An eyesore to some, proud heritage site to others; despite its severe state of decay this Australian brewery presents a fine example of Victorian architecture. Dense graffiti masks ornate polychrome brickwork. Redevelopment plans have been on hold since 1997, and the site remains a popular haunt of street artists and urban explorers.
However, the climb up this eight-storey brewery – once the tallest building in Australia – proved easier said than done.
Melbourne’s old Yorkshire Brewery isn’t hard to find, its Romanesque tower and grain silos rising high above the surrounding streets.
The brewery was built in 1880, working to a design by the architect James Wood. Standing eight floors tall from the courtyard up to the French style mansard roof, the tower remained Australia’s tallest building for another decade.
The site was purchased by the Carlton and United breweries in 1909, to be used for many years as a cooperage and standby plant. The move from wooden barrels to steel casks in the mid-twentieth century brought this to an end, though; while advances in brewing techniques rendered the premises unsuitable for their original role.
I visited the Yorkshire Brewery with another British photographer, just a few days after our trip to the abandoned Larundel mental asylum on the city limits. Locating the tower was easy enough, although I had heard that getting inside would be trickier… and the stories didn’t disappoint.
The silo block, tower and outbuildings were clustered about a large central courtyard, its heavily chained gate facing onto a quiet backstreet. We made a discrete circuit of the perimeter, finding nothing in the way of an entrance; every window on the first two floors had either been bricked, barred or bolted. We returned to the main gate.
The entrance was situated directly opposite a small Aikido club; it was a warm evening, and the black belt class were training with the double doors open. We had to hope they wouldn’t care or preferably even notice, as we rolled under the gate and scuttled out of sight around the corner.
Inside the courtyard, we began to realise just how secure the site was. Every visible entrance to the brewery was well out of reach, except for a raised walkway – three floors up – which could perhaps be reached by climbing up the loose bricks jutting from a collapsed corner in the wall. It wasn’t an attractive plan.
On the off chance of a shared basement level, I scouted the outbuildings. They were little more than shells though, filled with cooking pots, mattresses and spent aerosols. We were almost considering defeat, when we eventually stumbled across the entrance.
After a little cursing and squeezing we were inside, through the bars and headed down beneath the silos.
What should have been a steeper drop had been filled with broken appliances; instead of jumping we were able to climb down a heap of junked washing machines, impossibly wedged in between the curved concrete walls. Beyond hung the outflow taps of the chambers above, thick with cobwebs and leaving very little in the way of headroom. We stooped under the mighty silos, past a soiled certificate (the 2003 application for a Heritage Permit), and climbed the raised platform on the other side.
The corridor here passed the true entrance – now sealed behind sheet metal. A series of cages divided the walkway, the last space arranged carefully as though lived-in. The corridor took us clockwise around the building, along the length of the silos before turning a sharp left onto the hollow at the tower’s roots. This large open chamber felt all the more organic for its collapsed floor, the walls twisting down into trailing floorboards, which slid messily into the earthy sump below.
Making our way around the pit we began to climb, a series of metal ladders and tarnished gantries that led up towards the main building. It was clear this site was a popular destination amongst local kids; daredevils, artists and arsonists had all left their marks here and there across the hundred-year-old brickwork. Often the graffiti seemed to leapfrog upwards and out of reach, or extend further and further above a yawning gulf – each visitor trying to outdo the last, their tag a badge of courage.
Reaching the base of the tower – from this angle a cathedral, its vaulted ceiling cloaked in shadow – we began the climb. A metal walkway spiralled up the inner wall, its thin gantry extending a few feet above an ever-growing drop.
It reminded me of one of those sadistic tower levels in video games, where the screen keeps advancing upwards and the slightest mistake could spell instant death.
A few floors up the metaphor took on new life, as we encountered our first falling platforms. The walkway ahead had once formed a bridge across the centre of the tower – connecting the stairs on which we now stood to the next flight, which clung to the far wall.
