It all goes wrong at Donna Margherita on Lavender Hill

We’ve written a few times about Donna Margherita, at 183 Lavender Hill – one of our longest serving Neapolitan restaurants with two decades on Lavender Hill. Donna Margherita’s owner Gabriele Vitale moved to London from Italy about 30 years ago. He lived in Kilburn for 12 years , at first working as a waiter and sales rep selling coffee machines. But he felt something just wasn’t right – he was missing food from home – especially the pizza that his hometown of Naples is famed for. He found there was no shortage of trattorias and pizzerias, but they lacked a certain Italian authenticity! He concluded that if he couldn’t be a satisfied customer elsewhere, maybe he should start one himself. This was how he came to set up his own restaurant, Donna Margherita, in Lavender Hill in 2023, supported by his pizza chef Ayrton, and of course a proper wood burning oven.

Named after Queen Margherita – who gave her name to the Pizza Margherita, after she sampled three pizzas in Naples and declared it her favourite – Gabriele focussed on doing traditional pizza well, as well as a wide range of pasta dishes (Gabrielle’s favourite was the Spaghetti Vongole , a Venetian white wine clam pasta that started life as peasant food and became an Italian classic). The business was an immediate success, becoming a firm favourite with locals, with good reviews in Time Out helping to spread the word further afield about this Battersea business.

Gabriele and his team of eight weren’t averse to a bit of experimentation though – for example switching from pizza dough made of the most widely used ’00’ flour, which is a very finely sifted one, to a coarser ‘type 1’ flour that is sifted less, so as to retain more of the original bran and wheat germ. The restaurant also started to develop a wider gluten-free menu.

Everything was going well. They made it through the nightmare of the Coronavirus – opening a delicatessen along the way to serve the takeaway trade, with a wide range of Italian produce. But as the Coronavirus faded and they reverted to being a restaurant disaster struck – with a major fire in the kitchen in April 2021 causing quite substantial damage and leading to immediate closure. Undaunted, and following the usual insurance uncertainty, the owners set about to create something brighter and fresher than what had gone before, with a new look – including bringing light in to the back of the restaurant area, a curved new feature ceiling in sky blue, and a crisper, simpler overall design – while of course keeping the all-important pizza oven at the back of the space.

Things were actually coming on pretty well, to the extent that by September 2021, five months after the fore, we could start seeing what Donna Margherita 2.0 was going to look like; and the builders we spoke to were proud of the way things had progressed. Donna Margherita’s Instagram was clearly showing the enthusiasm too:  “Ciao Amici! We’re still full-on working hard on our Donna Margherita 2.0, works are proceeding great but unfortunately, it might take a few more months before we can safely open our doors.We appreciate every single one of you reaching out and we hope to see you as soon as we open! This is the longest break we took in over 20 years and it will probably be the longest one we’ll take ever, we love our job and making you smile with our food!“.

But progress was slow, with lengthy pauses. The first time everything stopped we hoped it was just a case of struggling to find people to do the finishing touches in a very tight market in the building trades. But weeks turned in to months, and we were unable to detect any signs of activity, or contact anyone involved. Back in May this year, over a year after the fire, our post “Donna Margherita: Is this goodbye?” got a fair bit of attention, and if nothing else it showed that there is strong loyalty to a proper neighbourhood restaurant that has been with us for so long. There were clearly still people hoping that the restaurant could return – but the site remained as in the photo above for many more months. Extended closure is a dangerous place to be for any business, with business rates to pay but no income, no matter how understanding the insurers are, and amid the silence many started to wonder if it was all over for Donna Margherita.

Some time later we reported that work had resumed, and the restaurant was finally finished. Our photo above shows new fridges and delicatessen at the right hand side of the premises, electrics fully finished, the floor polished, seating in place and pictures up on the wall. It had been quite a journey for what the owners initially hoped would be an eight week renovation – but finally Donna Margherita coudl get back to what it could do best, serving good food in a good atmosphere. But in a story that had already had a few twists and turns, yet more bad news: just when the restaurant was ready to reopen, notices from ‘Dukes Bailiffs’ have appeared on the door confirming that the premises has been repossessed by the landlord, presumably on the grounds of unpaid rent.

We’re not sure what precisely went wrong, although we’d hazard a guess that it took a lot longer to rebuilt and refurbish the premises after the April 2021 fire than anyone expected, and the insurance money wasn’t sufficient to cover all the rent and costs being stacked up during the works. These things happen – we understand that the renovation threw up all sorts of headaches, as is often the case in older buildings – and no-one could really have foreseen how long it would have taken to get things up and running again. Many of the running costs keep on costing even when a business isn’t trading, and there are maybe echoes of the similar recent eviction at China Garden where overrunning building works seem to have led to the collapse of the business. But it’s a rather cruel end to Gabriele’s restaurant after two decades of trading, especially after he’d battled through the Coronavirus, and a near-complete rebuild of the premises, to the point of being right on the brink of reopening. Some lucky new tenant may be able to trade in a freshly refitted restaurant with a brand-new pizza oven. But for Gabriele, we can only really express our sympathy, and hope he’s able to find a way forward.

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The surprising history of a smelly alley behind some bins near Battersea Park

It’s not the most obvious spot for a landmark in the history of flight! Hidden behind a load of bins next to a Battersea petrol station, along an alleyway whose smell reveals its other role as a surreptitious urinal, is a blue plaque revealing that the Short Brothers, the pioneers of flight, ‘worked here’. It’s nowhere near an airport, indeed it’s little more than a run of railway arches. So what on earth were they doing here?

It all started in 1897, when 21-year-old Eustace Short – the one on the right in the rather blurry photo – bought a second hand hot air balloon (which was filled with coal gas). Hot air balloons were a new and fashionable market at the time, and when Eustace and his younger brother Oswald (on the left in the photo, and then in his late teens) visited the 1900 world fair in Paris, they saw balloons made by Édouard Surcouf that who had perfected the art of making perfect spheres. Clearly inspired, they set up a balloon-making business, perfected their own designs, and started offering balloons for sale in 1902. The next year they landed their first contract, to make three military observation balloons for the Government of India. The superintendent of the government’s ‘School of Ballooning‘ (a training and test centre for Army experiments with balloons and airships) was very impressed with the quality of the balloons they had made – so much so that he introduced the brothers to Charles Rolls – another familiar name, because he was the co-founder of Rolls Royce. Charles asked the brothers to make a large racing balloon that he could use to compete in the prestigious Gordon Bennett international balloon race.

