What is all this kafuffle about a patch of south Chinese sea we literally had to Google-map? Are we not ignoring martial manoeuvres closer to home? The DLR dispatched its war correspondent to London Fields, where events are hotting up (though much more tastily).
Is Hackney the hearth of London? This is the question we railway dwellers have been asking ourselves as every second archway space along Mentmore Terrace, under the Liverpool Street Line, has filled up over the past two years with perfect batches of organic loaves. It has been a turf war, a fight to the finish for the right to sell artisanally milled products to London Fields’ zealous runners and otherwise carb-conscious yogis, lured in by the train line’s suspiciously sweet odours.
There are four baking outfits in the running, all of which used to be under a single arch: the E5 Bakehouse and Happy Kitchen, the brainchildren of Ben MacKinnon and Lisa Stockton respectively; Mini Magoos, purveyors of fine organic cereal and Yeast Bakery, which makes croissants that taste like you’re in France.
This spell of common bakery disintegrated last month when Ben decided there was too little space and too many cooks in the arch under the Liverpool line, and set up shop in a mega-arch a few doors down devoted solely to bread production. By mid-June Ben’s E5 Bakehouse had become a superior supplier and one felt a little treacherous buying one’s buns there. Ben and his team (including a neuroscientist, a web designer and an urban planner) now make on average 180 loaves a day, selling seven varieties to local restaurants like Brawn and the Corner Room. Most customers come early: expect London Fields commuters grabbing a coffee, cyclists, runners and a roomful of people who wouldn’t otherwise say hello to each other.
One month on, another arch opening. With her best friend and business partner Ellie Pennington, earlier this July Lisa established Happy Kitchen, a café and haven for vegans. (Which, fortunately, you wouldn’t know unless you ask.) They only use plant-based products – cashew nuts replace dairy on each platter of creamily rippling cakes – and have diversified into the kind of culinary staples that every Hackneyite should be ashamed to do without: Madagascan vanilla pods (buy them at wholesale prices as presents for friends), organic spelt and lentils in a rainbow of hues. Coffee is good and cheap at £2 a cup. And the love has spread fast, slightly reinforcing West London’s suspicions about Hackney business acumen, as the staff at Broadway Market’s wildly popular La Bouche hope that the caffeine addicts behind their 800 cups-a-day turnover (literally their estimated weekend sales figures) will bring their habit and their laptops to the more spacious setting of Happy Kitchen. With a genuinely beautiful interior and cakes to die for, this is a railway arch like no other. It also seems Happy Kitchen is a few steps ahead with a full throttle pitch to that holy grail of gentrification – consignment of their brownies in Waitrose.
If you find yourself overindulging, Mentmore Terrace is also host to an entirely antidotal experience: the railway arch gym. Again you have a choice as a number of personal trainers and gym professionals have put two fingers up at Fitness First and taken their expertise to the rumbling open spaces of London Fields’ arches. Never has a bums-and-tums class been so free of territorial war waged over matt space. And never has a class been so unavoidable for the casual passerby – karate kickers practically lunge out into the street. This makes for perfect free advertising as watching sessions is engaging and ever so slightly guilt inducing. But signing up is no emotional or financial burden – a pay-as-you-go system means you can turn up whenever a yoga or boxing class takes your fancy. Low rents and staff with solid mainstream experience make £5 – 8 a pop both possible and excellent value for an hour’s session.
Until six months ago the gym at 379 Mentmore Terrace (next to the more classic archway business Mr Chu’s Garage) was a bakery of a different sort. From a fiery hole sweating men, not dissimilar to the present muscle-bound clients, used to load crates of Hovis-esque loaves into lorries at 3am. For residents the sweet synthetic dough became the olfactory equivalent to a kebab after a night out. You might even find yourself partying with the local bakers now. One mouthful and you are merrily sharing local gossip drawn unwittingly into “the community” you never really believed existed. Buy your bread from E5 Bakehouse and talk to Ben – he knows every latest Hackney idiosyncrasy. Then go hang out at Happy Kitchen; it does what it says on the packet.
Arches from North to South:
Not included here are hand car washing and garage services, an overpriced retro furniture shop and the joinery and metalworkers arches, the last of which will make bespoke items on request.
402: Happy Kitchen production unit, Mini Magoos and E8’s elusive croissant king
395: E5 Bakehouse, with weekly bread-making classes
393: London Fields Old Station Office, now home to Happy Kitchen, also with evening classes
379: London Fields Fitness Studios – personal trainers Roger Love and Sapan Sehgal are popular coaches