The Battle for Britain's Iconic Railway Arch Nightclubs
National Rail and developers are doing their best to rid the UK of its railway arch nightclubs.
Crucifix Lane's old premises (Photo by Tom Butrik)
The UK's clubbing scene has taken a real pounding of late. A recent report showed that half of the nation's nightclubs have shut their doors since 2005. In the last year, two of Soho's most treasured establishments, Madame Jojo's and Escape, have had to call it a day after an incident with a couple of bouncers and a baseball bat; a number of other London gay bars have been announcing closure in quick succession; Hackney Council has been trying to clamp down on venue licensing; The Arches in Glasgow recently shut its doors after 25 years of business; and Bristol club Syndicate has also just closed.
You get the idea: we've gone through a decade of authorities attacking one of the UK's most vibrant industries, bit by bit. And to compound the problem, clubs aren't being replaced with newer and better venues with Funktion-One sound systems or Balearic-style terraces; instead, they're being targeted by some of the biggest corporations and councils in the country to make way for other types of businesses or housing developments. If this continues to happen, the UK's underground music culture will be under even more serious threat than it currently is.
One particular victim of this war on nightlife are clubs housed in railway arches, which have turned into piñatas for developers, councils and Network Rail in recent years, ready to be blown apart and replaced by housing or rail tracks. The Arches, Cable, Crucifix Lane, The Cockpit, Area and SE1 are just a handful of nightclubs based in railway arches that have been forced to shut up shop.
The politics surrounding the closure of these clubs is complex; some have fallen out of fashion, while others have been forced into administration after the outcome of Licensing Board legislation and changes to local council policy. However, the closures of some are linked to elaborate plans to clean up the areas surrounding railway arches, creating a "vibrant high street" – as is the case with Area and the Nine Elms regeneration in Vauxhall, for example.
Euan Johnston's story is one example of the way in which city councils and Britain's most recognised rail service have been working together on a mass extermination of our best nightclubs. A decade ago, Euan effectively ran London Bridge's clubbing scene. His first venture in the area was the club SE1, followed by Crucifix Lane and – shortly after – Cable, which all were forcibly shut down due to issues with Network Rail. Euan has since gone on to open The Steelyard in the City of London but continues his legal battles with Network Rail after the way they handled the repossession of his nightclub premises.
Euan begins to explain to me the closure of Crucifix Lane earlier this year. The club operated under different names for 20 years and hosted nights with acts from the Chemical Brothers to Nightslugs. He says it was "taken back under a redevelopment break clause in its lease". He tells me that the club had proof that Network Rail wanted the club back "in order to attempt to relocate another business they had evicted just down the road under Thameslink and that, if they could relocate successfully, they would not have had to pay £1.2 million in compensation". Crucifix Lane discovered Network Rail's plan to evict them so they could relocate the other unit because Euan was good friends with the owner of the unit and they spoke about their plan.
Knowing this, Crucifix Lane decided to challenge Network Rail's decision. The rail giant realised their position and abandoned the relocation of the other unit, but still went ahead with the eviction of the nightclub – despite Euan offering an increased rent to stay in the arch. They weren't the only ones evicted. The property next door, which was occupied by an artisan printer, was also kicked out in order to make way for the same relocation. That property has been sitting empty for nearly four years, adding further salt to the wound. Euan explains that much of this process was being done with taxpayer's money and that the unit stands empty with no rent being generated, despite the club's wishes to stay in the area and pay higher rents.
The iconic clubs SE1 and Cable were also taken back under the redevelopment of London Bridge station, despite Network Rail giving Cable reassurance that it would not be needed for the Thameslink work. The club released a statement in May of 2013 following their closure with immediate effect, saying, "We have been forced to close following two years of ongoing legal battles with Network Rail, who took possession of the venue" with an entry order. I got in contact with Network Rail about Cable, and they said the club was within the area undergoing the £6.5 billion Thameslink redevelopment, and that the plans had been in the public domain for many years before work commenced.
A Network Rail spokesperson told me: "Our tenants [Cable] were formally told in April 2011 of the need for us to take back possession so we could start on this essential work on this essential project. The tenancy came to an end just over two years later in May 2013." I asked Network Rail if they have ever put any pressure on clubs to close, perhaps in order to clean up the area around the arches because of some of the "negative conceptions" attached to nightclubs. The same spokesperson answered, "No, absolutely not. We value all our tenants and have actively supported many nightclubs and night-time venues over the years to become thriving businesses."
Network Rail is not directly responsible for all the closures of nightclubs in arches, but they do play a part in the recent decline. They still remain Britain's biggest landlord to small and medium size businesses, and their spokesperson claims they reinvest every penny they make renting out these properties in the railways. Apparently this helps to keep costs down for passengers and taxpayers, but considering we have the most expensive rail fares in Europe, something doesn't sound right.
