Britain's Railways Created the Country's Biggest Clubs and Gentrification Shut Them Down
“If King’s Cross were human it would have crow’s feet, broken veins, a beer belly, stretch marks, and a filthy cackle.”
One of DJ Ariel's legendary 8 hour sets at Bagley's Studios in Kings Cross.
King's Cross, currently the site of the largest redevelopment project in Europe, was the heart of London's clubland for over a decade. It's difficult to picture the area surrounding King's Cross and St. Pancras station as having any connection to dance music, but back in the 90s it was notorious for its 24 hour raves. "If King's Cross were human it would have crow's feet, broken veins, a beer belly, stretch marks, and a filthy cackle," wrote a reporter from the Evening Standard back in 1996, perturbed by the thousands of clubbers swarming there each weekend from as far as Leeds and Cardiff.
Since the Eurostar terminal moved to the area, the station and the surrounding land have undergone a 10 Years Younger transformation: giving it a facelift, liposuction and a wardrobe update. Today, King's Cross is home to the Guardian, Google, Central St. Martins and King's Place - a multimillion pound arts centre and conference hall. That said, the project is not yet completed, and the railway arches that stretch from the station currently lie empty. Before it was cleared out in 2009, the goods yard, opposite what's now known as Granary Square, housed a trio of clubs that together made up one of central London's largest clubbing space: Bagley's, The Cross and The Key.
Bagley's, a former film studio adjacent to the arches, first started hosting warehouse raves in the late 80s, and attracted around 2,500 clubbers to its Freedom parties each Saturday. In 2003, Bagley's was taken over by Billy Reilly, who had previously opened a club called The Cross next door to the studio. Reilly had worked for his family's haulage and car repair firm in the neighbouring arches since the early 80s and saw a business opportunity in catching some of the crowds that were flooding into the area.Bagley's back in 1994.
"I was 21-years-old at the time. I did go clubbing but had no experience whatsoever of running a club. For me it was purely a money-making venture," admits Reilly. Unable to work days at the garage and nights at the club, Reilly soon sold his family business and took up running The Cross full-time, gradually consolidating his monopoly over the area by taking over the running of Bagley's and opening a third club, The Key, the same year. Nightclubs have become the Reilly's new family trade, and Billy's older brother Keith Reilly is also the co-owner of Fabric.
For a self-confessed wheeler-dealer, the younger Reilly brother is unconvincing in his apathy towards the loss of the empire he created, professing to view the clubs with the emotional detachment of a property developer, while remaining proud of his achievement. "It was derelict land, a red light district, which I found quite inspirational when I opened the club. I liked the seediness of the site. It was my own part of heaven in the wastelands. It was like a utopia for me," he says. At its height, both Madonna and The Rolling Stones used the studios to film music videos and Prince also performed there at an afterparty. Although Reilly is less than impressed by the Prince show, recalling that "he tried hitting on the girl I was with at the time."
Surprisingly, Reilly doesn't bear any grudges towards his former landlords, Network Rail, despite the loss of a profitable business. "They were very good to us, they extended our lease, they let us do things like TDK festival and I can't see many other landlords doing that. Especially when I look back and think of the risk they took."
Network Rail, who leased Reilly the studio and arches, are one of the UK's biggest landlords, renting out similar spaces to over 7,000 small businesses. Their plots, mostly situated in railside industrial badlands, are often ideal for nightclubs, offering locations away from residential properties at cut-price rents. "You can negotiate on your own terms because most people wouldn't touch them with a barge pole," says Reilly.A One Nation clubnight at Bagley's, Valentine's Day 2001.
That might have been true twenty years ago but many of these once unattractive units are now prime spots for lucrative regeneration projects. Bagley's Studio and the surrounding arches will be the future site of the Coal Drops Yard, a "unique shopping destination in London" according to Argent, the developers of the King's Cross site. Last decade's desolate wastelands are this year's playgrounds for the super-rich. Former industrial and manufacturing buildings have become sought-after design features, crucial to branding in the luxury housing market. Argent are trumpeting the "heritage" of the site in their marketing, going as far to describe the gas towers as "one of London's architectural treasures".
Initially, Camden council had specified that 50% of properties built on the site be allocated as affordable housing. The Guardian, who own a stake in the development, gave a glowing report - which neglects to disclose their involvement - by reiterating this statistic, despite there currently being only 260 properties of a total 2000 (13%) listed as affordable and social housing in the developer's online promotional material. Back in the 19th century, when goods were still being ferried through Regent's Canal, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company built affordable houses to accommodate 104 railway workers and their families displaced by improvements to the waterways. A history that is, without irony, mentioned in the advertising copy for the offices that have since replaced the homes.
