention. In the taproom, candles flicker atop benches and barrels and the air is heady with the aroma of fermenting fruit. Basically, it's got all the ingredients for a night of good old fashioned Bacchanalian revelry.
Renegade, Arch 12, Gales Gardens, Bethnal Green, E2 0EJ
The Wanstead Tap, Forest Gate
Who would've thought you'd find one of London's widest range of craft brews in the midst of a load of garages in Forest Gate. For those after something a little lighter, you'll be pleased to hear that the Wanstead Tap also pours out local, small-batch spirits. And if you're after a dose of culture, the bar hosts regular discussions, short film screenings, and intimate gigs.
The Wanstead Tap, Arch 352, Winchelsea Road, Forest Gate, E7 0AQ
If any of these tickle your fancy, go full steam ahead and start exploring now, because change could be afoot for London's railway arches. In 2018, Network Rail sold its portfolio to a pair of property investors — Blackstone and Telereal Trillium — for a cool £1.5 billion. The sale provoked considerable controversy, with some taking the view that Network Rail should retain the rental income and used it to fund crucial infrastructure maintenance. Others took issue with the choice of buyer. Network Rail was responsible for dramatically bumping up rents and thus forcing small businesses out in recent years, and there are fears that this trend will continue under the purview of big business, with profit prized over community well-being.
The MD of Telereal Trillium has taken pains to allay such fears, telling the press that the company will be taking a tenant-centric approach to business, including support for struggling trader tenants. He also announced the company's intention to reopen hundreds of the capital's vacant arches. Whether these are made affordable for small businesses — and whether the incoming owner's pledge to protect existing traders is honoured — remains to be seen.