Sunday, 4 May 2008

What council estates look like

The trains ran smoothly and it was easy to get a seat on the tube. I paused at the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Station. "Only one book," I told myself, lingering at the shelves of £1 paperbacks. Then up the stairs to Putney Bridge.

Whenever I climb the stairs, I remember the days when the block by the staircase used to be a public lavatory - ladies upstairs and gents downstairs. There were tow signs on the bridge. The top sign said "GENTS' LAVATORY" and the sign below added the command, "Cyclists - please dismount." The public lavatory was sold off with so many local assets. It's not a lavatory any more but sells expensive coffee and cakes. Somehow memories from my childhood deter me from purchasing espressos there, but it's probably a good cafe.

I waited a while for the bus, then swung myself up to the top deck for the views. The Thames was a-glitter in the sunlight. Diamond-sharp points of light quivered and dissolved into brown foam as new gleams appeared. St Mary's Church looked small given its significance in history ... but when it hosted the Putney Debates in 1647, England was a small, insignificant nation. It was the ideas that mattered. I wanted to get off the bus and see the exhibition, and visit the small farmers' market, but I didn't have time. I was on the way to see my parents.

The bus journey was far longer than I'd expected - probably a side-effect of the crucial football Fulham-Birmingham football match - and I eventually got tired of looking at familar sites, even in the warm sunshine. It was good to see the familiar exterior of the Spotted Horse, even though the interior now serves a richer, less friendly clientele than I remember. I regretted the passing of the elegant Christian Science reading room, which I'd often admired but never entered. And then I fell into a half-doze until the bus swung into Roehampton village and from there into Danebury Avenue and the Alton Estate.

So many people think they know what council estates look like. Outsiders see council estates on the TV and associate them with violence, danger, drug abuse and teenage pregancy, as though these things were confined to certain areas and classes in the country. Even people who live on council estates are encouraged to see themselves and their families and their homes in this way.

There are signs of poverty on the Alton Estate. Shops are closing there as they are everywhere else and the metal shutters are a depressing reminder of fear and misery. Changes made in the past thirty years have often ignored the design of the estate, which won praise and prizes for good reason. The bungalows, flats and maisonettes are set on grassy slopes among grass and trees and, when I got off the bus, I smelt the familiar scent of mown grass and heard a bird calling. Squirrels were chasing among the trees.

It takes less than five minutes to walk from the bus-stop to the block of flats where my parents live and I grew up. I took my camera out to record the scene.

It looked like home.


Anonymous said...

I actually am very interested in fifties, sixties architecture and how sites are developed and areas created. Up here we have Peterlee and Killingworth, lots of other stuff has gone, the famous 'Get Carter' roof top resteraunt atop a Gateshead multi-storey car park is stupidly due for demolition. last year an excellent architectural solution at the bottom of Westgate Road in N upon Tyne (across the road from the Lit & Phil) was demolished. Insanity. Was a good solution to a difficult site. Worked well aesthetically. Was I the only one in the North East to see this? Good post, tks kzb.

quakerdave said...

Glad to see Fulham won, by the way. Lots of Americans on that team, so they're #2 in my heart now, after Arsenal.

Like the new digs here.

KateJ said...

Yes, I remember the estate where your parent live, in fact I've got one or two photos of it somewhere that I took on my one-and-only visit there in the early 1970s. I remember it as very green, with well-built blocks of flats, and a sensational view of the park. What public housing should be.
My father grew in a council house, in an area built as a garden-suburb type development in the early 1920s, with big gardens so working people could grown their own food, and so children could play in the fresh air. The whole street was sold off, back in the early 1980s.