And this is where the link to the mildly malodorous Battersea alleyway comes in. The Short Brothers had made their very first balloons in an upstairs room above a business run by their older brother Horace in Hove. They didn’t stay there for long, because in 1903 Horace moved location to set up a new project developing steam turbines development with Charles Parsons (which went on to become a successful venture – but that’s a story for another day). Eustace and Oswald briefly relocated their business to some rented accommodation in Tottenham Court Road, before finding a more permanent home in two railway arches just off the Queens Circus, near Battersea Park station.

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Charles Rolls is pictured above in his racing balloon, called Britannia, which was the first one that the Short brothers made in their new Battersea factory. The buildings in the background are the long-lost Battersea gas works. As far as we can tell the balloon they built for Charles didn’t win the race, but it did provide excellent publicity for the Short Brothers and led to a whole bundle of orders, turning their balloon-making venture in to quite a thriving business.

The move to Battersea was a wise one: railway arches were cheap to lease, they had loads of available space suitable for industrial uses, and maybe above all, these particular arches were conveniently situated right next to the Battersea gas works. Unlike modern ‘hot air balloons’, these early balloons weren’t filled with hot air, but instead with the ‘town gas’ that powered the UK’s gas system for decades until we started to use North Sea gas. This ‘town gas’ was a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which was made from coal at the gasworks. It was rather toxic and dangerous, but the hydrogen content meant that it was lighter than air – perfect for filling balloons! And being right next to one of the biggest gasworks in London was very handy for someone designing, testing and selling these balloons.

The photo below, taken in 1906 and part of Getty Images’ Hulton archive, shows a balloon being made in the arches – with canvas and rope being assembled to make the tethering structure.

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This photo shows another part of the Battersea balloon factory, with the ‘cutting table’ where the fabric was shaped to be stitched in to a balloon shape. Again the railway arch is very visible.

Embed from Getty Images

The below is a rare view of the balloons in context, with a pair in front of the railway arches – and one of the now-demolished Battersea gasholders visible to the right. These would have been quite a sight for the neighbours, and it’s maybe surprising how few photos of balloons being tested seem to have survived.

The Short brothers made about thirty balloons while they were in Battersea. Most of them were sold to members of the Royal Aero Club, and stemmed one way or another from that balloon they had sold to Charles Rolls.

Eustace and Oswald were themselves appointed to the Aero Club in 1907 – and the following year they were appointed as the club’s ‘aeronautical engineers’, reflecting a growing interest within the club in aeroplane flights. They were clearly pretty interested in the possibilities of aeroplanes – building their first glider aeroplane the same year. That said, while it was one thing to make a balloon or a glider, making a working aeroplane was a rather different kettle of fish, needing lots of mechanical expertise. The brothers were excellent balloon makers, but they knew they only had a limited knowledge of the more mechanical aspects – which is why they quickly brought their older brother Horace on board, the one who they had previously rented a workshop in Hove from (who had gone on to a steam turbine business where he had acquired a lot of useful mechanical skills).

With all three brothers now working in Battersea, the aircraft business grew quickly. The first two orders for aircraft arrived almost straight away – both from members of the Aero club. And sure enough, one of the first orders was from Charles Rolls, who had ordered the racing balloon from the brothers a few years beforehand! Horace started work on two aeroplane designs as soon as he arrived in Battersea, and the Short No.1 biplane – or at least the wooden frame, as it wasn’t quite finished yet – was shown off to the public in March 1909, at the first British Aero Show at Kensington Olympia. The picture below shows the Battersea-built aeroplane. Unfortunately the plane wasn’t especially well designed and never actually flew! The brothers had all sorts of headaches getting an engine that was light enough, while also being strong enough to fly without making the plane overbalance. On the fourth test flight the plane very nearly took off but stalled, and its undercarriage and propellers were damaged.

You might think this would be a disappointment to the buyer, Francis McClean – but despite having crashed his new plane before even managing to get is to take off he clearly found all this pioneering and sometimes messy activity in the very early days of flight rather exciting, and immediately ordered another plane! Conveniently the Short brothers had also obtained the British rights to build copies of the American Wright aeroplane design, and made him one of these – which he clearly also liked, as he went on to order several more.

The Short brothers’ aircraft business grew fast. They received a £1,200 order for six aeroplanes in March 1909 – the same month they exhibited their first aeroplane – which was the first contract for a batch of airplanes in the UK. This was the beginning of mass production, and the brothers realised they needed a large site with space for aeroplanes to take off – and a gasworks in Battersea wouldn’t work for that – so they developed a site in Sheppey, with a factory right next to an airfield. In October the same year, their second airplane, the Short biplane No.2, became the first plane to fly a mile – and in doing so won a £1,000 prize from the Daily Mail. Starting from a railway arch in Battersea, the brothers had made history as the UK’s first sellers of a working plane, and this was the start of the UK’s aircraft industry.

The Short brothers went on to become a world-famous name in aviation, building a wide range of aeroplanes and flying boats. Horace died in 1917, and Oswald took over responsibility for design – doing pioneering work in all-metal aircraft construction. The firm’s planes gave important service in both World Wars, and in the 1940s the company moved from Kent even larger premises in Belfast. Shorts became a major maker of commercial aircraft, eventually being acquired by the Canadian company Bombardier in 1989.

As the aeroplane line of the Short brothers’ business went from strength to strength, the focus gradually drifted away from the railway arches in Battersea. The brothers carried on making balloons and ‘lighter than air’ craft at the site for a surprisingly long time, even when it had become clear that the aeroplane business was the future, and only finally left Battersea in 1919. The arches behind the petrol station at Queens Circus are now home to a mix of small businesses – hidden away just out of sight of the crowds of people at the power station, the railway stations and Battersea Park. But for those who do venture down the alleyway, the blue plaque stands as testament to how this overlooked corner of Battersea gave birth to the UK’s aerospace industry.

