Once dubbed ‘the town of the 21st century’, the vast housing estate of Thamesmead has become a sinkhole of decline and abandonment. The biodiverse landscape of the Erith Marsh has shrunk in size, consumed by the expansion of London. Along a neglected section of the Thames Path, the architecture of considered, idealistic town planning rears above the hedgerows.
Architecture once lauded for being modern and forward thinking has been neglected for over 50 years. The lakes that were created to manufacture a serene environment have been ill-treated. Waterways that were built to manage the floodplains have been reclaimed by wildlife. A man-made space, now filled with litter and other waste; the remnants of a dream estate are slowly sinking into the soft marshland. It began hopefully; an exclusive housing estate for 60,000 people. Potential residents were vetted for their suitability. A school and other amenities followed soon after the first people moved into their homes. Hopes for Thamesmead began to wane and resident numbers failed to reach the targeted , lofty heights. The Greater London Council, the lead developer, would begin to scale back their hopes for Thamesmead in 1986. Costs began to rise. Homeowners who had lived on the estate for less than a decade were forced into managing their own futures. Stranded on the marshes of Erith with promises of further amenities becoming improbable, crime began to thrive in the darkened underpasses and unkempt alleyways.
Thamesmead was one setting used by Stanley Kubrick for his film adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange. Alex puts his fellow droogs in their place by fighting with them in the murky, stagnant waters of Southmere Lake. Many people see the selection of Thamesmead as significant. For Kubrick it was just one location that suited the narrative he was conveying. The dystopian socialist future was reflected in the brutal tower blocks, concrete overpasses and man-made lakes. Filming began only a couple of years after residents moved in, displaying how rapidly the estate fell out of favour with the masses.Three years after the release of the film, Greater London Council released a promotional film called ‘Living in Thamesmead’. The video documented livelihood in a diverse and thriving space. The concrete coldness of Thamesmead was overlooked. Instead, an optimism was evident. The beautiful waterways were to be used for sailing; a spine road would connect the new estate with Barking and Woolwich; the needs of young people were to be at the forefront of all community plans. Housing, infrastructure and further provisions were boasted. Early residents proudly exhibit their immaculate living quarters and outdoor space. These hopes were never truly realised.
Thamesmead is located on the historic marshes of Plumstead and Erith. It was a traditional camping ground for travellers. Horses would roam freely on the land prior to the construction of the estate. Their horses are often found on the fields to the west of Southmere Lake, though they are occasionally seen roaming the fields adjacent to the Eastern Way. Today, a site for travellers is located in Abbey Wood, moments from a block of condemned flats. Thistlebrook Travellers Site has been associated with low level crime from the start of the millennium.
It is said that the Belvedere marsh was the largest gypsy camp in England in 1895, with up to 1700 people congregating on the fertile land over the winter months. Despite the ramshackle appearance of homes in the 1940’s, this site was home to a thriving community of Romanies. The traveller community of Abbey Wood are visibly present. Atop a cart, attached to a single horse, riders are often seen speeding along the roads in the area. Here, horses are left to graze on the limited green space, spotted on the grounds of condemned blocks of flats, straddling the busy carriageways and on the fields parallel to Southmere Lake. Their presence provides Thamesmead with a uniqueness. Travellers are rarely ingrained in the fabric of a place, as they are on the old marshes of Erith. In 1953, a flood threatened their existence with many travellers opting for the security of bricks and mortar. Erith Council had long been trying to rid the area of their presence. The contentious nature of the gypsy encampment and its hastened demise have been speculated upon. Many refer to an ‘old wives tale’ of a curse placed upon the land. The same people explain this curse as the reason why modern Thamesmead has never reached its intended heights.
Such tales are quickly rubbished upon a recent visit to Thamesmead. The change has been noticeable and welcome. Opting to visit the lake, the once abandoned community centre has been renovated beyond recognition. The Bow Arts Centre, housing creative community space for artists and residents, is beginning a promising new future. The flats that were once featured in that infamous film scene lie as rubble on the banks of the lake. An iconic feature, the blocks of flats that protrude above the sprawling estate below are wrapped in a temporary scaffold. They are beginning their makeover, adhering with modern building regulations.
Peabody, the housing development organisation, is responsible for small to large scale building schemes across Greater London. From blocks in Southwark, to the Embassy Gardens in Wandsworth, Peabody seized on the promise of Thamesmead. They have proceeded at speed to alter this landscape. Importantly, they have recognised the significant scale of the existing development. A town separate from London with an opportunity for over 20,000 new jobs. Peabody will be joining forces with the London Borough of Bexley, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London as they seek to fulfill the potential that Thamesmead always had. Fifty years after the first residents moved in, over £1 billion is being invested in housing, infrastructure and the community. Not only will they be seeking to improve existing housing stock, they will also be adding thousands of new homes alongside the unoccupied Thames Path.
Questions and concerns have arisen. Peabody has long been associated with the ills of gentrification in London. Their interest in Thamesmead has not been without controversy. Four years have passed since initial plans were released. Areas, some surrounding Southmere Lake, were outlined for their suitability for demolition and restructuring. The latest news is that the award-winning lead architect has been removed as the contractor. A further setback and confirmation that the going will be arduous. Of the new housing, no social housing will be rebuilt. Much of the new stock will be above what is deemed affordable. Peabody has made it clear; redeveloped Thamesmead has no room for many of the current residents.
Times are changing in Thamesmead. It remains worthy of a visit for those who want to explore an estate familiarised through popular culture. With Crossrail set to connect nearby Abbey Wood with the city of London in a mere 19 minutes, Thamesmead is predicted to follow a similar trajectory as other housing estates in London.