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At Plough Yard

April 28, 2013
by the gentle author

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.

Plough Yard

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

39 Responses leave one →
  1. William permalink
    April 28, 2013

    This is being demolished?!

  2. katy permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I am saddened this morning. The Bard Tower??? Why develop? Why build so high? (Well I know the answer th that one). Leeds has also recently been blighted by skyscrapers.

  3. Bobbster permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Can’t believe they can knock down ancient buildings and build a 60s style tower block – how did that get through planning?!

  4. Vicky permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Absolutely astonishing this is about to go! Breaks your heart.

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Yes, so like the courtyard of a coaching inn. This rich dust to be blown away, and the emptiness built upon by empty souls building empty towers.

    True tragedy. Indeed a time of historic shame. But, in the end, all so tenuous – so soon to crumble and to be reclaimed.

  6. April 28, 2013

    The last picture gives it all – the apparently drunken gorilla obliterating the O of HOPE as someone’s idea of street art, while the real art of the street is wiped out. Way too realistic!

  7. Sambalsotong permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Soon we will be surrounded on all sides with soulless , high rise development like Bard Tower. How does something like that get planning approval? Shocking.

  8. Elaine Napier permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Tragic development wasting the heritage of London. Like the grey concrete box that will stifle the Marquis of Lansdowne. Any ugliness is acceptable as long as the developers can make money.

  9. Chris F permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Bobbster… (I imagine) that you can get anything past the planning stage with money and friends or contacts in high places. The truth is that most of us who are forced by circumstances to live in cities would rather live in thriving (Small) communities like this one. You only have to see the comments that are made by the residents and workers to realise that they value being part of this community.
    “Our community means so much to those who live here,” “I find it a constant source of inspiration,” “This is one of the few places I’ve lived where I’ve become friends with the neighbours.” I wish that I could say the same about my small part of the world….

  10. Ian permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I can only echo everyone’s dismay at the way the monstrous new development will obliterate a thriving, successful and ancient community. Unfortunately that new tower block looks all too much like those from the 1960s and 1970s which have proved to be disastrous and have been pulled down.

  11. Tanya permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I visit London because it’s not New York or Toronto or Hong Kong. Why does London want to copy highrise ugliness?

  12. Matt Johnson permalink
    April 28, 2013

    The demolition of this special, secret corner of South Shoreditch will be a huge loss, not only to those who live and work there but also to lovers of higgledy piggledy inner city-scapes which have been built-up and worn-in by countless generations plying their trades and living their lives.

    Human scale places of live and work form the heart of soul of our great cities and it is dispiriting in the extreme to see all those memories so casually swept aside by the developers broom, aided and abetted by their cronies in the Council Planning Dept.

  13. Caroline permalink
    April 28, 2013

    How on earth can the developers be allowed to carelessly throw aside people’s lives and businesses like this to build such a monstrosity for no other reason than profit, and in the process, destroy a thriving and happy community and these wonderful buildings. Madness!!

  14. Tim Page-Brown permalink
    April 28, 2013

    This is just madness, what is heritage if not alive?, history, that’s what. A community is a living human thing, last time I checked it was still illegal to kill a human thing.

  15. James, Martina, and Henry permalink
    April 28, 2013

    It is such a shame that another community will be demolished along with these lovely historic building. Do we really need more ugly towers and less history and community?

  16. Melissa permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I’m saddened to read about this and to see how short-sighted poeple can be in their wish for ‘progress’ and ‘development’. We should be hanging on to places like this for dear life as once it’s gone it’s gone…along with the history and community that brings it to life…

  17. Fiona King permalink
    April 28, 2013

    It is such a pity that we pride ourselves on being an inclusive country and yet we continue to destroy communities that create the multitude of cultures that we have already living in Britain creating a monoculture of tower blocks. This desecration pushes small businesses and artisans away from where they can thrive. Plough Yard is a fantastic small community right in the heart of the city it should be celebrated not destroyed.

  18. Patricia Taylor permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I was uplifted on this Sunday evening when I read about Plough Yard and its
    inhabitants and then I’m told it will all go one day and be replaced by another
    tower block monstrosity – no, no, no!!

  19. Tim permalink
    April 28, 2013

    When you see the 1600 map, recognise the same type of building in almost the same place and realise the horribly named Bard Tower will destroy 400 years of London history it’s doubly depressing. As the author says, the way of life in Plough Yard is something with roots in the past. The current trend seems to be to pull up all the roots and sow salt in the ground.

  20. April 28, 2013

    What a shame. It’s hard to believe such a historic theater was demolished, and that such an interesting area is being targeted now.