To understand why clubs in railway arches are under threat, it's important to look at their history. After being battered during World War II, our city centres started to look like baron wastelands. People bought cars, fell in love with commuter towns and the suburban utopia, and quickly left the cities for gardens and 20-minute direct trains to Waterloo. Our city centres became relatively degenerated and no one wanted anything to do with them for a while.
Then, in the late-1980s, things changed; the rave scene exploded, and with it came illegal parties. It didn't take long for Margaret Thatcher to clamp down on these, though, which slowly led to the movement of the rave scene to actual nightclubs dedicated to dance music. In the 1990s, Manchester had The Hacienda, Liverpool had Cream and London had Turnmills, Ministry of Sound and the King's Cross clubbing mecca of Bagley's and The Cross.
Nightclub operators were attracted to city centres because they were easily accessible and the land was cheap, especially in railway arches. Amanda Moss and Adrian Jones, directors of Elephant and Castle's Corsica Studios, originally set the club up in the late-90s in the King's Cross area before it was redeveloped for the Eurostar terminals. Their landlords were Continental Railways (known today as Network Rail) as they moved around the area for the next few years.
At the turn of the millennium, the Eurostar scheme kicked in and many clubs in the area shut. Amanda and Adrian took a risk and moved to their second railway arch in Elephant and Castle, knowing the area was about to be redeveloped but was sort of safeguarded by how long big schemes actually take to come to fruition. Corsica, like many clubs, moved to the arches because the rent was cheap and the building naturally absorbs sound, so paying for soundproofing wasn't a big issue. However, most of these arches were in a severe state of disrepair, and clubs were spending thousands – if not millions – of pounds transforming the spaces and making them useable.
Amanda and Adrian explain to me that the concept of investing money and doing something creative in Elephant and Castle was new to Spacia (also known as Network Rail now), their landlords at the time. As nightclubs moved into the city centres, so too did young people. Urban living became trendy; everybody wanted a piece of places like Shoreditch, and it wasn't long before the developers moved in, starting a wave of gentrification that has continued to this day.
I ask the Corsica founders for their thoughts. "We wouldn't say that it is Network Rail who are solely having a negative effect on music and club culture – it's a bigger problem in that London is being carved up and sold off to property developers who are building residential developments that most Londoners can't afford to live in," says Amanda. "These people have little to no interest in understanding and engaging with the culture of the community."
The pair continue by saying that railway arches are no longer viewed as undesirable, and that London's creative businesses are all eroding and getting pushed further and further afield from the centre of the capital. They explain that Network Rail are now deciding what sort of businesses are "appropriate" for their properties, and the businesses that have traditionally filled them – MOT workshops, storage units and nightclubs – may soon be deemed "inappropriate" for the parade of arches in new urban town centres.
I ask the founders of the Warehouse Project – a Manchester club night that has run in a number of locations, railway arches included – if they've ever been pressured by Network Rail or developers up north. Co-Director Sam Kandel said: "In Manchester, the balance remains pretty good, and that is down to the attitude of the authorities. In London, we aren't so close to it, but certainly it seems like some venues are under immense pressure, both from landlords looking to maximise rents and local authorities who no longer see any value in nightclubs, when all they want to do now is get people living there in million-pound apartments."
Sam reckons that, ten years ago, those nightclubs were likely one of the main reasons people wanted to move to London. "I suppose it's kind of like what happened with all the seminal New York clubs," he says. "The developers came in and gradually, one by one, they closed."
Cities have to evolve to meet the demand for housing; that's a given. But surely there are ways of building flats that don't result in nightclubs being shut down.
Alan D Miller, Chairman of NTIA (Night Time Industries Association), told me, "One of the key issues is the value, both cultural and economic, that is placed on clubs. Rather than being seen as a nuisance to be dispensed with – either by authorities that view them as 'crime creators' or freeholders that see them as useful for a quick buck but then to be dispensed with down the road – we need to build recognition for the enormous contribution clubs make to the life of a city and area [among] town and city planners, along with stakeholders."
Railway arches have always made sense for creative businesses – whether that's nightclubs, live music venues or theatres – because they were cheap to rent, and creative businesses often don't have very much money when they start out. It's only in the last 20 years that developers have started to find other uses for them, whether that's restaurants, offices or high-end retail.
Euan Johnston tells me: "What we are seeing and experiencing now is part of the great cycle. What I can also tell you is that it is usually whilst in the tough of decline that great things subsequently emerge; new energy, different styles, fresh sounds. So fuck the doom-mongers – where our industry is concerned they've always been wrong."
I hope Euan is right. But I also worry that if we continue to treat clubs like they're some criminal element of society then we might genuinely be heading towards their extinction. There's a vague sense of hope that local council planners and Network Rail might come together to support nightlife in the same way that cities like Berlin do – but the way things are going, too much optimism seems like a dangerous thing.
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