At Plough Yard
If you walk up Norton Folgate, past the Crown & Shuttle, then turn left down a narrow side-street and go under the disused bridge of the former London & North Eastern Railway, you will discover Plough Yard.
Resembling the galleried courtyard of a coaching inn – of the kind that once lined Bishopsgate when it was the point of arrival and departure for those travelling the Roman road north from the City of London – this unexpected enclave of tranquillity, concealed amidst the clamor where major thoroughfares collide, has always fascinated me. And, in recent years, the excavation of the Curtain Theatre where ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘Henry V’ were first performed on a site adjoining Plough Yard, has served to increase my curiosity for this hidden corner still further.
So last week, Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I went along to explore. We received a generous welcome from the occupants of Plough Yard and encountered a thriving community of small businesses, run by people working and living side-by-side in a wide variety of different spaces, within this appealingly ramshackle collection of buildings of indeterminate age.
Ancient battered floorboards and remnants of nineteenth century machinery attest to the immediate industrial past of Plough Yard as a steelworks, but the presence of vast wooden beams and some earlier rough stonework suggest that this charismatic amalgam of structures has evolved on this site over many centuries. Such a palimpsest of yards and interconnected buildings has long been the architectural pattern here at the boundary of the City of London as small trades and artisans have gathered to take business advantage of their wealthy neighbours.
Just south of Plough Yard is the monolithic Broadgate Tower and the space between is presently to be filled by Pinnacle Place, another high rise development of monstrous ambition in harsh contrast to the human scale of the Shoreditch streets beyond. Next, Plough Yard will be erased by the forty-storey Bard Tower constructed on top of the site of Shakespeare’s theatre. It is astonishing to me that the discovery of a location of global cultural significance such as the Curtain Theatre is viewed as a development opportunity to put up another tower block with a shopping mall underneath and I cannot resist the notion that this cheap opportunism will be judged retrospectively as a condemnation of our age.
But, in the meantime, it is my pleasure to introduce you to some of the residents of Plough Yard. “Our community means so much to those who live here,” resident Zak Coogan admitted to me, “but it is worthless to the developers.”
These are the most recent in a long continuum of the proprietor owned-and-run businesses which have always characterised this corner of the East End, with families living in the workplace and small inter-related companies supporting each other.
Zak Coogan, proprietor of Smartinfo Ltd, and his wife Rachel live and work in Plough Yard with their baby daughter, Freya
“I run a telecommunications business from home and many of my customers are in the City of London so I need to be close to them. Eight years ago, we moved to Plough Yard from Old St to escape the noise. We’ve had the happiest years of our lives here – we got married in Plough Yard and our lives are intertwined with this building. Like the other tenants, we’re on an annual lease but the developers will only say we have ‘about two years’ – we know we’re definitely here until February.”
The first floor “cottage” where Zac, Rachel and Freya live.
Painter, Jasper Joffe lives and works in a studio on the ground floor with his eight-year-old daughter
“This is one of the few places I’ve lived where I’ve become friends with the neighbours. It’s incredible for sleeping because it is so quiet and neither too hot in summer or too cold in winter – the thick old walls hold a stable temperature. My daughter’s become a bit fashionable and arranges her toys to decorate the place. She says, ‘We really live at the centre of things, don’t we?’ Since I moved in, I have felt at home. “
Jasper Joffe’s daughter’s cabin
Film Editor, Ben Hilton, lives and works on the ground floor with his wife and their dog, Jarvis Cocker
“The reason I live here is the history. I find it a constant source of inspiration to be living not only in a historic building but amongst streets and upon land in which the past is so compelling – from the Shakespearean theatre literally beneath my feet while I work, to the age-old pattern of streets surrounding me and the legacy of the people that walked them, and what they achieved through the centuries. The thought of all this makes living here feel like a privilege. I feel honoured to have my small patch of working London.”
The view towards Bethnal Green.
Film composer, Amory Leader, moved in on the first floor six weeks ago.
The view towards Shoreditch.
Video production in an attic space at Plough Yard.
Film-maker, Chris Richmond of Atticus Finch has been based at Plough Yard for eleven years.
The Curtain Theatre with Plough Yard in front and Ermine St, the Roman road north, in the foreground – as pictured in “A View of the Cittye of London” c. 1600
Built upon the site of the Curtain Theatre, the Bard Tower will replace Plough Yard.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven