Image: Niamh Carroll

Hidden under Bethnal Green’s railway arches

Writer, Niamh Carroll, sets off on a mission to discover the best and most surprising businesses that live under Bethnal Green’s railway arches.

London’s converted railway arches have always fascinated me. Ever since I moved to Bethnal Green, I have walked past the railway arches at a distance but not had the time to explore further (or the businesses that live underneath have been closed over lockdown). So I relish the opportunity to go explore the different shops, cafes and restaurants that occupy the railway arches.

In our densely populated city, every inch of space is valuable. It is no wonder that even the arches under railway bridges have become a site for development in London. Here in Bethnal Green, there are dozens of businesses tucked away under the converted railway arches. After all, our area is serviced by two overground stations: Cambridge Heath and Bethnal Green, providing ample opportunities for their converted railway arches to be converted into businesses. So I’ve set myself quite a task: to traverse all the arches in Bethnal Green.

I started my mission at the south-west of Bethnal Green, exiting the tunnel on Vallance Road. Inside the railway tunnel, I notice a car garage (one of many I encountered on this journey). This particular garage was actually halfway along the tunnel, walking through I almost would not have noticed it had it not been for the sound of whirring machinery mixed in with 80s pop music from the mechanics’ radios that drifted from the enclave.

The entrance to Madeira garage, tucked under the railway bridge
Image: Niamh Carroll

Upon emerging from the tunnel into the light, I turn right to begin my journey. Breid bakers occupies the first of the arches I come upon. Breid is a bakery which makes and sells sourdough bread from its archway home. When you enter the shop to buy your loaf, you can see the bakers at work in the back of the shop, proving just how fresh the product is. 

The smell of fresh bread in Breid made my mouth water, and as I exited the shop I got an impulse to tear a chunk off for myself. I resisted, knowing that there would be ample opportunity to eat on my journey. 

I walked further down Three Colts Lane, the street was surprisingly busy for a Monday evening, I was passed by walkers enjoying early evening sunshine in Weavers Fields, and worshippers heading to and from the nearby mosque. 

One of the railway arches with a blossom tree in front
Image: Niamh Carroll

I walked to The Arches Cafe along the same road unlike Breid which is a recent addition to the area, The Arches has more of a traditional East London cafe feel. For the moment, the cafe only has a couple of tables outside, but people still come by to pick up the breakfast food, baked potatoes and wraps served up in The Arches. I make a mental note that the cafe would make a great stop for a fry-up on the way to catch the overground at Bethnal Green some morning, as it’s just a few doors down from the station. 

The shutter at Arches Cafe, decorated with breakfast items

Thoughts of delicious fried food filling my brain, I made my way further down Three Colts Lane. Although technically not built into an archway itself, Fugitive Motel is an American-style bar and restaurant with a beer garden- “The Yard” built down the side of the railway bridge. The fairy-lights and cozy decor of the beer garden contrast with the brick of the old railway bridge which has served Bethnal Green for decades. 

After popping into Fugitive Motel for a quick drink, I make my way up Cambridge Heath Road, although there are no arches to be investigated here, I enjoy watching people play an after-work game of tennis in Bethnal Green Gardens. 

Bethnal Green Gardens with a view towards the tennis courts

My next stop on my railway arch journey takes me down Bethnal Green Road to rejoin the railway bridge. The alleyway to the side of this bridge is really easy to miss, but when I walk down it is teeming with activity. For lovers of hops and vines, Gales Gardens can provide both. The alleyway is home to both Renegade Urban Winery and Old Street Brewery. Both have found homes in converted railway arches. 

On this warm spring evening, the Doc Marten wearing, round glasses-sporting drinkers of Old Street Brewery are here in force, sipping on craft beers on benches outside the premises. I chat to a member of staff about the converted railway arch, ‘It’s cool isn’t it?,’ she says, ‘I think there was a strip club down here before.’ Clearly, the clientele in the area has changed in recent years.

A view into Old Street Brewery

The most famous set of arches are those at Paradise Row. I made my way across Bethnal Green Road and walked past Paradise Gardens to these businesses. Clearly, the pandemic has inspired a new uptake of outdoor dining- even on a Monday evening the outside terraces of the restaurants and bars that occupy these arches were almost full. With music playing and the sun shining, Bethnal Green feels more like Barcelona as people enjoy drinking and eating. 

Row of restaurants in the converted railway arches at Paradise Row
Image: Niamh Carroll

There are a number of bars and restaurants on this strip, but I made my way towards the end of the row. I managed to find a table at Arepa & Co, a Venezuelan restaurant in one of the railway arches. The bar was blasting Latin music in their terrace, giving the area a summery feel. I had never had Venezuelan food before, I expressed this to my waitress Petra. ‘Neither had I, before I got this job,’ she said, ‘But now I love it!’ 

I ordered a cachapa- a sweetcorn pancake filled with beans, avocado, plantain and cheese. It’s delicious. While eating my meal and sipping on an (excellent) mojito, I look around me. On this little stretch, there is a Michelin-mentioned restaurant, a Venezuelan restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, and more. All tucked away under Bethnal Green’s railway bridges. 

Food at Arepa and Co
Food at Arepa and Co.

In decades past, these arches across Bethnal Green were either unused, or home to a scattering of car garages. Although garages are still a prevalent feature of the arches, there is now much more diversity in terms of what businesses occupy these spaces. These days, alongside the sound of machinery and the chatting of mechanics, you can pop into an arch for a freshly-made sourdough loaf, or to sip on a cocktail. 

Bethnal Green’s railway bridges were built to take passengers to and fro on the overground. Now, with many of the arches having been converted into businesses, the structures provide much more than just a way to get about.  The arches have become a home for a diverse range of businesses that all enrich our area. 

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