If you find our occasional local history articles of interest, you may enjoy a long article on the complicated history of the Cedars Road estate, a similarly detailed look at the past of Culvert Place, a photo story about the Shaftesbury Estate drawing on its conservation designation, an article about the cluster of derelict buildings around the old Artesian Well bar on Clapham North street, a very detailed history of Rush Hill Road, and an article about the area around Falcon Lane that dives in to the area’s messy past and some scary 1970s road-building projects that very nearly got built! We’re grateful for the more detailed information provided on the Battersea balloon & aeroplane factory by English Heritage, as well as the particularly rich history that’s well worth a detour at Graces Guide.

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After decades of service, Hill Launderette fades in to history

Hill Launderette is one of the longest established businesses on Lavender Hill – we don’t know when it started but it has spanned many decades. It stayed surprisigly well used, even as washing machines & tumble dryers became more widespread in houses and flats. The combination of quick and efficient washing for even the largest items – some of the machines were huge! – with big, powerful dryers that can deal with a large load in 20 minutes, clearly remained attractive. With fourteen washing machines and seven dryers, queues were rare.

Prices varied from £3 for a wash in the 16lb machines, to £6 for the biggest 40lb machine. Three minutes in the dryer would set you back 20p, and these dryers were quick! Many launderettes feel a bit of a throwback to the 1960s (and as somewhat iconic locations it’s not been unusual to see them as backdrops for photography) and the Hill Launderette certainly had quite a classic appearance. But it had moved with the times – with a fairly comprehensive website including detailed prices and services, and a small social media presence.

As a fully staffed launderette, it offered quite a wide range of services, going beyond the self service clean options to include dry cleaning within a day, and repairs and alterations, as well as a duvet service, and expert cleaning of curtains, rugs and soft furnishings. Dry cleaning a suit would be £5, a jacket £2, and you could have ten shirts washed & pressed for £10.

But the launderette closed a couple of months ago, initially with a note on the doors referring to ‘technical problems’, with a number to contact for enquiries. As days stretched in to weeks, it started to look as though the technical problems had turned in to a more fundamental issue about the future of the launderette, and sure enough – the machines started to be removed, presumably being sold to other launderettes.

In case there remained any doubt that this was the end of the line for Hill Launderette, at the end of April a planning application was made to the Council to change the use of the site from “Commercial, Business and service uses” (which includes launderettes) to “Financial & Professional Services“, which includes things like estate agents and employment agencies.

And as time went on, the underlying infrastructure also disappeared – with dry cleaning equipment removed, and revealing plumbing and electrics that had been hidden away for decades. We’re hoping someone rescues the pot plants before the strip out is completed.

Some of our readers will have long memories of watching clothes spin round here, and even more occasional visitors like your author appreciated the helpful and friendly service when we dropped in for duvets and complicated items. And as it fades away into Lavender Hill’s history we’d like to pay tribute to Hill Launderette – less glamorous than the bars and restaurants that increasingly surround it on the street, never the sort of place that makes the headlines – but one of those little things we all take for granted, with the team keeping it open for long hours seven days a week, and quietly and efficiently helping keep Lavender Hill’s clothes clean for decades.

It’s not all over for local launderettes. We still have the Lavender Launderette a few doors down at 13 Lavender Hill – pictured above at some point in the early 1960s (when it had a rather impressive sign spanning Wix’s lane, and when there was an empty ‘space ‘bombsite’ space where Caffe Nero now sits that lasted for decades until it was rebuilt in a joint project with the similar-looking building opposite that houses Sainsbury’s). We also have Lily’s Launderette nearer Clapham Junction at 229 Lavender Hill – both of which are still going strong.

(former) Hill Launderette, 41 Lavender Hill, London SW11 5QW.

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A takeaway disaster: was this Lavender Hill’s shortest-lived business?

The grand opening banner is still up at China Garden, Lavender Hill’s newest Chinese takeaway. It had a busy few weeks, and was generally decently reviewed. A lot of effort (and money) clearly went in to fitting it out to create a clean and functional kitchen and service area. Indeed the business was already on to its second sign, as the initial red one was replaced with a black one as the building was smartened up. But look more closely, and there’s an eviction notice on the door – they’ve already closed down! Things have gone badly wrong here, and this looks like the fastest opening and shutting down we have ever seen.

What went wrong? No-one knows for sure, but summary termination nearly always means the rent’s not being paid. The new business is linked to an existing local pizzeria on the Battersea Park Road, and having distributed menus to the whole district, it looked to be making a pretty healthy turnover in the short time it was up and running. There were a few areas to refine to maximise profitability – for example, it’s always worth offering a 20% or so collection discount to encourage in-person pickups (because that’s still more profitable than the 32-35% cut that Deliveroo and the like typically take), which they didn’t do, and they weren’t great at answering the phone when they were busy – but nothing suggesting the business was struggling.

Maybe the issue is that there were months of fitting out work before the takeaway actually opened, as the unit had a comprehensive refit. There were several points where it sat empty for weeks and weeks with seemingly nothing happening (back in December last year we were already commenting on the slow pace of works) – maybe utility supply issues, maybe equipment stuck in the post, or maybe just a difficult build project. We suspect that the time the unit was ‘in development’ was significantly longer than any rent-free period initially offered by the landlord (which in this case is Unit Management Ltd, owners of the Battersea Business Centre), and that by the time the business started trading a significant rent bill had already stacked up and not been paid. This is a risky thing to do – particularly because the notice stuck to the door makes it clear that China Garden had a licence, rather than a lease – an arrangement which doesn’t give much security of tenure, and means they can be thrown out very quickly if they don’t keep to the terms of the agreement with the landlord.

It’s always sad to see someone’s project go wrong, and a lot of time and money involved have gone to waste here. This business had potential, as a well-equipped business and one of relatively few Chinese takeaways on Lavender Hill, and it was still in its infancy. Maybe things will be patched up somehow, but chances are this tidied-up unit is now going to be up for lease again.

China Garden Express Clapham, 103a Lavender Hill, London SW11 5QW

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A rare high-rise industrial building being planned for Havelock terrace

Battersea’s industrial spaces are an endangered species! Developers regularly go scouting around the lesser corners of the Borough looking for anything that looks a bit ‘industrial’, with a view to converting it to new residential development. This can be a bit of a problem – as we still have thousands of small and medium sized businesses, which create lots of local jobs and are an important part of the local economy – but which are finding it harder and harder to find locations as their unglamorous-but-useful premises are destroyed.

