Take a walk around the back of Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station of a weekend and you might be in for a surprise.
Where once were dark and dingy old railway arches, there is now a hive of activity on Sheffield Street – with the waft of fresh-baked sourdough and pastries from artisan bakery Pollen bringing queues of customers, and a little further along the clatter of kegs being filled with beer from thriving Manchester brewery Track.
You might spot a group of giggling pals waiting to enter the escape room Clue HQ, and as night falls plenty more revellers heading down to the Cloudwater Brewery tap.
On the other side of the city, hidden away on Mirabel Street, you’ll find one of Manchester’s most talked-about restaurants in Umezushi nestled in an old railway arch.
The sushi restaurant is named in the 2017 Good Food Guide among the best restaurants in the UK – and is being quietly tipped as a contender for Manchester’s first Michelin Star.
Or venture out to Red Bank in the Green Quarter and there’s a whole host of micro-breweries including Runaway, Marble and Blackjack thriving in those arched spaces, as well as a Crossfit gym and the quirkiest bike cafe you’re likely to find in the entire city around the corner on Dantzic Street.
All of these independent businesses are based inside the old railway arches owned by Network Rail that have become hugely important spaces for start-up businesses in the city centre.
Network Rail own some 400 business properties across Manchester, the majority of which are railway arches which would have historically been used for basic lock-ups, stabling, open storage and access routes
They started to be converted into business units in the 1980s, and in Manchester they now net £4m in rents for Network Rail, with all profits reinvested into rail infrastructure.
But what is behind the renaissance of these once hidden away spaces for new businesses?
Well, for one thing, for any start-up business the prospect of significantly cheaper rates than in traditional retail and business properties in the city centre.
That’s what first attracted couple Chris Kelly and Hannah Calvert to Sheffield Street when they were looking for a location to start their Pollen Bakery together.
Hannah says: “This was not our first choice. We honestly thought it would be career suicide coming down here, because it is kind of in the middle of nowhere.
“We just thought we’ll open up and see how it goes and the majority of sales might be wholesale until we do find a retail space, but it’s kind of flipped the other way round, we actually do more retail than wholesale on this site.”
Pollen swiftly became a word-of-mouth success since opening a year ago in the railway arch – with hungry punters seen queuing down the street on a Saturday morning to get their hands on the £3.80 sourdough loaves and pastry treats.
Indeed, it has become such a success they are now looking for a second, bigger premises.
Chris says: “It has turned out to be an amazing place for us to get started. You don’t get passing trade so much, so it’s nice to think that people are coming down here because they want us, we have a lot of loyal customers.
“I always had the idea when we started off that it might bring the area up a little bit.”
For Sam Dyson, the owner of Track Brewery, starting up his beer business in November 2014 in an arch on Sheffield Street was the perfect space to grow his business.
He opened with just two fermenting vessels, and has now expanded to eight and he sells 12,000 litres of beer a week – that’s something like 35,000 pints.
On why he chose the location, he says: “The archways themselves are really useful because they are giant empty boxes. I was looking at a whole bunch of different places, but it’s actually quite pleasant down here, it’s so close to Piccadilly Station and of all the breweries in the town we’re arguably the closest into town, we’re only five minutes from the Northern Quarter. When we open for events and brew taps people don’t have far to travel from the city centre.
“Very few start ups have vast amount of money floating around. So you put down a three month deposit and you’re off. You’re not tied in to a five year contract or lease, which has its benefits as well as drawbacks, but it gives you flexibility, it helps you when you are starting out.
“If you’ve got an imagination and an eye for business then why not use them? They’re a blank canvas.”
Sam says he’s enjoyed seeing the other businesses sprouting up around him, and is hopeful for more.
He says: “You’ve got all the other breweries around here, and Pollen Bakery, it’s a nice little strip. I wish that every single one of these units was filled with a bakery, cheesemaker or brewer.”
Arguably Manchester’s most successful railway arches are those based on Whitworth Street West and Deansgate Locks in the city centre – next to Oxford Road and Deansgate train stations respectively.
The stretch includes thriving and bustling bars and live music venues and even a bowling alley – the quirky Dog Bowl from the owners of Black Dog Ballroom.
But there also plenty of spaces across Manchester and Salford still ripe for development – and Network Rail say they are constantly looking at possible improvements and upgrades of those spaces.
That includes the stretch of railway arches underneath the disused railway line on Dantzic Sreet and Corporation Street.
There are only a couple of businesses currently based in those arches, but it does include one of the quirkiest – the Popup Bike cafe, which combines bike repair shop and shabby-chic cafe in one.
The bricked arch forms a wonderful backdrop in the premises, and the toilet must count as one of the most extraordinary WCs in the city centre!
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “We are exceptionally proud of our railway arches which provide vital jobs and create hubs of activity that can set or support the tone of entire areas.
“We are experiencing a period of sustained regeneration of these unique spaces, providing affordable space for small and independent businesses to operate in urban areas, playing a key role in local communities.”
Rents for basic industrial/ storage space start from around £5 per square foot (excluding rates and utilities) with the more modern units situated within prime locations across the city commanding rents in the region of £15 to £20 per square foot.
The spokesman added: “They are popular because they offer affordable, unique spaces with close proximity to busy road networks and key transport hubs in and around the city. Our customers tell us that the arches provide a “blank canvas” from which they can adapt and personalise to incorporate their brand.
“The Manchester estate generates around £4m per annum and all profit is reinvested back into the railway to improve infrastructure, services and facilities for our customers.
“We are also considering the opportunities for further arch developments in and around the city, including those in Corporation Street and Dantzic Street.
“In summary, our unique estate varies significantly in terms of size, location and rental levels and this diversity provides a wide variety of choice for potential occupiers. Furthermore, the flexible terms that Network Rail offers has encouraged a considerable number of our tenants to grow and expand their businesses with us.”
That’s certainly the case for the team at award-winning restaurant Umezushi, based in a railway arch on Mirabel Street, next to Manchester Arena.
The owners there have recently acquired a second arch directly opposite, with plans for a spin-off deli business in the pipeline.
And for them, the location of a rather hidden railway arch fit perfectly with their aspiration for their restaurant since opening five years ago.
Hanna Michmowicz, director of Umezushi, “We wanted to be a little bit hidden away, that was the idea from the start.
“We wanted to grow and improve slowly. None of us had any restaurant experience really so we wanted to slowly grow. We also wanted to be a destination for sushi lovers, for people who actually want to eat sushi and came in on purpose to do so rather than walk-in footfall.”
There is just 16-20 covers in the restaurant, but it fast won rave reviews and acclaim, including inclusion in the Good Food Guide.
Hanna says: “We do really like the arches and we live really close by. I like the charm of the arches, it’s one big space, you’re not restricted by pillars, it’s a shell, and you can fill up the shell with your ideas, there’s no restrictions really.”