The colourfully tiled Common Room on Old Ford Road. Credit: Roman Road Trust
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The Common Room: a humble space with an enormous heart just off the Roman 

After four years of tireless planning and an £80,000 crowdfunding campaign, The Common Room has re-opened its doors, offering locals a brightly-coloured community sanctuary just off the Roman.

While walking down the Roman Road, you may have spotted a jet-black shed to the right of ACE Cars, nestled at the back of the car park. Covered with multi-coloured, intricate tiles, its title reads: ‘The Common Room: A small space for big ideas.’

Though humble in size, the building has a long history and enormous visions for the future. The idea is simple: a community hub on the side of the bustling high street, uniting people from all walks of life in relaxation and peace.

The centre is the decade-long passion project of the Roman Road Trust, a citizen-led economic and community development group seeking to regenerate Bow and Globe Town. It’s taken years of crowd-funding and several rounds of planning applications to get the hub up and running, but it’s now finally ready to welcome visitors.

If you want an idea of what The Common Room is all about, the quotes printed on its facade will give you a hint. To the right of the entrance, you’ll read ‘Goin’ dahn the Roman’ – a homage to the words uttered daily in the classic East End accent. The hub is a celebration of the unique spirit of our area, offering residents a welcoming space of relaxation and friendship whenever they need it.

Other phrases adorn the building, reflecting the diverse makeup of Bow. There’s the Bengali saying, ‘Aqoon la’aan waa iftiin la’aan’, meaning ‘To be without knowledge is to be without light’.

The quote is followed by a ‘Deeds not words’ – a nod to the East End’s Suffragette heritage. It was the feminist mantra of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), notorious for hunger strikes and militant tactics in their fight for gender equality.

Rosie Vincent, the former Managing Director of the Roman Road Trust, is one of the organisers who has spent years fundraising to transform the community hub into what it is today. ‘The space is for everyone, that’s what it’s about’, she said.

‘Connecting people, bringing people back together, combating the loneliness and isolation that people feel. I always think about us as an organisation that brings pride and celebrates the area’, she added.

The origins of The Common Room date back to 2014, when it was the brainchild of the editor-in-chief and founder of Social Streets CIC, Tabitha Stapely, and Metropolitan University art and architecture tutor Torange Khonsari.

The pair saw the opportunity to transform this bleak, under-used cul-de-sac on Ford Road into a thriving centre of community pride. In a partnership between Roman Road Trust, London Metropolitan University, Clarion and Tower Hamlets Council’s enterprise team, the first iteration of The Common Room was borne.

Then, in 2020, the Roman Road Trust began a crowdfunding campaign to re-design the centre into a permanent, larger building, with a greater capacity to host events and activities. £80,000 was raised, followed by a further £60,000, showing the desire in the local area for a welcoming space of local community and solidarity in Bow.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 brought budget and supply issues, causing a period of delay, re-designing and planning applications. But after years of hard work, the new-and-improved community centre finally re-opened to the public last week.

‘Come in and just have a cup of tea, chat, charge your phone, play board games, do some knitting’, says Vincent, who wanted to re-launch The Common Room as a social lifeline for those without a network in the area.

When she used to work in Bow, Vincent would see locals lingering around the Idea Store library opposite Tesco, seeking a safe and warm indoor space to pass the time in its cafe, which has since closed. ‘There’s a group that just sit there and hang out all day, because they’ve got nowhere else to go. There’s not really a community hub on the Roman Road’, she said.

For Vincent, The Common Room will offer a ‘place of connection’ in Bow, between people of different backgrounds who don’t get a chance to mix despite being neighbours.

‘I sometimes feel there’s a big divide, between the real East Enders, the people who have been here all their life, who’ve grown up here … And then there’s the boujee yummy mummies, and there’s also the Bengali community. A lot of them are really struggling, they’re not in a good way financially, emotionally, mentally, or physically.

‘There’s a huge divide of people and groups on the Roman Road. It’s such a shame, because that’s also a huge strength of the area, that we have so many people of different backgrounds.’

As more and more locals visit The Common Room, Vincent hopes it will build empathy and understanding between disparate groups in Tower Hamlets. Whether that’s women of different religions sharing their experiences of motherhood over a cup of tea, or a ‘real East Ender’ chatting with a Bengali mum, the community centre is designed to build bridges.

After years of designing and re-designing, the hub re-opened to the public last week with the launch of ‘Warm Welcome Sessions’. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 2 – 4 pm, the centre will have an open-door policy, inviting everyone in for free refreshments, board games, crafts, charging points, and the opportunity to connect with other residents. 

So the next time you fancy a warming cuppa and a friendly chat between the rush of your daily errands, pop into The Common Room – a home away from home on the vibrant Roman.

If you enjoyed this article, read Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Forum fights for council recognition

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