Which is why a planned development on Havelock Terrace is interesting. The location – pictured above – is a whisker south of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Chances are you won’t immediately recognise it, as it’s not the most exciting bit of Battersea – a pair of dreary industrial buildings from the 1970s, trapped between a variety of other light industrial buildings. Just the sort of site that is very much on the ‘endangered’ list right now – so much so that its neighbour is already being rebuilt by student accommodation specialists Urbanest to create 174 student flats and a large office building. That vast construction project is shown below, with the about-to-also-be-rebuilt industrial building just visible peeking through the railway arch to its right.

But this particular industrial building has proved a surprisingly successful one. It’s owned and managed as a business centre by Workspace, who own and manage 58 business centres across London – from converted factory buildings to co-working hubs and purpose-built managed business centres. They keep things simple and flexible with an ‘all inclusive’ approach where all bills are included, leases are short, and tenants can grow or shrink the space they need at quite short notice, which seems to be working as they now host around 3,000 small and medium-sized businesses.

Workspace’s Battersea business centre is home to myriad small tenants doing everything from IT startups to clothing design. It has particularly high occupancy levels, and they receive a steady stream of enquiries from new tenants, despite them not doing any active marketing at all. They expect demand to ramp up even further now the previously-somewhat-isolated site is about a minutes’ walk from a Zone 1 tube station. All of which explains why redevelopment is on the cards – but not for replacement with flats.

Workspace are planning to demolish everything and build a new 15-storey building specifically aimed at businesses and light industry – creating a lot more space and bringing it all up to modern standards, with generous high floor to ceiling heights. The planned new building pictured above, will have a mix of of unit sizes which have been designed to be flexible and good to work in – the smaller ones have double-height break out spaces with communal terraces and outdoor spaces, while the medium-sized open plan units have larger private terraces. The ground and first floor have the largest units, aimed at light industrial workshops that are likely to be moving big and heavy things around – so are equipped with access to a loading bay, directly or via a dedicated goods lift, as well as high ceilings, and extra-wide doors and corridors.

The new building will also include communal facilities – with a cafe, and meeting / reception areas, as well as a communal roof terrace. There will be a retail unit next to the main entrance, as well as cycle parking, showers and lockers in the basement. Workspace aim to start construction in the first half of next year. Obviously one question is what happens to the existing tenants during the works: in the longer them this will create more space, but for some time it will be a hole in the ground! Existing tenants will be given a minimum of 4 months’ notice before development starts, with the option to move to Workspace’s other local sites, which include Morie Street Studios and The Light Bulb (both in Wandsworth town centre).

This isn’t the first proposal for higher-rise industrial use – maybe because the site is within the Battersea Design and Technology Quarter, an area shown in orange in the map above which is being deliberately developed as a home to business. We’ve written previously about some of the projects underway on the ‘Ingate Place’ part of the site, and two other similar proposals are also being developed in the Havelock terrace area, shown in orange and light green below –

Another small industrial building at 16-48 Havelock Terrace, directly across the road from Workspace’s project, has planning permission to be replaced with a pair of new buildings – one of them thirteen storeys and one nine, which will together provide 15,000 square metres of flexible workspace as a ground floor communal facility. The approach being taken is similar to what Workspace are planning but on a slightly smaller scale – with scope for light industry at the lower levels, and flexible office and workspace on the upper levels.

The image above shows these two buildings from Nine Elms Lane, and the one below shows these two buildings on the left, with the planned Workspace building not shown but set to be built just behind the brick wall pictured on the right. It may take time for these buildings to take shape – but the future for this little-known corner of Battersea looks quite high-rise! This spot between the railway lines is a location where it makes sense to build upwards, and it’s good to see that we’re not losing the space for the businesses that create local jobs and opportunities. As ever, we’ll keep you posted on developments.

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Clapham Junction’s Lidl supermarket is growing

We’ve previously reported on the various projects to expand, or replace, Clapham Junction’s Lidl supermarket. It’s a busy shop, being a rare full-range branch in inner London, with car parking and right next to a major train station. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of their best-performing supermarkets, and whiel it always seems to be crowded, the success of the store has also proved to be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to improving or extending it.

The store has seen a series of minor changes in recent years, to get as much out of it as possible – with a small extension that added one more aisle in 2006, followed by another small extension in 2012 to create an in-store bakery (pictured below – a venture by Lidl which has been quite successful, and given them a good point of differentiation compared to largely bakery-less rival Aldi).

But the store was still too small, and too crowded – it’s about half the size of their more recent store in south Earlsfield but rather busier. So Lidl thought big, and developed plans to completely rebuild the whole site – creating underground car parking with a much larger store on top – an artists’ impression of the view from Falcon Road is shown below. These ambitious plans would have seen the store completely knocked down, and a new building built that would stretch right up to Falcon Road, replacing the rather bleak brick wall that supports the car park with a proper entrance to an extended store, that would sit on top of two storeys of car parking. These got planning permission, but were never implemented.

Proposed view from Falcon Road

The reason wasn’t a lack of money or enthusiasm on Lidl’s part – but rather, the thorny question of where to put the store during the building works. The willingness to invest and upgrade this branch is there, but no suitable temporary sites could be found – and closing this flagship site for a major rebuild represents quite a cost to the business as well as a headache to the established customer base. As a sort of stopgap, a couple of years ago the shelving was all replaced to increase the height and density of stock, and self-scan tills were brought in to increase capacity.

Lidl went back to the drawing board, and the latest plans instead foresee yet another extension to the existing building, but also a more general restyling and refurbishment. The current roof will be replaced with new one that will let more light in to the store, and a second storey will be added right at the back of the site near the railway lines, which will allow the staff back office section to be moved upstairs and free up a bit more space on the shopfloor. The store will be extended closer to Falcon Road – replacing the current paving and trolley storage area pictured below to create up to five metres of extra space.

The store will have better green credentials too: new glazing on the south side of the building means there will be more natural light inside the store, a small ‘green roof’ is planned on the two-storey section of the store, and there will be over 300 solar panels on the new roof. Four of the 61 current parking spaces will go, to create an extra 34 cycle parking spaces (compared to just eight current bike stands), and two electric vehicle charging points will be added. One interesting thing in the planning report is that the overgrown railway sidings between Lidl and the tracks are an officially designated “Grade II Site of Importance to Nature Conversation” – in the map below the green squares represent ‘scattered shrub, the brown circles are ‘tall herbs’, and while no actual animals were identified in the most recent site survey, these slightly wild spaces are part of the local wildlife habitat.