Further down the road is another one of London's clubbing institutions, Egg. Opened in 2003, off York Way, the location - surrounded by land previously classified for industrial use - was the perfect spot for promoter Laurence Malice to birth his own nightclub after having run legendary gay club night Trade. Malice was the first promoter to obtain a 24 hour license for Trade which ran for over a decade in Clerkenwell nightclub Turnmills. "Imagine Inferno. That's what it was like," Malice told the Independent, when asked to describe the club in its heyday.
In 2008, Turnmills' lease expired and the building was demolished to make way for offices. Malice's own venture, Egg, is now under threat from a residential development, spurred on by the King's Cross project, right across the street from the club's doors. For the time being, Malice is optimistic but resigned to the lack of options open to him: "We are tirelessly putting things into place every day in order for us to coexist with our new neighbours that's all we can do. Wherever I go gentrification will follow."
While Malice is determined to stand his ground, others club owners have elected to go on their own terms rather than potentially face eviction later. Like Reilly, club promoter Wayne Shires opened Crash and Area in the railway arches outside of Vauxhall station. Shires has been running warehouse parties and nightclubs since the late 80s. His first club, Soho's Substation, which was inspired by New York's gay club scene, came under continual harassment from local authorities and the police.
"I was under scrutiny quite a lot because [Substation] was quite hardcore - not as hardcore as the leather scene - but we were full-on," says Shires. "We had ridiculous conditions on our license, like people had to be 'properly attired'. We'd have 500 guys with their shirts off and when the police visited they'd demand that I tell people to put their shirts back on. 'You try going on the microphone and telling everyone to put their bloody shirts back on' I told them". Inevitably, Shires ended up in court: "I was arrested for running a disorderly house, but me and my business partner at the time totally wiped the floor with them, which made it even worse because they just visited every night once we'd won."
Vauxhall, which already had a small gay scene, offered some respite from the intimidation which Shires suffered in London's West End. In the early days, Lambeth council seemed to turn a blind eye to the clubs springing up in the arches or least tolerated their existence. "The arches were desolate, mostly car repair places or storage places but they were cheap," explains Shires. "Network Rail didn't really care who rented them out, they were big drippy arches that they couldn't get rid of, so if you said you wanted to turn one into a club they would go as far as to help you. Even going so far as to subsiding you by knocking off rent for periods while you were refurbishing which is unheard of for a landlord."
For a few years Crash was the jewel in Vauxhall's gay scene, drawing thousands away from the West End each weekend, many often staying from Friday through to Sunday. But the creeping gentrification of the area was enough to prompt Shires to get out. "I saw it coming, we'd have meetings with the council about 'the appearance' of my clubs. They'd complain that [Crash] is just a big black brick wall. But it's a club, want do you want, hanging baskets? I could see that gentrification agenda already coming from Lambeth five or six years ago. I suppose you don't want half a dozen clubs with people coming out of them at all hours of the day when people are buying million pound properties nearby." Shires has since moved on to running London's biggest LGBT parties: Summer Rites and Winter Pride.
Vauxhall, much like King's Cross, is part of a vast ongoing redevelopment project backed by Boris Johnson. The centrepiece of the Mayor's plans are what will be London's tallest residential skyscraper, just down the road from the arches, being built by Chinese developers Dalian Wanda – owned by one of the country's wealthiest men Wang Jianlin.
Similar plans are afoot down the river near London Bridge, already rebranded and partitioned as London Bridge Quarter. Last year, in one of the biggest blows to London's clubbing scene, Network Rail took possession of Cable after a long-running battle to stay open. "'We've made a mistake,' they literally worded it that way," says Ryan Ashmore, a former Managing Director of the club, "the mistake being they had forgotten to include emergency escape staircases [from London Bridge station's platforms]."
It's a story all too familiar for Ashmore who was previously Labels and Promotions Manager at The End, another club closed due to redevelopments back in 2009. According to Ashmore, when Network Rail initially leased the space they guaranteed it would not be affected by its plans for London Bridge station. Secure in the knowledge the club was safeguarded from future projects, Cable invested heavily in the venue. "It was good for nothing," says Ashmore of the arches that Cable was housed in, "a club was the only business that could thrive in that surrounding, no one else could have taken it off them or else it wouldn't have stood empty since 1986. It took millions of pounds of infrastructure just to make it safe for people to walk into."
