Canary Wharf Crossrail station opened yesterday, approximately three and a half years ahead of schedule. That might seem rather premature given that the first trains won't be arriving until the end of 2018. But, priorities, the opening of a new linear shopping mall perched on top of the station provides somewhere for potential passengers to eat and drink while they wait.
The shopping mall is Crossrail Place, the latest retail outlet for lunchtime financiers at Canary Wharf. It's to be found on the northern shores of the Docklands complex, previously tumbleweed, now increasingly the place to go. The crowds were out yesterday to explore the new extension to their estate, streaming across the newly opened walkway (in the shape of a squashed hexagonal prism), or exiting the existing subterranean mall to enter at ground level. This being the first weekend you got a leaflet thrust at you as you entered, although quite a posh leaflet in the style of a first class cruise ticket, a picture implying that the long straight station-top shopping mall was in fact an ocean liner. Dream on.
The first weekend is being celebrated with freebies, to make the debut retail offering seem more exciting than it really is. Downstairs the giveaways are a plastic goblet of bucks fizz or some pink candy floss, while upstairs (if the vendor is at his post) the treat is a saucy waffle. There are also a lot of security guards about, not because the bubbly is especially valuable but because this is private land and nobody wants miscreants lowering the tone. One day this'll be the entrance to the Crossrail station, down an escalator or two into the concrete depths, but for now it's simply an echoing circulation space awaiting far off rush hour crowds.
Crossrail Place's first shops are accessed from outside, along a mundane boardwalk that could be in any provincial town centre. A coffee shop, a Japanese fusion restaurant and a Nat West bank face a shallow water feature created from the remnants of the dock the new station has infilled. Only one unit is currently occupied by a proper shop in which you could actually browse, assuming you want some unnecessary designer objects to fill a space in your kitchen or wherever. On the opposite site is a more peaceful non-commercial arcade, with a line of benches backing onto what look like ventilation units, where the Midland Bank's war memorial lurks somewhat unexpectedly.
But you'll be wanting to go upstairs, above the exterior access points, to the equivalent of the ocean liner's upper deck. Here the architects have delivered their communal asset, a linear roof garden. It's partly open to the skies, with various holes having been left in the triangular timber lattice that curves overhead. Various paths weave through the planted beds, the main track quite broad, others narrow enough to be easily blocked by a small group. Apparently the plants at the western end reflect the western hemisphere and those at the eastern end the eastern, but any suggestion that this is because the Greenwich meridian cuts through the site would be geographically inaccurate.
Friday's crowds were greeted by a pop-up bar courtesy of Crossrail Place's anchor restaurant, whose prime roof terrace doesn't open until late summer, so they had to make do with a limited menu including lobster rolls and fries. One member of staff was giving out vouchers for a free drink at the bar, which sounded like a bargain until you saw the huge queue clogging up one end of the garden. At the other end a band were warming up, their speakers loud enough to be clearly heard on Poplar station's platforms across the intervening building site. And if you continued past the lifts and loos to peer round a cul-de-sac barrier, you could see further empty unitsawaiting fitting out and their transformation into something else luxuriously unnecessary.
I was struck by how many people were carrying food and/or drink, not just that dispensed free, but wrapped stuff they'd deliberately purchased on site. London is increasingly a grazing city, its residents intent on eating and drinking everywhere they go, and the selection of outlets in this new mall reflects that obsession. Indeed I was struck by how quickly the financial community at Canary Wharf had splurged out and embraced Crossrail Place as its own, not just out of novelty but because they'll always have a need for additional after-work social venues. Come enjoy the roof garden while they're not around, I'd say. And try to resist hanging about elsewhere until there are trains to wait for.