House & Garden | Diary of a Somebody

Ilse Crawford

There’s a whole new world opening up underneath the railway arches

Ilse Crawford

February 07 2011
Ilse Crawford

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The railway arches of Southwark in south-east London have always hosted intriguing goings-on, such as a boxing ring, a nightclub, a fringe theatre, and so on. Now a collection of the food specialists from nearby Borough Market are holding court from the arches on Maltby Street and Druid Street. So on Saturday morning, it’s down to buy bread from St John Bakery, sausages from Topolski, cheese from Neal’s Yard and an orange and polenta cake from Violet. There is a really good atmosphere of specialism – much more sympathetic than the tourist trap that Borough Market has become. It’s a different animal, of course, not a market as such. But it feels real and it’s only the ones who really care, so hardcore foodies congregate here.

Also in the arches, on Great Suffolk Street, a new gym is opening. Railway arches are a brilliant context for a gym. I hate them in basements – usually smelly, ugly, and over-lit – but locating one under brick vaults makes total sense. A swimming pool would be a perfect fit. It could be like the cisterns of Istanbul. I don’t see why being active is so often aesthetically challenged. Regular exercise would be so much more appealing if it was in a pleasurable environment. It’s why I’d often rather go for a run by the river or an early-morning walk. At least there’s something to look at.

The weekend news on the rise in breast cancer rates suggested lack of exercise as one cause. We need to be encouraged to embrace regular exercise inspired by real spaces we want to be in rather than the usual contract fit-outs.

But activity options are looking up. I met a couple of guys the other day who are opening up an upscale table tennis club in Holborn. Table tennis joints are a charismatic aspect of mid-town Manhattan but this would be the first of its kind in London. Somewhere to go and do something lively with friends, as opposed to the default of sitting around in a restaurant or bar, is a really great idea. Of course, whether or not you have a good evening could depend on whether you win, but some sneaky practice is always an option. And table tennis is rather democratic. It also gives the possibility of the double function, being able to be used for schoolkids in the morning, which is more than you can say for a bar.

Mind you, its hard to call any of the above “activity” after seeing the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil. I went with one of the backers to a performance last night and she was saying how they are the product of a global search for the most extraordinary acts. Many come from Mongolia. And many are ex-competition gymnasts. The beauty, litheness and agility of the performers are comparable with the movements of a wild animal and make me aware of just how earthbound our urban bodies have become.

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