These new plans aren’t controversial, and this new investment, assuming it does go ahead unlike the previous set of plans, will make this a better store. It updates the general appearance of the place, which was built back in 1996 and is now looking distinctly dated. It gives a little more space to the store, partly by taking over the paved area facing Falcon Lane, and partly by allowing some of the back office / administrative space currently housed on the ground floor to be moved to the new upper level. The project as a whole creates an additional 720 square metres of internal floorspace (growing the store, whose existing surface is 1443 square metres, by about 50%).

However it’s also fair to say that they’re not really taking advantage of the full potential of this site, which could be developed to bring this rather ‘suburban retail park surrounded by parked cars’ area in to being a proper part of the town centre it sits in the middle of, and which would improve the frontage along Falcon Road. Wandsworth’s planning policies – the ‘site specific allocations document’ – already has the whole area with a blue line around it in the map below earmarked for high density mixed-use development, and it’s one of relatively few similar sites in the Borough that has yet to see any action. The planning department’s report on the latest proposals does give the impression that they were hoping for something a bit more ambitious, noting that the plans “would not deliver the area’s aspirations in regard to a high density mixed-use development“, but that “the proposal results in an acceptable continuation of the existing use for when a more suitable and comprehensive re-development of the whole of the SSAD site comes forward in the future”. However Lidl’s plans are consistent with the local policies that favour retail in town centres (for the planning geeks out there – part (b) of policy DMTS1, and also the emerging Local Plan policy LP42 on ‘development in centres’).

The current project will no doubt see Lidl remain a single-storey store for at least a decade, although we suspect in the long term we will, eventually, still see a redevelopment to provide retail on the lower levels and either flats or maybe some office space built above. This would likely end up looking like what we have seen happen in the vast redevelopments at Sainsbury’s sites in Fulham and Nine Elms, or indeed on a rather smaller scale at some other Lidl sites such as their store in Chessington (below) which includes flats with large balconies designed to fit in to a more suburban location.

Maybe this sort of redevelopment will happen sooner with the other big supermarket buildings on Falcon lane. As our previous detailed article on the longer-term future of this site, the station itself and the other retail sites around it noted, in the longer term we’re likely to see the Asda site grow and accommodate far more within the space. The large branch of Boots next door’s lease also ends next year, so that site may also be coupled with the soon-to-be-redundant railway signalling site behind it (which is now under the same ownership) and see higher-rise construction work. We’ll keep you posted on these wider sites – but for now, while it’s a little disappointing that we did not get the full bells-and-whistles upgrade that was previously being considered for the supermarket, it’s good to see some probably overdue investment in modernising the local Lidl.

Very early stage masterplan for Clapham Junction station redevelopment – note that this builds in the Asda site. Note this is, at this stage, a very early design…
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Controversial but useful – new offices & workspaces coming to Culvert Road in 2024

Local business premises are an important way of ensuring there are readily accessible jobs that don’t involve commuting across the city, but they’re also quite endangered, and always under threat of being converted to flats. That said, there are more pockets of light industry still going in Battersea than many people realise (as we’ve touched on before) – many of them in the somewhat hidden-away areas that don;t lend them selves to ‘luxury’ residential development. One particularly little-known local ‘industrial’ site is Culvert Court, a sliver of land trapped between the railway and the Battersea Park Etate, which is packed full of storage units and small workshops. There’s 22,000 square feet of space overall – not a huge area (for comparison, T.K. Maxx at Clapham Juntion is about 30,000 square feet) – but what makes it particulatly odd is that the space is split in to 128 tiny little units! The small size and really rather basic condition of most of these ‘micro units’ means that they are very affordable – which is probably why the site has ended up as home to a bewildering array of small local businesses (we wrote about one of these – AL Coffee Roasters – a few months ago). Useful as this site is, it’s fair to say that the buildings are tired and have definitely seen better days, so some sort of redevelopment was almost inevitable.

The site was bought by new owners in June last year, and proposals quickly emerged for a complete rebuild of the site. The plans will create a site worth about £30m, with the building floorspace growing by about 50% – to 36,500 square feet. But maybe more importantly, it will see a mass of rudimentary single storey lockups demolished, and replaced with three more advanced modern buildings that allow for larger spaces to be rented. By creating two- and three-storey structures more space will be freed up between the buildings, even as the development creates more overall floor space. It’s being developed by Avanton, who have developed two other notable projects in Battersea – the brand-new headquarters for the Royal Academy of Dance on York Road (which was accompanied by a large residential development), followed by the redevelopment of the Academy’s former site at Battersea Square to become an extension of Thomas’s school.

This project – whose layout is shown above – was very controversial when it went ion to the planning process. An impressive 48 objections were received to the planning proposal – many of them carefully written and very detailed, and mainly from residents of Rowditch Lane and Sheepcote Lane who are likely to be the most affected (indeed, some people objected more than once). A particular concern, which we very much agree with, concerned the proposed creation of a large cluster of new ‘dark kitchens‘ – which are hidden-away kitchens that make food that’s branded as coming from restaurants you will likely recognise, but aimed directly at serving the delivery market. Culvert Road has already got several dark kitchens run by market leader Food Stars, hidden away deeper in the Parkfield industrial estate between the railway tracks. While there’s nothing wrong with the kitchens in themselves which clearly serve a significant local market, the amount of trade there has led to an absolute explosion in motorbike traffic – with the noise and danger that that entails. In our experience, some riders are very considerate – but some very much aren’t! – and the road network here was never really designed with that level of traffic in mind. The route is also the only access road for students from north of the railway to the John Burns school, which creates particular dangers when a load of speeding motorbikes are added to the mix. Problems with antisocial behaviour by the occupiers of some of the existing units at Culvert Court are also frequently mentioned. Concerns were also raised about the effect of a three-storey development on daylight in the houses immediately to the north of the site.

Sensing the level of concern about the initial proposals, the developers went away and changed the plans. The height of one of the buildings was reduced from two storeys to one, and the other buildings were slightly lowered as well, reducing (but not removing) the overshadowing of neighbouring houses and gardens. And maybe most significantly, the large cluster of proposed new ‘dark kitchens’ was completely deleted and replaced by a building providing standard industrial floorspace instead. The revised plans didn’t resolve all the concerns – and still saw another 17 objections – however the changes were actually quite significant, and this is maybe a good example of a situation where local concerns can actually lead to changes.

