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The miracle of Fish, Wings & Tings

The miracle of Fish, Wings & Tings

Brixton’s free-spirited Coldharbour Lane gave us the spark of inspiration to create Coldharbour Lager, a super-refreshing pilsner-style beer with Bohemian origins. Our content series, Characters of Coldharbour Lane, pays tribute to the people behind the street.

We sat down for a beer and a chat with Brian, owner of Caribbean restaurant Fish, Wings & Tings at the entrance to Brixton Village market on Coldharbour Lane.

Q: How did you develop your passion for food?

I grew up in Trinidad & Tobago. My grandma Tina was a huge inspiration to me, I consider her my personal Jesus. She was always cooking for the community back home, using her food to show love. As a teenager, cooking became my go-to pastime. There weren’t any clubs, so I would always be cooking with friends, cooking with family, by the river, by the sea, and so on.

Later I went to the US and trained with some top chefs who taught me classical French techniques. Cooking is my world, it’s what I love to do.

Q: What inspired you to open Fish, Wings & Tings in Brixton Village?

I consider that Fish, Wings & Tings came about by divine intervention. I was working on another project which fell apart midway through and I was in danger of losing my business. I got on my knees and prayed with conviction, tears and everything, like I was taught to do as a child when I found myself in a hard situation.

As I came into Brixton the following day I noticed that the entrance to the market was open. So by divine faith I went straight in and spoke with the market manager. I told him what I wanted to do. I’d already had the idea for the restaurant 25 years ago so it was easy for me to pitch it- good homemade Caribbean food, made with the passion of my grandma. Lots of bright colours and flavours: Brixton was the perfect place for that! He asked me to write him a proposal, and eventually offered me the space.

When we opened eight years ago, we were one of the first businesses to stock Brixton Brewery, back when you were just selling to the market and delivering by foot. It’s the source of all successful stories- doing the grind and being humble.

Brian and Jez (co-founder of Brixton Brewery)

Q: What do you think makes Brixton such a special place?

Brixton has always had this energy and this vibe, but it is the sense of community above all which makes it special. You come to work in the morning and people say hello to you. We buy 95% of our produce from the market. If someone comes to us with no money for food we give them a meal. It feels like home to me.

Portraits from our Characters of Coldharbour Lane series will be on display at the Brixton Brewery Tap Room from 23rd September or you can see them as they drop on Instagram @brixtonbrewery. Look for Coldharbour Lager at bars and bottle shops throughout London and beyond (or shop via our website here). Grab one and take refuge from thirst 

“If you love something you make it happen”

“If you love something you make it happen”

This interview is part of our content series, Characters of Coldharbour Lane, in which we pay tribute to the people behind the street that inspired Coldharbour Lager. Photographs by local legend Amari James, (Greaterbythehour).

AMA QUASHIE is one of the fashion industry’s most prominent nail artists. Rarely does a week go by when she’s not visiting somewhere far flung to paint nails for a high end photoshoot or runway show. Yet when deciding where to open their nail salon, Ama and fellow entrepreneur LATOYAH LOVATT both agreed that it had to be Brixton. Not long later, they opened AMA Salon, specialising in natural nails, at 340 Coldharbour Lane.

Q: Why did you chose to open AMA Salon in Brixton?

A: We set this place up nearly two years ago in November and it’s neither of our full-time jobs. I [Ama] do nails for advertising shoots, fashion shows, editorials. Latoya’s a florist and has her own bar [Ground & Grapes, Honour Oak]. But neither of us like not being busy. We went to school together nearby, and Brixton was really focal to our growing up, so we wanted to open a business together here.

Plus places like Shoreditch, and West London, they’re so saturated. South London has been lagging behind slightly, but we’re bringing up the rear. South’s the place to be now.

At the time when we were looking for a space Brixton was kind of on fire. We honestly didn’t think we’d be able to afford it. But when this place came up on Coldharbour Lane, it was a bit smaller than we wanted, but we thought we would be able to make it work.

It’s funny because back in our secondary school days, Coldharbour Lane was rough as hell. We were never allowed to walk down here. But it’s completely different now.

Q: How do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Brixton since you grew up here?

Gentrification is complicated. Change can be a great thing, but everyone needs to take responsibility for making sure that it has a positive impact on as many people as possible, rather than alienating people that have been here for decades.

There are a lot of ‘old Brixton’ people who wouldn’t even attempt to go to some of the new places here, because they don’t seem like they’re for them.

Q: What are you doing to ensure that your business has a positive impact?

It has always been important to us to provide a space that’s inclusive. In terms of our imagery and how we communicate the brand, we wanted it to be something that people felt welcomed by. We want people to walk past the window and see all kinds of people inside. It seems to be working, we have customers who live in Herne Hill, in nice big houses, as well as people from the estate coming in- all ages, all demographics and sexes.

