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SAVE NORTON FOLGATE
SAVE NORTON FOLGATE

Tonight saw a local planning protest and the neighbourhood turned out in force to support the launch of a campaign to curb the demolition desires of a greedy developer. So far, so what?

The residents of Spitalfields are pitting themselves against plans submitted by British Landto redevelop a small patch just off the northern fringe of the City of London. Was this not merely a bunch of well-off Nimby gentrifiers standing Canute like against the march of progress?

It wasn’teven the celebrity of the trio lined up to spearhead the campaign that distinguished it. There was Jonathan Pryce, recently livening up our screens with his portrayal of Cardinal Wolsey in the BBC’s Wolf Hall . He had been called in to give a reading from Dickens describing the neighbourhood over a century and a half ago. There was Suggs, from 80s hit group Madness, who had turned up to read the lyrics of his song, The liberty of Norton Folgate, which he had written when he fell in love with the area and learnt of “The liberty”, the name of a historical quirk of the area. And there was Dan Cruickshank, architectural historian and leading spokesman on conservation issues. These days no self-respecting protest campaign is launched without a smattering of celebs.

No. The special poignancy of this planning battle is that one of the trio has an awful feeling of déjà vu. Almost 40 years ago, he launched a campaign to halt the demolition of historic buildings in this very same area and the people he was fighting then, were the same developers, British Land.

In 1977, Dan Cruickshank was one of the founders of the Spitalfields Trust, and with the support of Sir John Betjeman and Tower Hamlets Council succeeded in stopping British Land from destroying Elder Street - a small, cobbled and terraced street in which several remarkable early Georgian houses had survived the vicissitudes of time, war and poverty.

These houses are now rescued from dereliction and are sought after by those with a passion for period town houses. With their hands on experience of saving old buildings and recognising new uses, the Spitalfields Trust has become a leading light in conservation policy. Denis Severs bequeathed to the Trust his house, 18 FolgateStreet – his artistic response to the deadness of many visitable historic houses by creating a moving narrative about a fictional family who lived within its walls. This house lives in the shadow of the threatened new development scheme.

“Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, Dear Reader?” began the Dickens reading by Jonathan Pryce.

“Why is it worth fighting for?” Dan began and then outlined, with passion and erudition, somethingof the history of the place, the layers of narrative that are wrapped around the grid of streets that make up Spitalfields and Norton Folgate. Here was one of three Roman cemeteries just outside the city walls and only a decade ago yielded an amazing lead Roman sarcophagus containing the body of a young Roman woman that had lain hidden for over one and a half millennia. The Augustinian priory of 1197 where the rich were saved and the sick were tended and which leant the area its name - Hospitalfields, dimunised to Spitalfields.

Beneath the streets, beneath the 2 meters of litter that raised the level of the ground after the Great Fire of London, the debris of the monastery is being discovered with every excavation.

The area had political significance, too, and was given its own administration, the liberty of Norton Folgate, when the monastery was closed. This extra- parochial freedom seems to have seeped into the soil. Parishes, particularly in puritanical timescould be strict regimes under which to live, so the liberty was important. It led to the abundance of theatricality in close proximity, Christopher Marlowe, Burbage and Shakespeare all worked and played at The Theatre, just around the corner from the new scheme and London’s first public place of entertainment since Roman times.

Spitalfields has also been home to the fruit and vegetable market - giving the neighbourhood a commercial centre - as well as Hawksmoor’s Christchurch, built between 1714 and 1729, giving the area an architectural and spiritual focal point.

And then comes the more familiar modern history: the waves of immigration the area has absorbed and tolerated - Huguenot silk weavers, fleeing persecution in France; Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing pogroms; and more recently Bangladeshis and Somalis establishing themselves in the streets around Brick lane. The Huguenot church at the end of Fournier Street became first a synagogue, and now a mosque.

The speculative houses built for the weavers, with the distinctive row of windows to maximise thelight on the attic floor, have become popular with artists such as Gilbert and George, and designers such as Marianna Kennedy. All enjoying the magic of the complex intersection of communities that lives just a short walk away from the global centre of finance, the City of London.

It is pressure from the Square Mile that is threatening the neighbourhood once more.

“When the street lamp fills the gutter with gold” intoned Suggs with a line from his song.

“British Land want to demolish 72% of the buildings on the site which sits within the Elder Street conservation area” says The Spitalfields Trust. "There will be a 50% increase in the mass of the building as the current 4 and 5 storey buildingsare raised to 11 and 13 storeys" The Trust goes on to describe “a Tsunami ofdemolition for development which threatens a loss of human scale, the exclusion  of small businesses, and the destruction of the unique quality of the urbangrain.”

The event closed with request for donations to help pay for the fight and exhortations to oppose the scheme, with a published guide on where and how to object.

“In the liberty of Norton Folgate,

Just walking wild and free.

In his second hand coat,

Happy just to float

In this little piece of liberty,

Because you’re a part of everything you see” Suggs recited from the closing of his own song.

The crowd finished their mulled wines and dispersed.

Jonathan Pryce, walked back across Spitalfields market to his own 18 century home in the area.

Dan Cruickshank, meanwhile, retired with his partner and child into the house he has lived in since rescuing it from the wrecking ball almost 40 years ago.

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