  21. Tony permalink
    April 28, 2013

    I have walked past Plough Yard on many occasions and always wondered who lived and worked there. Well, now I know and I’m devastated to hear that this urban idyll is to be destroyed in favour of yet another hideous, faceless tower block. How can this happen? We are constantly being told by Mr D Cameron that we all need to do our bit for the Big Society, yet here we have a thriving, working community about to be uprooted and destroyed. No, no, no! Secondly, how can a site of such historical significance be celebrated by the erection of a 40 floor tower and the destruction of the layers of history that surround it. Again, no, no, no!!

  22. Jane permalink
    April 28, 2013

    Its such a pity when a sense of community & history count for so little in todays world. Surely there must be other unused sites that could be developed instead of using places such as this where there is a vibrant community & that have a direct link with our capitals past.

  23. April 28, 2013

    Bard Tower? Seriously? Is it April Fool’s Day? That can’t really happen, can it? That mock up of that Godzilla building is just horrible. Aren’t there any height restrictions? I just can’t even fathom it.

  24. David Wheeler permalink
    April 29, 2013

    These little hubs of urban creativeness are so essential to keep the heart and soul of London alive. The small enterprises that thrive within these areas are accessible, inviting and bespoke. It’s a tragedy that the proposed building is to be a complete contradiction to this… sterile, non- accessible and generically corporate.

  25. Judy Stevens permalink
    April 29, 2013

    omigod – what has it come to that we see such a creative and dynamic place evolved organically through history and we pull it down and build another monstrosity – I am a Councillor in Lincolnshire and on Development Control and we discover that there is little that we can do because of the appeal system but we try and I thank God I don’t have to have this on my conscience! We just turned down an application for a wind turbine in the middle of the Vale on Belvoir last week …

  26. Mr P Dant permalink
    April 29, 2013

    The railway used to go into Broad Street station, and it was the London Midland & Scottish, not Liverpool Street’s LNER.

    Well, just saying.

  27. Margaret S permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Yikes, the new development is in no way an improvement. I guess somebody is looking to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Heartbreaking for everyone else.

  28. April 29, 2013

    I live where I work and I love the set up.

  29. Lindy permalink
    April 30, 2013

    What a shame, I’ve always loved how carefully London preserves its rich history – it looks like if left to ‘planning’ it will all be destroyed

  30. April 30, 2013

    Such a little gem Plough Yard, London always manages to have pockets of creativity tucked away where you least expect it- it will such a shame to see it go for another tower, I mean do we really need another tower? Its been on borrowed time for years I guess which makes it all the more special! I have many happy memories from there from visits of old. RIP Plough yard.

  31. Noah permalink
    April 30, 2013

    The tower is not only ugly but completely out of proportion which the neighbouring buildings and will cast huge shadows over the South Shoreditch Conservation area. Neighbourhoods such as Plough Yard with years of history and architectural charm should be cherished and preserved rather than encroached upon and dominated by terrifyingly foreboding tower blocks.

  32. Tim permalink
    April 30, 2013

    Who is going to live in this monstrosity? …..A bunch of overpaid bankers from Monday to Thursday who will return to their ‘piles’ in the country for the weekend.
    Will it benefit anyone who is currently living in Hackney? Only the very few who may succeed in getting the ‘social housing’.
    So Hackney does not benefit that just leaves the Developers and the Bankers. No change there then.

  33. Vanessa permalink
    May 1, 2013

    This would mean yet another magic pocket of London destroyed. What differentiates this city is hubs of creativity mixed with family life not distinct ghettos. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen…

  34. tommy b jones permalink
    May 1, 2013

    what an ugly building the Bard Tower is. it must be stopped. does shoreditch really need this ?

  35. Elaine Pomeransky permalink
    May 1, 2013

    Hi, I am wondering why there are no photos anywhere on the web of The Curtain Theatre that was in the grounds of Toynbee Hall during the 1960s-80s (not the original Curtain). The only photos of the theatre are the ones I have of me performing on the stage as a child. I haven’t lived in the East End since 1965, and doubt I’d recognise it now .

  36. Theresa pitcher permalink
    May 2, 2013

    when is our history and historical landmarks going to be left alone. This national heritage is a testimony to our past and home to people who respect and love the area they have chosen to live and work in. I sincerely hope that any planning permission will swiftly and irrevocably be turned down.

  37. andrew plume permalink
    May 2, 2013

    and……………..inspired yet again by the outstanding blog that we have here, I made a deliberate visit today to visit Plough Yard and to photograph what’s there and also to do the same from the garden of the adjacent ‘Crown and Shuttle’

    if Boris and the developers have their way, all that remains of anything different will be demolished, progress isn’t good at all and isn’t needed

  38. Lynne permalink
    May 12, 2013

    That is so sad, everyone seems to be so content and thriving in this small community in such a historic location.

  39. August 23, 2013

    So sad! The higher the buildings, the lower the morals. Valerie

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