Following these changes, the development went to the full Planning Application Committee (rather than being decided by planning officers – which is how less controversial ones are usually decided), and it received planning permission – with 36 fairly detailed conditions that need to be met before the development can be occupied and while it is in use, stretching from evidence being needed on urban greening and rules on opening hours, to a ban on any telecoms antennas or roof terraces. It is worth noting that the planning department’s 54-page-long report was quite impressively thorough and detailed – going through the impact on houses along Rowditch Lane on a house-by-house basis and looking at the daylight impact for each property. Avanton have started work to appoint a lettings agent for the new development, and now plan to get going as soon as they can – aiming to finish by early summer 2024.

Now there’s frankly no getting away from the fact that these will not be particularly beautiful buildings! The image above shows what the entrance to the site will look like after the works are complete. They are mostly clad in grey metal, with few windows. The plans include ‘green walls’ on the northern side facing Rowditch Lane – the greenish area in the image – that could soften the industrial appearance the building when viewed from neighbouring houses. However anyone with some familiarity with the planning process will conform that these ‘greenery’ plans usually vanish from the plans once building work gets going – indeed Wandsworth is littered with planned green walls that never got delivered!. Maybe this will be the exception to that general rule…

However these non-beautiful buildings will be modern, efficient, functional ones – that are well suited to their planned use. All the new buildings will provide a good standard of flexible workspace and be easy to subdivide to a mix of unit sizes, and so be ready for use by a wide range of occupiers. The plans meet Wandsworth’s requirements that new business spaces should provide suitable loading facilities, ceiling heights of at least 3.35m, space on site for commercial vehicles, and goods lifts with a minimum loading of 500kg. In this case the plans provide flexible floorplates that are mostly free of awkward columns, and decent size doorways. The new buildings will also be up to modern energy efficiency and insulation standards, meaning that they can be heated (which was a real challenge with some of the old structures, that are a mix of old fashioned garages and repurposed shipping containers) – with both solar panels and air source heat pumps helping keep energy costs down. The second floor of ‘Building Two’ – the tall one about half way along the site – would be designated as 329 square metres of ‘Affordable Workspace’, rented out at a minimum discount of 20% to market rent. This would be backed by a legal agreement with Wandsworth Council to ensure that the space remains affordable and is properly used.

This will be a big change for Culvert Court, and it won’t please everyone as even the revised plans do not address all the neighbours’ concerns. However a redevelopment of some sort was long overdue at this useful but increasingly tatty site, and this is clearly good for business and creating local jobs. There has been quite a sharp rise in demand for warehousing and business space in central London, driven partly by the huge amount of delivery activity that we now see – at the same time as London lost almost a quarter of its industrial space over the last 20 years, mostly to housing development which tends to be willing to pay higher prices for land. This site right by the railway is well suited to business use, and we suspect that these units will be easy to let, given they are now a short walk from Battersea tube, and close to the established Parkfield industrial estate. Chances are we’ll see a similar mix of businesses as the nearby industrial areas – albeit those are bewilderingly wide, and include breweries, furniture makers, coffee roasters, gyms, builders, fashion designers, all manner of local services, and of course the rapidly growing ‘last mile’ delivery services. We’ll keep you posted as this project develops.

If you found this interesting you may also want to see our posts on the history and future of Culvert Place, including a new development site just south of the Culvert Road tunnel, one on a cluster of planned office developments around Queenstown Road station, and a wider article on the various commercial developments in Battersea.

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New opening: Remedy Kitchen

At the very eastern end of the street up on the Wandsworth Road, the big and beautiful corner unit that was home to Sinclair Till’s collection of carpets, fabrics and furnishings (until they moved to a new store that was somewhat smaller – but with the advantage of being right in the heart of Chelsea’s interior design heartland at Pimlico Road) has opened for the first time today – as Remedy Kitchen. Remedy Kitchen specialises in food that’s fast but also fresh, colourful and healthy – with a keen eye to the environmental impact of the business. Expect a mixture of healthy vegan & vegetarian bowls, wraps, soups and stews, including a range of breakfast pots.

Owner Fadi Chafi founded the business in 2020, as a delivery-only kitchen based in the huge complex of kitchens next to Battersea Heliport, before expanding to open an actual branch open to the public on Haverstock Hill near Belsize Park the following year. It’s clearly been a success – being shortlisted by Deliveroo for a ‘best newcomer of the year’ award, and Fadi is now returning to Battersea in a bigger way with an actual branch. The last few weeks have seen quite extensive works to the site, which has had everything restored and repaired, as well as a repaint from grey to teal that works rather well. The business has a local following thanks to the delivery operation, and this very visible new branch will bring Remedy Kitchen’s offering to a whole new audience.

It’s also good to see the new activity up at this end of the street – complementing Maiella Worth‘s recently refurbished Cafe/restaurant next door, which has found considerable success with freshly cooked Arrosticini, to the point where prebooking is definitely wise in the evenings. Further to the east, after a fairly long pause, work has now also got well underway at the former Lost Society / Artesian Well buildings, which we wrote about quite some time ago – which should bring a new Cafe and one other commercial unit back in to business. We’ll bring you an update on that site in a future post.

Remedy Kitchen. 791 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 3QJ. @remedykitchen_uk

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Battersea Park Station: Step-free at last?

Battersea Park railway station just keeps getting busier. It was never a quiet station, thanks to a steady stream of traffic from the Doddington & Rollo flats and the mansions around Battersea park, and some weekend traffic to the park itself. But it got a lot busier from the late 2000s, thanks to rapid development all around the station – with passenger numbers climbing by 10% every year. Pre-Covid the station had hit 2.2 million annual passengers, and was on the brink of breaking in the the top 10% busiest stations in the whole country – creating the rather surprising situation where this fairly little-known local station was somehow getting more passengers than than the grand central stations for entire regional cities such as Lancaster, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Halifax! The pandemic briefly cut those numbers in half, but Battersea Park rebounded fast, and things are set to accelerate even further as the area around the station quickly becomes a forest of new flats, with vast developments on the site of the old Battersea gasholders, in the railway arches immediately opposite the station, and along Nine Elms Lane. And it’s not just flats – at least four large office buildings are also being developed within a few minutes’ walk of the station, as well an 850-bed student hall of residence opposite the Dogs Home, which will heap more demand on the station.

