Hidden Attractions: Untold secrets

By Suruchi Sharma

Home to internationally recognised landmarks such as the London Eye, London Dungeon and the Royal Festival Hall, Lambeth also has a fascinating mix of idiosyncratic, lesser-known attractions to captivate visitors

A railway viaduct is not the most common working environment, but Kieron Vanstone has made it work for him. The venue was an important consideration when he started The Vaults (pictured above), located within a fascinating maze of disused railway vaults off Leake Street, which runs under Waterloo station, one of the busiest in the UK.

Vanstone worked for five years within the arches to put on distinctive immersive theatre and alternative arts productions. Prior to becoming the director of The Vaults, he worked at arts venue The Old Vic Tunnels. Just before it closed in 2013 to become a skate park, he was told of a new performance space on the other side of the road. He says: "There was a little light bulb moment where we had a few shows and events that had been cancelled at The Old Vic Tunnels, which I thought could very easily be picked up and dropped on the other side of the road to keep them going. Early on we took on more corporate stuff, but along with that we were able to do artistic and theatrical shows and exciting, groundbreaking stuff. These kinds of venues are very few and far between."

From July to September, The Vaults ran Sounds and Sorcery: Celebrating Disney’s Fantasia, an ambitious, immersive musical based on the well-known film. This came on the back of award-winning productions of Hair The Musical and King Kong (A Comedy).Vanstone says his creative side has to be combined with a commercial sensibility, which has won him a string of business accolades: "I organised club nights and DJ-ing at university in Devon, but I had no kind of business training. It was just a case of being sensible when starting this, but the business part is massively important. Every now and again, when something clicks, there’s this incredible buzz. “It has to be creatively exciting as well as the maths making sense. You usually know on day one of putting a show out whether it’s going to be a hit or not.” The ambition to create something special drives the team at The Vaults. Vanstone explains: “The reason The Vaults worked so well was that it organically grew, and it is constantly still doing that."

Sweet success

Generating a business from scratch is something Isabelle Alaya can relate to. The Vaults puts on an array of engaging shows in the maze of "tunnels" under Waterloo station. After working in Paris and New York, Alaya in 2008 opened artisan chocolate shop and cafe Melange in Peckham, where she experiments with chocolate flavours from coriander and grapefruit to cumin and mint. The desire to use herbs, spices and fruits, and her affection for the food, led to the French chocolatier creating The Chocolate Museum on Ferndale Road, Brixton. It offers trufflemaking workshops, tasting sessions and celebrated its fifth anniversary this year. Alaya believes its appeal to both children and adults, as well as being a venue for special occasions, has made it a success.

She says: "It is not a branded museum as such, like Cadbury, so it is still independent and small. People like the chocolate workshops as they want to learn and achieve something new; this gives them that chance.” Alaya adds that an interesting aspect is how chocolate was a "pure luxury" before makers began to add sugar, which turned it into an affordable item for the masses. "Learning about chocolate is a great part of food history," she says.

Solid links with schools in London have helped create workshops in line with the National Curriculum, which help students with science, food and history lessons. They learn about Mayan and Aztec history, the arrival of cocoa in Europe and how chocolate is made. Alaya says: "When I opened the museum, I didn’t know this was all in the National Curriculum, and in the first year it was through word of mouth that we received school visits. In the last two years it has evolved naturally to the point where we have been fully booked.” Brixton is a perfect location for the museum, Alaya believes: "I made a point to look in Brixton because of the multicultural communities that link up with the history of chocolate, because of the association with the growing and consumer countries. I felt it was important to be linked to communities [affiliated with] the origin of chocolate such as in West Africa and the Caribbean, and then London and the UK are places where it is consumed."

The full version of this article appears in issue two of Lambeth magazine.

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