Assemble Papers, 12 February 2016
No one has been buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery since 1966. It’s now a protected urban woodland spanning 11 hectares in London’s east that’s used by schoolchildren, retirees and, occasionally, a cultural festival called Shuffle.
Among the cemetery’s haphazard tombstones and wild greenery, there’s a surprising sense of calm that’s rarely found in London’s open spaces. There’s no eerie graveyard feeling, just the cool, dense air of vegetation that masks the traffic noise of the high street one block away.
The few people around are bunched in industrious huddles of twos and threes. They’re mostly volunteers who help to plant wildflowers in the former cemetery, but on the day of my visit there are more people around than usual, preparing for Shuffle, which is due to open in two days.
Shuffle Festival occupies disused spaces each summer to celebrate people, public spaces and cities. The festival was started three years ago by architect Kate MacTiernan, geographer Lizzy Daish, and with the backing of filmmaker Danny Boyle, and is now an annual event in Mile End, the neighbourhood that fans out from the cemetery and the nearby St Clement’s Hospital. Both sites had fallen into disuse before being reimagined by Shuffle.