In mid-October I led the Keepin’ it Real walk for the Films on Foot festival hosted by Inner London Ramblers in conjunction with the London Film Festival. The focal point of this evening stroll was the Heygate Estate in the Elephant & Castle. The sprawling estate was designed by Tim Tinker in the 1960’s, built in the 1970’s and in its prime it housed thousands. The futuristic buildings were designed to offer a utopian ideal where communal living provided a social hub for those who became the first to benefit from the post-war welfare state. But Southwark Council said the estate’s stairwells and dark alleys actually turned into areas which encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. By the mid-1990’s it was so synonymous with the concept of the sink estate that Tony Blair made his first Prime Ministerial speech in the neighbouring Aylesbury estate.
In 2008 the council began moving residents out. Today it is empty, more famous as a gritty film and music video location and demolition has commenced. While most might know it for the extremely long concrete brutalist tower blocks which wrapped round the perimeter of the site the estate was, and indeed still is, an extremely green site with quite a lot of communal garden space. We didn’t have time to take a trip round the estate that evening but much of it is still open and I found a daytime walk quite an intriguing discovery. There is something quite eerie about empty structures that are still standing in an urban environment. You can see why the filmmakers of Attack the Block and Harry Brown were drawn to it. (Ironically Michael Caine, Harry Brown’s star, lived in a prefab that was knocked down to build the Heygate.) On a bright autumn day, however, it is less forbidding and has a secret garden feel to it and a couple of people I spoke to were former residents who returned regularly to walk their dogs there. Everybody had that slowness that often accompanies journeys from unknown beginnings to unknown destinations.
On the sky line you can see a roof mounted wind turbine still whirring away vigorously and you can’t help wondering what if anything we’re doing with that power generated. The outline of the gardens with their straight lines and slightly overgrown borders are still prominent and recognisable but nature is inexorably re-asserting its ascendancy by bursting from these artificial confines with its abundant greens and browns. Every now and then you spot bird feeders and it’s very pleasing to see that people are still investing their time and energy in filling these with feed and peanuts. The human residents might all have been moved on but the birds have been joined by flourishing urban animals like squirrels, foxes and probably rats. All this is happening a whole lot quicker than the proposed regeneration of the surrounding area of which there is precious little evidence.
It seems 2 or 3 residents are clinging on in the estate. One of them, Adrian Glasspool, a 37 year old teacher who’s lived on the estate for over 15 years, started a gardening project. He “came up with the idea of using the empty plots of land to recreate a community.” He sounds far too polite to say the council destroyed the original one but despite the merit of this venture and the abundant availability of land here the council are being nothing other than aggressively obstructive. Court orders and other legal instruments arrive with blistering regularity. For more of the story and information click here.
Heading a little further south and east – a couple of short train journeys – brings you to another notorious London estate – Thamesmead. To enhance that feeling of a dystopian future A Clockwork Orange was filmed here soon after it was built, I lived here for 4 years in the early oughties but these days it’s probably most famous as the setting of the E4 TV series Misfits. A walking paradise it most certainly ain’t. I actually used to apply a ‘Thamesmead test’ when I was trying to assess how good urban routes were for walking. It’s another design that favours aerial walkways and appears to include plenty of community greenspace. The only problem is that they are all separate and the only way to access them is to risk stairwells and runways with nooks, crannies and obscured places and no clear route of exit. Perhaps a mugger was consultant to the design team. It’s a shame because you’re very close to the Thames Path, have Lesnes Abbey on your doorstep and a spectacular panorama down to the Thames from a nearby hill much loved by William Morris but frankly a couple of artificial lakes linked by some faux canals don’t compensate for such poor design.
In the interests of balance our last estate is to be found in north London where Camden borders Westminster in St Johns Wood. Three parallel crescent shaped blocks make up the Alexandria & Ainsworth estate sometimes known simply as Rowley Way. The desire to control the sound and vibration from passing trains on the west coast main line which borders the site on the north was a major consideration in the layout of the estate. Two rows of terraced apartments are aligned along the tracks. The higher, 8-story block directly adjacent to the railway line is organised in the form a ziggurat and acts as a noise barrier that blocks the noise of the trains from reaching the interior portion of the site, and its foundations rest on rubber pads that eliminate vibration. The estate is definitely not bursting with green space (there’s no space) but its modern design has the virtue of being at street level rather than the artificial elevation of aerial walkways. Also used as a film set, most notably in Never Never starring John Simm, I really like the look of the place. I hasten to add, though, I don’t have to live here and I have no idea what normal daily life is like in such an environment. This is definitely modern high density living and I couldn’t help wondering how I’d find my home when returning a little drunk because they all looked the same and there was so many to choose from. But then I do live on a mock Tudor estate with a hundred or so houses very similar and I don’t have any trouble so I expect the residents cope.
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