We really wanted to offer the salon as a community space but eventually we realised it’s just too small-. But we’re planning to go back to our old school to do some talks and mentoring sessions with the kids there. We want to expose them to options that are less mainstream.

When I [Ama] graduated, all my A-levels, my degree, and all my early work experience were in media. So I got a job in advertising but I hated it. I trained in nails, just to spend time doing something I was interested in, and then everything spiralled organically. We don’t want to tell these kids; be a florist, or be a manicurist, it’s how you expand out of that. If you love something you make it happen.

Portraits from our Characters of Coldharbour Lane series will be on display at the Brixton Brewery Tap Room from 23rd September or you can see them as they drop on Instagram @brixtonbrewery. Look for Coldharbour Lager at bars and bottle shops throughout London and beyond (or shop via our website here). Grab one and take refuge from thirst 

“The only thing that hasn’t changed is fish & chips”

“The only thing that hasn’t changed is fish & chips”

Brixton’s free-spirited Coldharbour Lane gave us the spark of inspiration to create Coldharbour Lager, a super-refreshing pilsner-style beer with Bohemian origins. Our content series, Characters of Coldharbour Lane, pays tribute to the people along the street.

Jimmy’s Plaice (350 Coldharbour Lane) is a family-run fish & chip shop overlooking the road’s iconic Barrier Block estate. It sells all the deep fried classics you’d expect from a traditional London chippy, and, as we found out when we got talking to owners Raz and Jimmy, has been doing so ever since the 1950s when the shop was first opened by Raz’s father.

Q: How long you been based on Coldharbour Lane?

The shop has been here since the ’50s and was originally owned and run by my dad, so I spent my whole childhood in this area. Our house was a short walk away, and I’d come over here every weekend to help with the deep cleaning. When my dad passed away 30 years ago my husband Jimmy and I took over. He does the cooking and I do the paperwork, deliveries and all that side of things. And the children are involved too. Our girls are at uni now but they come in to help when they can.

There are some people who still come in who knew my dad, but a lot of them are passing away- he would have been in his 80s now.

Q: Do you remember the Barrier Block being built?

No but my dad would have done. There was one builder who would always come in for fish and chips after he’d finished working on the site and he and my dad became lifelong friends.

Q: What kind of changes have you seen taking place in Brixton?

The area has changed a lot since I grew up here. I was here during the riots, but I love Brixton. With people who aren’t from here I always think they just need to come for a tour! There’s respect both ways. If you’re honest and straight up with people they’re the same with you.

Building prices have gone up and that’s good for us. We have noticed a change in the people that come into the shop. But nowhere is ever stagnant and the same for long, is it? Everything changes and we have to change with it. Really the only thing that hasn’t changed is fish and chips!

Portraits from our Characters of Coldharbour Lane series will be on display at the Brixton Brewery Tap Room from 23rd September or you can see them as they drop on Instagram @brixtonbrewery. Look for Coldharbour Lager at bars and bottle shops throughout London and beyond (or shop via our website here). Grab one and take refuge from thirst 

The Accidental Brutalist: Magda Borowiecka

The Accidental Brutalist: Magda Borowiecka

As part of our series, Characters of Coldharbour Lane, raising a glass to the people and places along Coldharbour Lane, Barrier Block architect, Magda Borowiecka spoke to us about her extraordinary life and career, and the only thing she likes about her best-known building. 

Anyone who’s ever walked along Coldharbour Lane between Atlantic Road and Valentia Place for the first time can’t help but wonder about the enormous monolith of brick and concrete, with its tiny windows and looming façade, like a Soviet-era sports hall crash landed in the middle of an otherwise Victorian stretch of Brixton. It is not Brixton Prison, which is what newcomers often assume. It is Southwyck House or, as it’s much more commonly known, the Barrier Block.

Its unique form was designed to withstand the noise and pollution of a gigantic raised flyover that would have cut through the heart of Brixton. Fortunately, this plan was abandoned in the early 1970s. Rumours about the block have circulated for years, such as that it was built the wrong way around. But perhaps the most persistent rumour, the one that still pops up close to the top of Google searches and persists in local urban legend, is that the architect was so distressed by public criticism of her work that she committed suicide.

In fact, Magda Borowiecka is fast approaching her 90th birthday and still lives in Lambeth. We got in touch by emailing her son, also an architect, who said that if beer was involved, Magda would be delighted to speak to us. We sat down for a Coldharbour Lager to hear more about her fascinating life and her most famous design.  

Q: Why did your parents leave Poland and bring you to the UK? 

A: My parents were from Warsaw and they left just before the war when it looked like Poland wasn’t going to hold up as my father worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We came to the UK and I was sent to a boarding school in Scotland.   