Cable had ambitions of becoming a global clubbing brand to rival that of the Ministry of Sound, just round the corner from it. But unlike Ministry, it was a proving ground for new artists and scenes. The club was an early supporter of dubstep and a home to two long-running grime club nights, Licked Beatz and Butterz. Elijah, who founded the latter label and club night together with Skilliam, lamented the end of the club on his Tumblr at the time. "I'm obviously gutted as Butterz has lost it's club home, but I'm more unhappy about the overall club landscape in London right now. Options are shrinking, club line ups are taking less risks… We are encouraged to create jobs for ourselves then they strip away our meeting points and cultural hubs and replace them with Costas, Subways and more retail units and housing nobody that works in those shops can afford."
The developers of London Bridge Station, boast on their website that their "vision of a London Bridge Quarter occupies a strategically important area of London." Several questions come to mind: strategically important to who? What place, if any, did Cable have in that vision? After the upgrade is completed in 2018, the retail space in London Bridge will have increased sevenfold to a space the size of Wembley Stadium. "[Network Rail] haven't spoken to us directly to this day," says Ashmore. "We've made many attempts to contact and negotiate with them but they've treated us like we were nothing. It's not just us; many of our neighbours were dealt with terribly."
Clubs haven't been the only tenants forced out by Network Rail. Last week, Southwark council approved Network Rail's application to turn the arches near Southwark station – previously occupied by five small businesses including a van rental company, a costume designer and a theatre – into restaurants. Earlier this year they insisted that offices were the only viable use for the space despite 10,000 people signing a petition in protest. "We are planning to refurbish the railway arches as part of our wider regeneration plans. Rental income helps reduce the cost of the railway to passengers and the taxpayer, which is why we continue to invest in improving it," a spokesperson from Network Rail told the Evening Standard.
Although many club closures have taken place in London, exacerbated in the capital by the current housing boom, they are also occurring around the country. In the UK's smaller cities, those losses are all the more significant. Guilford nightclub Backline Live was closed in 2012 after Network Rail increased its rent by 400%. Janey Manley took over the club together with her son Scott Bell after the previous owners had gone into administration. "They let us take it on knowing that they didn't want it as a nightclub and then priced us out," says Manley. Whatever plans Network Rail had for the space, any prospective tenants would have to redesign a purpose-built club. As well as offering an alternative to the mainstream chain clubs in the city centre, Backline provided a space in the suburbs for local teenagers to perform and somewhere to go at the weekends. It hasn't been leased since its closure.
While Network Rail maintain that they are seeking out profits to subside costs for the public, rail fares have continued to rise year on year – up by 20% since 2010. Currently, Network Rail operates somewhere in the grey area between private and public entity. This year the company was effectively nationalised when £32bn of its debt was shifted onto the Treasury's books. However, it continues to enjoy many of the benefits of operating in the private sector: expending its resources on consultancy services to Saudi Arabia, bidding for a shopping centre in Birmingham despite warnings over its profitability, and operating outside of the scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.
For two decades, nightclubs shared an uneasy relationship with the privatised British railway network. They offered a solution to the lack of demand for railside property, brought life to blighted areas and offered a community space for marginalised groups that councils failed to make provisions for. With clubs pushed out of city centres, the clubbing scene has become evermore fractured and reliant on antiseptic conference spaces for large-scale events. If Network Rail is a government body, it should be accountable to our interests and needs. Out of the thousands of units it lets, how many stand empty and disused when they could be used as public spaces?
Reilly, who's opened two new clubs, Pacha and Qube, after presiding over the King's Cross clubbing scene for over a decade, remains ambivalent towards the current pace of development in the capital. He's insists that "you can't stand in the way of progress" while adamant in the belief that "there should be more clubs in London." It might be unrecognisable from the King's Cross where the Reilly family haulage firm was based and the nearby estates where he grew up, but he's still committed to having his ashes scattered on the site of his former clubs.
"There's only one problem, I've got a new girlfriend and she wants me to change my will and be buried so she can come talk to me," says Reilly. "I told her 'just jump on the train and come to King's Cross.' I want my ashes scattered across King's Cross because my heart still lives there."
Photo credits: DJ Fluid, DJ Ariel, Ryan Ashmore, Alan Cross and Wayne Shires.
You can follow Adam Bychawski here: @adambychawski