From mushroom farm to cultural centre by way of nineties rave club, the seven railway arches on the corner of SE1’s Southwark Bridge Road and Union Street have had many guises. Steering their story since the late Eighties is property developer Benj Scrimgeour.
Scrimgeour is settled on a sofa in the Tap & Bottle, the shabby chic wine-on-tap bar in Devonshire House, the Grade II listed building at the centre of the site. Two floors below, young professionals spill from nearby offices to fill up on black sesame ramen and buttermilk chicken at the venue’s street food court. In the evening they might return to catch a gig at Omeara, a live music venue headed by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett. Then there are the weekends where tourists and locals scour the flea market for vintage treasures.
As Scrimgeour apologises for his dishevelled appearance – a result of a rainy dog walk by his Hampstead home – it is hard to believe that the gently spoken 58-year-old once ran one of the biggest Nineties club venues in London on this very site.
It all began with fungi.
“My dad was a horticultural farmer in Dorset, growing everything from roses to strawberries. In my twenties, I didn’t want to get stuck there, so I thought, ‘Actually I’m going to do a mushroom farm in London.’ My brother and I rented the arches in 1987.”
Back then, Southwark was tainted by the Krays’ legacy and dominated by pint-and-a-fight bars. “When we got here the Krays had obviously gone, but you didn't go out after six o’clock. We lived in some big old static caravans in the yard. It was all quite sort of hippyish and fun,” he says.
For a while the brothers made a good living selling their mushrooms to nearby Borough Market. However, competition from Dutch and Irish growers coupled with Borough’s decline as wholesale market soon meant there was no profit. So, he did what every sensible businessman would do.
"We turned it into a car park by day and rave club by night,” he laughs, “We had to get all the cars out by six o’clock before all the DJs turned up.”
‘The Arches’ hosted some of the biggest names on the nineties house music scene. Running it however was less glamorous.
“I’m a fan of house music, but for me it was a job - every time there was a rave, I was constantly checking everything was working. We were one of six-or-so places in London that could take about 1000 people, but got fed up with promoters who would rent the space and never pay us.”
Realising running a club was “a complete nightmare”, he sublet the whole thing. Meanwhile, the self-styled old hippy became disillusioned with the dog eat dog atmosphere of post-Thatcher London. He moved to Barcelona with his wife to raise their young family. It was here he formed the idea for Flat Iron Square.
“European bars and restaurants seemed less fussy than in the UK. I wanted to bring that relaxed continental feel to London. The arches seemed the perfect place to bring all the cultural elements that I enjoy together under one roof. As soon as Ben Lovett told me of his exciting plans to create a small live music venue I knew we could create something very special together.”
This he did, piece by piece from reclaimed material. Since finishing the build, he sees his role as a facilitator for the independent food and entertainment businesses that call Flat Iron Square home.
Meanwhile, Mumford’s Omeara is a 320 capacity live space modelled on a Parisian theatre. It hosts a diverse program from record label showcases to rising artists. Harking back to the arches’ earlier days, it also runs regular club nights, including house and techno, hip-hop and soul. Much to Scrimgeour’s relief, he is not involved in running them this time around.
“We’re left having fun with the rest of the site,” he says.
Explore the neighbourhood – Scrimgeour’s guide
The Boot and Flogger Pub 10-20 Redcross Way, SE1 1TA
This was the first place I visited in the area. It was a cold winter’s day, and as we sat down this lovely lady came up and gave us a glass of Madeira without us even asking. I thought ‘this place has got something.’
Where the Pancakes Are, Arch 35a, 85a Southwark Bridge Road, SE1 0NQ
I’d start the perfect day at Where the Pancakes Are that serves award winning stacks of sweet and savoury buttermilk pancakes. Try the Hummingbird, topped with caramelised pineapple, toasted almonds, coconut, lime syrup and mint.
FLEA, Flat Iron Square, SE1 1TD
This is our weekend vintage and makers market, run by my wife. It sells antiques, vintage clothing and work from upcoming designers. It’s an antidote to the high street if you’re looking for something unique.
Bar Douro, Arch, 85B Southwark Bridge Road, SE1 0NQ
After a wander around the Tate Modern and past the Globe, I’ll head to Bar Douro for amazing Portuguese wines and food. You sit at a beautiful long marble counter to enjoy small plate dishes like octopus with sweet potato.
Flat Iron Square, SE1 1TD