The Oval Space

beauty within and without
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It’s just the name I don’t like. It’s too contrived. The Old Gasworks would’ve been better. I came here to experience the London Craft Beer Festival – just follow this sentence.
 
I hadn’t counted on the awe of the Oval Space. I’ve tramped up and down Mare Street many times completely unaware of the sleeping giant in the neighbourhood.
 
You see a gas holder cage as you approach the venue but it seems underwhelming, barely peeking over the low buildings you walk by. It’s only after you’ve crossed the threshold of the Oval Space that reality distorts with crab nebula beauty. Once you enter the building and go up a flight of stairs, the wall and roof are cut away. The sky becomes the ceiling and the wall becomes a breathtaking industrial panorama: you gaze directly at the metal skeleton of gas holder 5 in what used to be the Bethnal Green gasworks and the blazing azure summer framing it. You’re bathed by it. As you look up from your low elevation, it’s like you’re kneeling in its presence. 
 
Though we don’t think of them as such, Kentish oast houses and Norfolk windmills come from the industrial age. The gruelling days of physical labour we have the fortune never to have known in our own lifetimes have robbed these buildings of the oppression they once bore. in the 21st century, they’re the rustic postcard pin ups of the English landscape.
 
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So it might be for gas holder 5 built in 1889 – the smaller tower – holder 2 that stands behind it is a couple of decades older. Though we still have working gas holders or gasometers, they’re gradually departing the scene splitting people between those that would love to see them demolished and those that nail their hearts to them. In just over a decade, I’ve experienced the same regard towards the buildings of Battersea power station. 
 
Some feats of architecture were never meant to stun but do so in their industrial largesse. Others diminish like Marble Arch. It’s now dwarfed by the buildings that surround it and seems so puny.
 
Gas holder 5 reminds me of something ritualistic – a circular standing formation. Arenas in the Acropolis, the Colisseum, the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, a circle at Carnac, Stonehenge. 
 
I can imagine sacrificial offerings being made under its steel struts at the winter solstice.
 
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I’m not sure of the age or origins of the Oval Space unlike the Pickle Factory behind it that reveals all in its name. Looking into it’s creation does turn up an irrepressible Lithuanian priest who tried to stop the change of premises to a music venue:
 
 
Maybe what makes this metal guardian so compelling is that it’s fading into history as you look at it like a relic in the making. You can see it turn sepia and the periphery of your vision curl and brown like an old photo.
 
The Oval Space has the biggest lounge conversation piece on the planet. Please let’s not demolish it.
 
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London Craft Beer Festival 2016

    how the LCBF knocked me sideways
 
 
On Saturday evening I decided to go online and book a ticket for the London Craft Beer Festival at the Oval Space in Hackney. I hadn’t planned to do this but got tempted by seeing the brochure of someone who’d just come back from it.
 
I intended write a pros and cons assessment of this festival against the GBBF but that’s not possible – they’re not remotely comparable. 
When I entered the main hall upstairs I submitted to some mild panic. This happens every time I hear eardrum-throbbing music or sound in an enclosed space but this is just a reflection on me and my unoutgoingness. I soon got used to it as the rhythm entered the bloodstream but it did have another disadvantage: all the brewers whose beer you’ve been raving about – and whose produce has done things to you you long to thank them for – cannot hear your praise or anything you say
 
You end up mouthing the name of the beer to be lip-read or just pointing at it. I took a couple of photographs of brewers I hold in high esteem – I just wish I could have told them at the time. The ones with their backs to the window were slowly being bisqued in their own juices as the panes acted as a magnifier to the sun’s rays. 
 
You get the beer in shots – as many as you want so you can taste beer of all colours, styles and strengths. No money changes hands as all drink is included in the ticket. The dispense is fluid and uninterrupted meaning minimal queuing. 
I love the thought that’s gone into the little practical details: water butts have been put on the corners of bars so that you can open a tap, rinse out your glass and chuck the dregs into the bin underneath. This way you can switch from a Simcoe IPA to a chocolate coffee porter without their respective foams compromising each other’s taste.
The second half of this festival is just across the road in the Pickle Factory. Your glass needs to be empty before you traverse because of licensing detail – the Oval Space doesn’t lease the road so alcohol cannot be consumed on it.
 
 
This smaller venue is cut off from the light and feels clandestine. Fuller’s brewery is running it and has brought together some of the best breweries and a menu of delicious cask ales that span the ale spectrum. 

For the first time ever, I had the opportunity to sample the Imperial Stout, 1845, Vintage Ale, Brewer’s Reserve, Golden Pride and other heavy Fuller’s beers rarely seen on cask. 
 
Waddling back to the Oval Space (glass empty for the scrutiny of the security bods), you ascend up the stairs, come back out into the light and are ambushed by one of London’s most beautiful urban vistas. This could almost be an analogy about leaving the constraints of real ale in the little shed behind. Am I talking about the Pickle Factory or the GBBF?
 
 
This festival is free from any technical definition of beer. Developments in brewing, in its technology and in its process can all be accommodated under the craft banner. This is a project that just makes the sensory experience between you and the beer its goal – all else is irrelevant.
I’m still turning this experience around and around in my head.