Despite originally being built in a gap jammed between viaducts in an industrial area, rather than an upmarket outer suburb or prominent city centre, Battersea Park is a beautiful and carefully-crafted station that seems to have been designed to impress. And even as Battersea all around it changed beyond recognition, the station kept all of its historic charm – as our photos of the carefully restored ticket hall show, with archways, ornate plaster ceilings and ornate lighting. Unfortunately, in some respects it may have kept a little too much of its historic charm, as access to the platforms relies on a series of distinctly Victorian-era staircases. Rickety, steep, wooden steps – and lots of them! As the railway experts over at London Reconnections note in their very readable article about the station, “the steps leading to platforms 4 and 5… must be just about the steepest and narrowest set of steps leading to any station platform in the country“. And this is where our story starts, because put bluntly – this station is a hazardous nightmare for anyone with mobility issues, and not much fun for those with prams either.

Fortunately there’s a long running project called ‘Access for All‘ to make the UK’s stations more accessible – which ought to see this station improved. The project has been running for years, starting with the most well-used stations with the highest demand – which was why Clapham Junction acquired nine lifts way back in 2011. The particularly poor accessibility of Battersea Park, and the fact that it was in a rapidly growing area with both a significant elderly population, an above average proportion of residents with mobility difficulties, and a quite rapidly growing number of young families,  is probably why it was selected in the programme way back in 2014, alongside 41 other stations (that included Streatham, Peckham Rye and Blackhorse Road). These would see funds allocated during ‘Control period 5‘ – which is railway jargon for planned investments over a five-year period between 2014 and 2019. The Government press notice confirmed that ‘subject to a feasible design‘, the station would see a step-free access built from street to platform.

Now you may be thinking – 2014 is ages ago, and so is 2019 – so what on earth happened after that big announcement? The station is just as inaccessible as it was back in 2014. The problem with all government funding announcements is that it’s one thing to announce funding, but quite another to actually follow through and deliver the goods. And that ‘subject to a feasible design‘ caveat in the original announcement mattered, because Battersea Park is really not a particularly easy station to add lifts to! Platform 1, the unusual one that’s made of wooden planks, doesn’t matter as it was permanently closed a few years ago. Platforms 2&3 – the central ones, pictured above, are fairly manageable as the platforms are immediately adjacent to the station building. A lift would emerge at the very end of the platform, more or less in the middle of the photo above, and somewhere to the right of the stairs in the photo below.

Things get rather more complicated at platform 4&5 (the westbound one) – where the super-steep stairs are right at the southern end of the platform, in a spot where the platform is already very narrow, and with no space to add a lift between the two railway viaducts. This will be a real design challenge: even if there is a way for a lift to go down from the narrow platform there it would end up buried deep in the viaduct and nowhere near the main ticket hall, so unless there happen to be some implausibly convenient old passageways buried in the arches, something unusual will be needed. We can think of two possibilities – neither of them cheap: either extending the new lift from the ticket hall to central platforms 2&3 up further to have a third level, leading to a bridge across to platforms 4&5 and another lift down; or putting a lift in at the northern end of platforms 4&5 (the end far away from the station) that would run down to the road level on Prince of Wales Drive, shown below. This is the cheaper option – as our photo shows, the wooden bit between the two heavy metal bridges is actually the underneath of the platform, so a lift either to the road or one of the railway arches is reasonably doable – but this would create a second entrance and so make the station more complicated to run.

In normal circumstances, this slight engineering headache feels like the sort of problematic project that would have been quietly shelved soon after the first estimates! But fortunately we’re not shouting in to the darkness here in arguing that it still needs to happen, as we happen to have an influential ally – in the form of our local MP, Marsha de Cordova. Marsha is maybe a rare example of an MP who has a deep personal belief in the issue of accessibility, with a powerful track record of campaigning – indeed she was working for disability charity the Thomas Pocklington Trust when she was first elected an MP, and then served as shadow Disabilities Minister, and later Minister for Equalities, until 2021.

As a fearless campaigner for making buildings accessible to all, she was not at all happy that both the stations in a part of her constituency with a well-above-average share of residents who need help with mobility were woefully inaccessible. Her 2017 election campaign focussed on getting the project done – and just a few months after being elected as MP she successfully called for a debate in Parliament called “Step-free Access: Battersea Stations” whose text is available online, including this quote:

Battersea Park station and Queenstown Road station are both in Queenstown ward, which has a higher proportion of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions than does the constituency as a whole. Yet their local train stations are not accessible to them. […] Why is what I have described important? We must not underestimate the significance of barriers. Step-free access to stations can mean the difference between the ability to lead a fulfilling and flourishing life seeing friends and family and going to work, and being left isolated at home, unable to travel and excluded from participation, from leading a fulfilling and flourishing life, and from the world of work. That is the reality for far too many disabled people.

She noted that £47 million had been cut from the funding for the ‘Access for All’ funding’ project, and called on the government to restore that funding, and to put in the investment needed to build an inclusive railway, including accessible stations in Battersea.

Two years after this debate, at the end of the 2014-2019 ‘control period’ of spending, nothing had happened on the ground. But just two days before the end of the financial year there was good news, when step free works for Battersea were again confirmed – presumably because a ‘feasible design’ for the lifts had been found, and no doubt helped by the likelihood that Marsha would make a great deal of noise about it if the government tried to drop the project! The project had now slipped from Control period 5 to Control period 6 (2019-2024).

The Wandsworth Council press release also noted that ‘The council is also working with Network Rail on a comprehensive package of improvements at Battersea Park Station, to cater for increased passenger numbers as more people move to Nine Elms alongside new businesses.’ Wandsworth didn’t give a lot of detail but his was a significant development – as behind the scenes a little-noticed part of the local Transport Implementation Plan confirmed that they had allocated £21 million of funding to “Improvements to Battersea Park Station“, which would come from a mixture of the “Community Infrastructure Levy” and “Section 106” – both of which are essentially funds that developers of the new blocks of flats have to pay towards upgrading the local infrastructure around new developments. £21m is one of the largest allocations of the developer funding anywhere in the Borough (which does make sense given that most of the money was being raised from developments in the Nine Elms area) – to put it in context, the huge 2011 accessibility upgrade at Clapham Junction (which added lifts to all 17 platforms) only cost £14.5 million at the time! Coupled with Network Rail’s own funding this should allow significant improvement.

