Under The Arches At Three Colts Lane
Situated midway between Spitalfields and Bethnal Green lies Three Colts Lane. Although many years have passed since there were colts here, today there are many other attractions to make this a compelling destination, especially if you are having problems with your car – because Three Colts Lane is where all the motor repair garages are to be found, gathered together in dozens and snuggled up close together in ramshackle order. Who can say how many repair shops there are in Three Colts Lane? – since they inhabit the railway arches in the manner of interconnected troglodyte dwellings carved into a mountain, no-one can tell where one garage begins and another ends.
Three Colts Lane is where the lines from the East and the North converge as they approach Liverpool St Station, providing a deep warren of vaulted spaces, extended by shambolic tin shacks and bordered with scruffy yards fenced off with corrugated iron. Here in this forgotten niche, while more fences and signs are added, few have ever been removed, creating a dense visual patchwork to fascinate the eye. Yet even before I arrived in Three Colts Lane, the commingled scents of engine oil and spray paint were drawing me closer with their intoxicating fragrance, because, although I have no car, I love to come here to explore this distinct corner of the East End that is a world of its own.
Each body shop presents a cavernous entrance, from which the sounds of banging and clanging and shouting emanate, every one attended by the employees, distinguished by their boiler suits and oily hands, happily enjoying cigarettes in the sun. Yet standing in the daylight and peering into the gloom, it is impossible to discern the relative size and shape of these garages that all appear to recede infinitely into the darkness beneath the railway arches. An investigation was necessary, and so I invited Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie to join me in my quest to explore this mysterious parallel universe that goes by the name of Three Colts Lane. And many delights awaited us, because at each garage we were welcomed by the mechanics, eager to have their pictures taken and show us the manifold splendours of their manor.
There is a cheerful spirit of anarchy that presides in Three Colts Lane, incarnated by the senior mechanic with his upper body under a taxicab, who, when we asked gingerly if we might take pictures of the extravagantly vaulted narrow old repair shop deep beneath the arches, declared,“It’s not my garage. Do as you please! Make yourself at home!” To outsiders, these dark grimy spaces might appear alien, but to those who work here it is a zone where everyone knows everyone else, and where you can spend your working life in a society with its own codes, hierarchy and respect – only encountering the outside world through the motorists and cabbies that arrive needing repairs. My father was a mechanic, and I recognise the liberation of filth, how being dirty in your work sets you apart from others’ expectations. The layers of grime and dirt here – in an environment comprised almost exclusively of small businesses where no-one wears a white collar – speak eloquently of a place that is a law unto itself.
Starting at the Eastern end of Three Colts Lane, the first person we met was Lofty, proprietor of the A1 Car Centre, who proved to be a gracious ambassador for the territory. “Some garages, they just want to take the money,” Lofty declared in wonder, his chestnut-brown eyes glinting with righteous ire at the injustice – like a sheriff denouncing outlaws – before he pledged his own personal doctrine of decency, “But I believe it’s how you treat the customers that’s the most important thing, that’s why we are still here after twenty-five years.” And proof that Lofty is as good as his word was evident recently when seven hundred customers signed a petition saving the garage from developers who threatened to build student housing on the site.
We crossed the road to shake hands with Nicky at the Coborn Garage, admiring the fresh and gaudy patriotic colour scheme of red, white and blue, and his decorative signwriting that would not be out-of-place on a gipsy caravan. Under the railway bridge and down the road, we encountered Erdal and his nephew at Repairs R Us, where we marvelled at the monster engine from a Volvo truck that Erdal rebuilt and today keeps as a trophy by the entrance of his tiny arch. Further down, we met Ahmed, a native of Cyprus who grew up above the synagogue in Heneage St and has run his garage here for twenty-eight years. At the corner, across from Bethnal Green Station, we were greeted by Ian & Trevor, two softly spoken brothers who have been here twenty years repairing taxis in a former a scrap yard, still retaining its old weighbridge. We all squinted together at the drain pipe head dated 1870 with the initials of the Great Eastern Railway upon it, declaring the history of the site in gothic capitals, before Ian extracted a promise from me to come back once I had discovered the origin of the name Three Colts Lane.
Apart from calendar girls adorning the walls, the only women we glimpsed were those who restricted themselves to answering the telephone – barely visible in tiny cabins of domestic comfort, sheltering their femininity against the barbaric male chaos of the machine shops. But then, strolling down a back lane and passing one of the governors in a heated altercation with a quivering cabbie who had innocently scraped his Daimler, thereby providing the catalyst for an arresting display of bullish masculinity, we encountered Ilfet. With a triumphant mixture of self-assurance and sharp humour, Ilfet has won the respect of her male colleagues in the body shop, wielding a spanner as well as the next man. A bold pioneer in her field and stirling example to others, I was proud to shake the hand of Ilfet, the only – or rather – the first female mechanic in Three Colts Lane.
Growing bolder, we ventured deeper to discover the paint shops and frames where taxis were hoisted up for major surgery. We left daylight behind us to explore the furthest recesses of the dripping vaults, lined with corrugated iron, where a fluorescent glow pervaded the scene of lurid-coloured motors crouching in the gloom. We had arrived at the heart of Three Colts Lane, vibrating to the diabolic roar of the high speed trains passing overhead, whisking passengers in and out of London, oblivious to the hidden world beneath the tracks.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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