Our gantry, however, was separated from the next by a gap of roughly four feet. I was bracing myself to jump, until I began to doubt the integrity of the far platform.
The surface was old sheet metal, fastened over a lattice of girders. The left-hand side of the platform was severely battered, seemingly hanging loose. It was the right that I would be aiming for, if I jumped, to put my weight straight onto the beam beneath. From this angle though, the surface could simply have been balanced across the girders. The supporting beam looked questionable, too – I couldn’t have said if the structure was secure, or its components merely touching.
It was a two-floor drop to the next level, which itself was rotted and gaping with holes. If this jump went wrong it would be an unpleasant fall; but from here there was simply no way of testing the far platform. I’m 95% sure I could have made that jump – past experiences in derelict buildings have taught me to be cautious, though.
For me this is not about proving a point, about getting to the highest level, the lowest, or further than anyone else. There is enough inherent risk in simply entering such an abandonment, that I see no appeal in placing further wagers. So, while I trust my own ability to climb, dodge, jump, swim or even hide if needs be, I harbour a healthy mistrust of any material prone to rot or rust.
The path ahead was traced in graffiti, where the staircase snaked on up towards the rooftop. I wondered how long the tags had been there, how long since the last successful crossing. More than once I psyched myself up for the jump. I’d make up for it though, I decided: I’d be sure to reach the top of the silos.
We had passed under the silo staircase on our way to the brewery’s tower. A flight of metal steps had long since broken away, and lay useless below. The jagged edge of the top step was almost within reach, but pulling oneself up there would have been an unpleasant business.
Three storeys up however, in a large empty room adjacent to the base of the tower, we found our route. The cavernous green room was furnished with several chairs and a mattress, a single door set in the far wall. It opened outside; where, above a deep drop into darkness, wooden planks formed a crude bridge to the silo block. A scaffold pole fastened at chest height formed the handrail.
I crossed first. The wooden beams were supple, but reassuringly solid underfoot, balanced on an even series of metal crossbeams. It was safer than it had looked and by now we had the night on our side; in one window it was overtime at the office, while through another a half-naked man sprawled on his sofa: a stone’s throw away and yet oblivious to our venture.
Once across, it was an easy ascent. Flight after flight of steep stairs wound up a narrow concrete spine, which itself rose like a bookend after the six pairs of silos. The dust was heavier in this enclosed space, the air ripe with the acrid tang of pigeon shit.
Before long we reached the top floor (this building stood taller than the tower, so I would guess it at 10), and a long, vaulted chamber directly above the silos. Ducking the technicolour frames of the low roof, we made our way along the pillartops. The walls here were dotted with regular windows, allowing us a panoramic view of the urban landscape.
I didn’t have long to enjoy the view before my attention was drawn sharply elsewhere. Namely, towards a circular hole in the concrete walkway ahead. I got a little closer, tensing as I did, and peered over into the abyss. On top of each grain silo we found the same circular port, the space inside falling away into a seemingly bottomless void.
Giving each successive silo as wide a berth as the space would allow, we made it to the far end, the pillars in the east. Here the cityscape opened up before us, the distant CBD tagged in smudges of blue and green. The courtyard beneath us, a flood of orange sodium, seemed dizzyingly distant as I leaned out for a photo over the titan shoulder of the concrete silo.
We made our egress with ease. Back down the stairs towards the base of the silos, we found the broken staircase we’d passed earlier on… but this time we had gravity on our side. It wasn’t a difficult drop down to the next level, allowing just a little care to land on the metal walkway rather than the stairwell.
At one point we heard a dog barking outside, seemingly close by in the courtyard.
We froze – it was less likely a dog walker in the padlocked compound so much as a visit from site security. Minutes later we heard both man and dog leaving the yard, and we were alone again.
After that, it was back the way we had come. Down the stairs, past the cages, then dropping quietly into the space beneath the silos. The kitchen appliances shifted in the dark as we climbed them; then we were squeezing between bars, and back out into the night in search of a good pub. After all the exhilaration of the brewery, we were both in need of a pint.
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