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A toilet, a bus, a chapel: businesses in the most unusual of places

The UK is full of weird and wonderful buildings that entrepreneurs are giving a new lease of life in the name of enterprise

WC in south-west London was once an abandoned Victorian toilet but entrepreneur Jayke Mangion says: ‘it had this personality and charm’. Photograph: Luke Casserly

When we finally got the keys, there was so much wrong with it A Victorian toilet is probably not the first place you think of when looking for premises for your new bar, but that’s exactly what Jayke Mangion and Andy Bell pitched for when a “To Let” sign appeared in south west London.

“I knew there was a loo there [next to Clapham Common tube station],” Mangion says. “I think it was closed for 30 or 40 years. We enquired along with 400 applicants and luckily [the council] liked what we had in mind.”

It sounds straightforward but acquiring the lease for WC was a laborious process that took many months of paperwork before the renovation could even begin. “When we finally got the keys, there was so much wrong with it,” Mangion adds, “There was no power and it leaked like a sieve. Plus there were cardboard boxes, leaves, old sleeping bags, and seven or eight centimetres of gunk down there.”

But, despite all that, he could still see the potential. When they started to clear the debris, there emerged an original mosaic floor, 130-year old mahogany walls and more. “It had this personality and charm … It just kept giving to us,” he says.

And while it still leaks in places and the constant maintenance can be expensive, he believes it was all worth it (although he’s not sure he’d do it again). “Patience is definitely key – there [are] so many hoops you need to jump through. But you also have to make something that’s going to work, because it’s your money at the end of the day.”

Norman Rowan endured ‘long, slow digging’ without electricity before The Caves was ready to open. Photograph: The Caves

You’re going to need to love doing it When Norman Rowan’s father found a tunnel behind the fireplace in the basement of his pub, he asked his son to spend his summer digging it out. Hundreds of skips worth of rubble later – all of which had to be removed by hand – and the Edinburgh-based family had a series of vaults that could be used as unique event spaces.

“It was long, slow digging,” Rowan says. “There was no electricity and it hadn’t been opened up properly so you couldn’t get any machinery in. [We used] candlelight and a shovel.”

Today, The Caves is one of the most unique spots used in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is popular for weddings, conference dinners and birthday parties. Rowan admits that running a business in a unique space has been a learning curve.

“Because of the nature of the building, things that would last a long time might deteriorate fairly quickly [and] there’s obviously a lot of maintenance all the time,” he says. “We don’t have mobile phone signal but over the past few years, I’ve used ethernet cables everywhere so everything’s connected.

“It’s fairly advanced technology wise. We’ve got Wi-Fi and all of the card machines use internet connection … It would have been very restrictive [otherwise].”

His advice to ambitious entrepreneurs looking for a project of their own? “It’s very hard work so you need to be prepared for that. You’re going to need to love doing it, because you’ll need to put everything into it for a long time.”

Turning Alnwick Station into second-hand bookshop Barter Books has been a labour of love for owner Mary Manley. Photograph: Barter Books

What we have done is restored the life of the station

For Mary Manley, a converted railway station was the perfect place to set up her secondhand bookshop, Barter Books, with husband Stuart. The trains had long since left Alnwick Station and had been used by a storage company and various retailers – including a secondhand car business.

Manley says although the owners had kept up vital repairs on the roof and structure, the interior “was pretty ropey”. “The plan was to make a bit of money and then start restoring,” she adds. “Frankly I wanted the shop to be beautiful … originally no one thought the bookshop would work but people seemed to like it from the first day.”

Since opening in 1991, the store has grown 10 fold and is constantly diversifying. They recently added a buffet and perhaps surprisingly for a shop that champions the printed word, they have always embraced technology. Manley believes they were one of the first businesses in the area to have a website and to accept credit card payments.

“We really went for it,” she says. “We came across a cyber cafe in Edinburgh and thought we ought to do that, but we only had two computers so we called it our cyber cookie.

“[Card payments] are really important. People obviously still pay by cash but cheques are a thing of the past. We also have a barter or swap system.”

The couple have enjoyed being entrepreneurs and count themselves lucky to have set up shop in such a unique building. But there’s still something missing. “What we have done is restored the life of the station,” Manley says. “But one day, I’d like to see the train back where it belongs.”

Rishi Chowdhury bought a red bus for £12,000 and turned it into a co-working space. Photograph: IncuBus

We wanted to do something a bit different It started in the pub, as all good ideas do. Rishi Chowdhury and his co-founder George Johnston wanted to create an incubator where startups around the country could go for support when they wanted to grow. “We decided buying a bus would be a good idea,” Chowdhury says.

The duo launched a crowdfunding campaign to purchase the double-decker bus and convert it into an office. It was a bit of a bargain, at £12,000 and the pair spent £30,000 doing up the interior. Downstairs, there was a kitchen area, a private Skype booth and a boardroom, made up of the bus’s original seats. Upstairs, the seats were removed in favour of a desk that wraps around the top floor.

When IncuBus launched in 2014, the founders raised awareness by promoting it as a co-working space that visitors could use for the price of a bus fare (payable online). They would then check in with their Oyster cards on arrival. “We accepted everything,” Chowdhury says. “Card payments, bank transfer, PayPal, BitCoin…”

For eight months, this was the company’s primary office space, hosting up to five startups at any one time. Eventually they needed more space and now work out of a co-working office in north London.

But the bus still gets to hit the road occasionally and went to Europe on a hackathon last year. Chowdhury says there is always potential to do more. “We want to run multiple programmes at once [and] to take the bus between locations, transfer people and [mix] startup communities.”

The surrounding community – including two bishops – have given their full approval to the reinvention of a chapel into a restaurant with rooms. Photograph: Iain Kemp

It felt like we were the right people to bring it back to life A chance offer on an old chapel by Catherine Butler and her husband Ahmed Sidki as they were passing through Somerset took their lives in a completely different direction. “We drove back thinking, what did we just do?” Catherine admits. “Then we went back the next week to say sorry we won’t be doing this … and ended up asking what happens next?”

The chapel dates back to the 1800s and although “it was a solid sturdy building … it was very very sorry for itself”.

Butler and Sidki lived in the house for eight years, before turning it into their business, At the Chapel in Bruton, Somerset. “It felt like we were the right people to bring it back to life,” Butler says, pointing to her career as a restaurateur and Sidki’s architecture background.

The renovation still isn’t finished, but the chapel now houses a dining room that’s flooded with light. There are also eight bedrooms upstairs, a club room, a bakery and a wine store on site.

Butler says that the community has been very supportive and most of their suppliers and builders have been from the local area. They’ve even had visiting bishops, who gave the project their full approval.

“We had a very simple plan – to restore and keep as much of the original building as we could,” she adds. “We were trying to do it with integrity. I think an old building kind of tells you [what it wants]. You have to learn to work with it, rather than forcing your will on it.”