The Handlebar Café, Winchester, Hampshire


Six years ago a group of young students from Winchester had a brainwave – to design a community café and cycle workshop on a new cycle path which had just been established close to the town. The students were at a week long workshop run by SPUD, a Hampshire charity which aims to inspire young people and encourage an interest in architecture, urban design and public art. Together with architecture and environmental professionals who volunteered their help, in particular the local practice Architecture PLB, the group identified the site and put together a design.

From this original concept it took four years of research, model-making, planning meetings and presentations before the project finally received planning permission, followed by a further two-year fundraising programme which raised more than £350,000 to build what is now the Handlebar café and workshop.

The site of the new café was well chosen; it is just inside the boundary of the South Downs National Park and stands at the foot of a local beauty spot, St Catherine’s Hill, reached by a pleasant footpath from Winchester town centre with additional access from an adjacent car park. Just below the cafe the cycle path runs on what was once part of the Didcot to Southampton railway and leads to the magnificent 33-arch Hockley Viaduct, built in 1891. Having suffered a Beeching cut in 1960, both viaduct and track were restored as Viaduct Way, part of the Sustrans cycle route between Southampton and Reading.

Inspired by the idea of trains crossing the viaduct, the group had originally considered re-using old railway carriages for the building. This proved impossible but the idea helped to define the final shape of the new café.

The building follows the form of a pair of railway carriages; their long single-storey shapes with gently arched roofs are linked by a lower roof and one of the pair is set further back from the other, as if they were passing on different tracks. Inside, one ‘carriage’ is dedicated to seating for café customers and is fitted with long narrow windows along the side wall; the other houses the kitchen, and servery, stores and toilets. Customers can also sit outside on a generous timber deck which extends around three sides of the café. A third similar but smaller carriage-like building on the same axis houses the cycle workshop and cycle hire; this is now operated by the local community interest company Bespoke Biking. Footpaths and steps lead up to the café and there is generous parking for bikes.

The use of timber

A key factor in the design was to choose materials which were sustainable and which would also help to root the building in its verdant woodland setting. Timber was the clear choice and FSC-certified timber components were used for both cladding and structure. An important additional advantage of using a timber structure was that, being lightweight, it minimised the load on the foundations. It could also be partly constructed off-site and craned into place, reducing the impact of extended building work on a sensitive site in the National Park close to well-used public footpaths.


As the café was sited directly on part of the old railway embankment, the foundations used were a mini-piled system tied to a steel ring beam. The construction consists of a series of advanced insulated timber frame panels, semi-prefabricated by Bespoke Modular Developments of Winchester and of a size which could be craned onto site in sections.

The floor cassettes are insulated 195 x 45mm timber frames faced with fibre cement boards and 18mm oriented strand board (OSB). The wall cassettes extend to just below the curved eaves and consist of insulated 145 x 45mm timber frames lined externally with 11mm OSB and breather membrane and on the inside with a vapour control layer. Separate cassettes were used to form the curved eaves; they rise to a central flat roof which was covered with a single ply membrane.


The walls and curved eaves of the café are clad with a rainscreen of 18 x 90mm Accoya® boards with sharply profiled edges at top and bottom, fixed to black-painted 45 x 45mm vertical timber battens. The boards are laid horizontally with a 20mm open gap between. The sharp edge profile accommodates the curved shape at the eaves and prevents the gap from appearing to open up. The edge profiles also help to shed rainwater from the top of the boards.

Accoya wood is made from sustainable softwood, FSC-certified Radiata pine from New Zealand, which has been modified by a chemical process – acetylation – to prevent cells in the wood from being able to absorb water. Through this process it achieves levels of dimensional stability and durability that match or exceed hardwoods. Accoya is an exceptionally sustainable product with Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Gold status among other certifications. The cladding boards are untreated and are designed to be low in maintenance with an extended lifetime compared to untreated softwood.

As the café is relatively isolated and unattended at night, the doors are fitted with rolling metal shutters and the windows are enclosed with hinged security screens. The top-hung metal screens were designed and laser cut to a pattern of cogs and wheels, linking the building to both the original railway line and its new cycle route. They are raised during opening hours to shade café customers sitting outside. A generous deck of Accoya Radiata pine extends around the southern and western facades of the building.

Internally, the café has a simple palette of materials with walls lined with 12mm oak-veneered plywood. The ceilings follow the double barrel vaults of the two roofs and the curves are formed of 12mm oak-veneered flexible plywood.


Wood Awards 2020 – Commercial & Leisure, Highly Commended


Prepared by the publishing team with contributor Susan Dawson.

Completion Date:

September 2019

Building Type:

Café and cycle workshop


Winchester, Hampshire


Architecture PLB



Structural Engineer:


Main Contractor and Joinery:

Blue Fish

Timber Fabricator and Installer:

Bespoke Modular Developments

Timber Supplier:

James LathamAccsys Technologies

Timber Elements:

Structure, roof, walls, internal linings, external cladding

Timber Species:

FSC-certified Accoya® Radiata pine

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