Unfortunately we understand that the delivery of the lifts at Battersea Park Station was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic – which caused unavoidable delays to the project which prevented the project from moving to the next stage of design. As the UK economy took a dramatic turn for the worse, inflation started to push up the cost of materials significantly, which will not have helped the project either. A particularly problematic factor is the increasingly (and surprisingly) hostile approach the current Conservative government has taken to London itself – having seemingly given up on London from an electoral perspective, and with a determination to direct all new public spending towards its new friends in northern ‘levelling up’ constituencies. This will not have led to a particular enthusiasm for improving London’s transport. The graph below shows the funding per person that was awarded in the most recent round of ‘Levelling Up Fund‘ grants, which probably says all you need to know abut why London’s infrastructure is struggling.

But Marsha, and Battersea Park, weren’t going to give up that easily. Marsha has kept up her pressing of the Department for Transport – for example asking this Parliamentary question last autumn, which didn’t get much of an answer but which is at least one of the ways an MP can keep things quietly on the agenda:  

Marsha: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, when the planned upgrades to deliver accessible access at Battersea Park Station will start which have been deferred from control period 5 of Access for All funding. Kevin Foster (Transport Minister): The project at Battersea Park station to provide a new step-free accessible route is currently in the detailed design phase. Further updates will be provided in due course.

We understand that Marsha also wrote to Network Rail about this in October – which is always helpful, because an MP writing is much more likely to get a proper answer than you or I would – and was informed that they are working with Govia Thameslink Railway (who manage Battersea Park station) to deliver the detailed design phase of the project. Now we know the project had already missed the deadline for the 2014-2019 funding window, and it is clearly getting worryingly close to the end of the next one too (which runs from 2019-2024) without any notable progress on the ground – so a particularly good bit of news was that they have included Battersea Park on the Access for All project list for the next budget round, ‘Control period 7’, which runs from 2024-2029. Fingers crossed it won’t take until 2029 – but it at least means that the budget won’t just ‘time out’ if , as currently looks likely, new lifts are not fully delivered by next year.

So where does this leave us? Well it looks like this project is still on track, more or less. It’s taken ages, it’s been hit by Covid, by inflation, by technical headaches, and by an increasingly hostile environment in Westminster to London boroughs. But the funding’s been preserved by hook or by crook, proper design is going on, and at some stage we can expect a tender for the works, and for a planning application for delivery. There’s a large pot of cash from local property developers waiting to be spent on the station, and we know that the planned road layout upgrades to Nine Elms Lane have left a gap at the station, to not overlap any road changes that are associated with these works. We’ll keep you posted when we hear any further updates.

In the meantime we can thank our MP Marsha for keeping at this like a dog with a bone, because this is exactly the sort of project where a tenacious MP with a strong belief in the cause can badger Minsters and senior officials to make a difference and keep a complicated project alive – and she has told us she will continue to use her voice to ensure we have accessible and inclusive transport. We can also thank Wandsworth Council, for working behind the scenes with TfL to keep this going even as it repeatedly missed delivery deadlines, and especially for negotiating a healthy amount of funding from local property developers to wards the upgrade.

But the gradual unlocking of the accessibility puzzle at Battersea Park also raise the interesting case of Queenstown Road station next door. It’s almost as bad as Battersea Park when it comes to steep steps – as our photo above shows. Admittedly it only gets about half the passenger numbers of Battersea Park – but that’s still a million a year! Quirks of its layout also means that it may be slightly cheaper to convert to step-free access, needing only one lift. Maybe unsurprisingly, Marsha has been campaigning for it to also receive step-free access. In May this year, alongside other local stakeholders, she called for it to also be made step free – and used her influence as MP to meet the then Rail Minister, Wendy Morton. This had some success: Based on her making a case, an application was been made for Queenstown Road to also be included in Control Period 7 – although we do not yet know if it will be successful. Back in 2019, when Wandsworth Council allocated £21m towards upgrade work at Battersea Park station, a much smaller sum of £350,000 was also put towards “Improvements to Queenstown Road Station“, which we presume is linked to the plans we have often reported on to add a second entrance.

Speaking of which – some works have now started at Queenstown Road. There seem to be a mix of work that is aimed at improving the building and preparing for that second ‘back’ entrance to the station (which as we have previously noted will make the station rather easier to get to from the north and the east, as well as creating a useful link between the two stations), and separate work that is associated with the fit out of the former coffee shop for reopening after several years of it being abandoned. This has been a very long running process too, but it is good to see some work now underway. As ever – we’ll keep you posted on developments, and if you can offer any additional insight leave a comment below or get in touch.

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Opening soon on Lavender Hill: Marhaba Minimarket & butchers

Eagle Wines traded on Lavender Hill for many years (right next to Kazim’s legendary Cafe Parisienne, home of the all day breakfast for over two decades) – offering a huge range of wines, that were notably more interesting than what was on offer in the big chains. However the business closed a few years ago, after trading for many years, we believe because the owner decided to retire from the business. The future of the premises was a bit of a mystery – but it is now being fitted out as Marhaba, a minimarket selling fresh food and veg, and in a rare return for a trade we’ve not seen on Lavender Hill for some years, a Halal butchers at the rear of the premises. As part of this, the interior has had a substantial refit to insert chiller units, and the outwards-facing shelving characteristic of a place that takes its fruit and vegetables seriously has been built behind the roller shutters.

London’s inner suburbs are famed for the mix of specialists independent food shops, with particularly strong showings of shops selling Turkish, Polish, Middle Eastern and Caribbean products (supplemented by more local clusters such as Stockwell’s strong Portuguese offering) – and these are often known for having better meat & veg than the standard fare at the supermarkets, as well as a more eclectic mix of wider provisions than you’ll find in a typical small supermarket. Lavender Hill hasn’t had an independent greengrocers for years, and has relatively non-chain foodstores in general with our half dozen corner shops focussing primarily on drinks, snacks, dairy, and longer-shelf-life produce and household goods. So it’s a warm welcome to Marhaba, who look set to fill a gap in the market.

Marhaba Freshly Halal Minimarket, 227 Lavender Hill, London SW11 1JR. As of the 12th February, they expect start trading in a couple of weeks.

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