Q: How did you become an architect? 

A: I decided that when I was 11 that I wanted to be an architect. All the other girls in school wanted to be secretaries and nurses and nannies and things like that and I remember them asking, “what does an architect do?” and I said, “designs houses”. They were impressed so that was that! I stuck with it. 

It was still war time back then so everything was a bit different. It meant that even though I was only 15 I was allowed to sit the architecture exam. I left with a little slip saying I was good enough to start studying so I came to London and completed my training. 

Q: How did you end up being the lead architect for the infamous Barrier Block? 

A: I knew that I wanted to work for Lambeth Council because at the time there was a big plan to rebuild Clapham Town which I liked the idea of. So I applied for a job and I got it, but then they didn’t put me on the Clapham project, instead they said, we have something more exciting for you. 

On the council at that time there were six different architecture teams, with 15 people in each, and it quickly became clear that none of them wanted to be landed with this new project.

I was given the brief, and the truth is it was very daunting. I was terrified of the whole thing.  

Newpaper illustration of initial plans for the estate

Q: The estate is technically called Southwyck House but when did it get the nickname ‘barrier block’? 

A: It was obvious that we had to build something high to be a barrier to the motorways, I probably used it first! 

Q: What challenges did you face? 

A: It was a lot of work and my children were born while I worked on the project so I was very busy! 

When I arrived they gave me a year to complete the planning. Nobody had done anything like this before so the first thing I had to do was learn all about noise control. The main thing seemed to be to be to put a barrier as close to the actual source of the noise as possible. I wrote a letter to Ministry of Transport and said, ‘will you help us by putting up a sound barrier?’ They said no, even when I offered to give them some of my budget to work with. 

It took a lot of time to get everything signed off. We needed to satisfy our boss, the planners, and the council. It was an enormous amount of work to get the plans completed- everything was by hand back then- but we did it. At the end of the year we were ready to go out to tender for a contractor. 

Then suddenly they cancelled the motorway and the big question was, what do we do? We only had a limited amount of time to spend our budget for the project or we’d lose it and have to start again. At the time Lambeth was under John Major’s Conservative control. We asked him what to do. He’d only just started on the council and probably felt it was better to go ahead with things than not, so it was his decision to start building.  

He later wrote a big article in the Daily Telegraph all about the dreadful things the council were building, naming the most dreadful of all as the Barrier Block. 

I found it all very difficult at the time and the only thing that kept me going was that the group had several schemes not just one, and there was a project on Dunbar Street [the Dunbar Dunelm Estate in West Norwood] which I worked on and am very proud of.  

Q: How did you come up with the design? 

A: We were not able to change the design at all even after we knew the motorway would not be built. 

The small windows were designed to help with the noise and pollution from the motorway, and we had all the bathrooms on the outside of the building so the living space would be away from the road. 

And we had all this blank wall, which is why I came up with the idea to add a pattern. The zig zag pattern is the one thing I’m proud of in the whole building. [Incidentally, this is the feature that inspired our Coldharbour Lager cans- more about that here!]

Our coldharbour Lager can takes inspiration from the pattern on the Barrier Block

Q: How was the building received? 

A: Everybody hated it. I mean everybody hated it. And that was at the time when they were cancelling all the architecture work by the councils, so I was given the boot in fact after the project. I got early retirement so I didn’t mind! I did continue to do odd jobs but not for the council.  

Magda, shortly after the completion of the estate

Q: Is it frustrating that you’re best known for a project you don’t like? 

Certainly it’s frustrating. But this abstract elevated style of architecture eventually became fashionable. Examples of Brutalist architecture in London, like the Southbank, were celebrated, and the Barrier Block started to be considered in that category. They included me in that movement even though it was never my intention. So I became a Brutalist architect by accident. 

Q: Have your feelings towards the Barrier Block changed? 

That was ten years of my life – all that work! But I still don’t like it. It would have been alright if it had done its job. The shame is that it isn’t doing the job that it was designed to do.

At this point in the interview, we suggested that we walk Magda over for a portrait in front of her now iconic creation. She gently but firmly pointed out that she hadn’t yet finished her beer, and the portrait would have to wait. We never did ask her if she knew of the rumours of her death; we make beer, not hard-hitting journalism that may be upsetting to pioneering architects. Besides, given she was seated in front of us, enjoying a Coldharbour Lager and a rousing conversation at 11am, it seemed obvious that these rumours had been greatly exaggerated.  

Portraits from our Characters of Coldharbour Lane series will be on display at the Brixton Brewery Tap Room from 23rd September or you can see them as they drop on Instagram @brixtonbrewery. Look for Coldharbour Lager at bars and bottle shops throughout London and beyond (or shop via our website here). Grab one and take refuge from thirst