Leicester is a minor English city mostly unfamous apart from when it finds historical skeletons of kings, wins the football or becomes First Lockdown City. Take a walk through the city centre and you’ll see high-rise flats going up but also sympathetic conversion of old warehouse and factory buildings. Last to be gentrified are Leicester’s railway arches and like in so many other British cities, the arches have a rich and dynamic past.
After the end of the second world war, huge house-building projects began and British cities spread outwards with new suburbs, prefabs and semi-detached houses. The remains of inner city back-to-backs and other ‘slum’ housing were demolished, and high rise council flats arose in the middle of the bomb sites and waste ground. Under the arches of railway bridges, there was space for activity, and these could be blocked off and locked up as a cheap storage place, somewhere for fixing cars, sand-casting, welding, signwriting or any sort of 20th century noisy engineering that needed a few hundred feet of grotty space. But by the 1970s and 80s, the cheap rents and noise-capability of railway arches meant that they were taken on by people setting up music venues, nightclubs and band rehearsal spaces.
Near Snow Hill station in Birmingham, a railway-arch club opened in the 1960s called Le Metro. Robert Plant is reputed to have played there but its history is sketchy. In 1979, the same or nearby railway arch opened again as a venue – this time called Holy City Zoo. Duran Duran and The Eurythmics played there and the vibe was new romantic and the Bowie/Roxy Music crowd until it closed in 1982. Until recently, this venue has still been open as a nightclub called Subway City.
The article in the link above explains how in recent years Network Rail has tried to redefine the nature of railway-arch businesses. Attempts to get rid of the ‘undesirable’ noisy, dirty engineering and the ‘dodgy’ nightclubs have been seen, particularly in London. Josh De Souza Crook argues that it was the range of night clubs that originally drew young people to city centre living and that without these venues, the area becomes an expensive, sanitised place that has little sense of community .
Archway Studios in Leicester was where Vim’s band started rehearsing. It was dry but quite dirty and ramshackle and you could play as loud as you liked because next door was an even noisier metal-cutting firm.
Beneath the arches near London’s Charing Cross Road, a hotel wine cellar was converted to a roller disco called Global Village. In 1979, the place reopened as Heaven – significant as the first venue to bring the more established American gay club scene to the UK. Heaven is also credited as one of the first to develop and promote DJs as artists in their own right, as House music and beatmatching took a hold. By 1982, the owner had sold the club to Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and the underground went mainstream, attracting a broader crowd through having different themed nights and specialist DJs through the week. With a fair amount of negative media attention for celebrities in moral panics about the use of Ecstasy, Heaven was eventually sold by Virgin in 2003. After several other owners, HMV took over the company, G-A-Y Ltd and then went into liquidation. In January 2020, Heaven was granted local status as an Asset of Community Value, which means that closing the club, or changing its use will be difficult in the future.
Sadly, railway arch venues in other cities have not managed to preserve their heritage. The Cockpit in Leeds opened in 1994 and ran for 20 years as a 500-capacity venue, where Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs and The White Stripes played.
In Glasgow, a 2,400 capacity venue, The Arches originally opened in 1991 as a theatre and arts centre, following the urban renewal in the City of Culture year. The idea was to put on club nights as a way of raising money to subsidise theatre but also bringing all kinds of cultural events and diverse crowds together:
“So all the ideas for how those things happen are cross-connecting with one another in ways that don’t happen in venues that just do one thing. If a nightclub is a nightclub, they don’t get to see what theatre people do.” Alan Miller The Arches promoter
The Arches was forced to close in 2015, following a drugs-related death and licensing issues. Over 40,000 people signed a petition to keep the venue open, including Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, poet Liz Lochhead as well as musicians from Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai. But instead of being rescued and saved as an Asset of Community Value, the arts and nightclub project folded in favour of a commercial non-arts venue. Opened in 2018 as Platform, the Glasgow arches now host eateries and a wedding venue; a prime example of the Network Rail strategy to clean up the arches for the modern city centre.
After the closures of venues during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, survival and viability is heavily threatened. Placed within a context of railway-arch gentrification where the owners only want clean, suitable high-grossing businesses, we gig-goers and clubbers need to become proactive. Many village pubs have already been registered as Assets of Community Value, so if you love your city’s railway-arch gigs or club, please use this lockdown to explore ACV laws and get a group together on social media to keep your local Railway Arch Venue!