When I suggested to Roxy we go on a walk through an industrial wasteland, she told me, ‘You had me at industrial.’ So you can imagine how her podgy little feet danced when I proposed a surreal stroll through the Venice of the south-east: Thamesmead, SE28.
With five lakes, a canal and a lengthy riverside, it has one foot in Lombardy and the other in something else entirely, something with three prisons, a dump and a sewage works. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest there is nowhere else like it on earth.
We started out in the bucolic beauty of Lesnes Abbey Woods, the unspoilt ancient woodlands that overlook the ’Mead, taking in the view from the lovingly-tended 12th century abbey ruins. The monks there didn’t bother to brew any beer or nuffink. Or if they did, they drank it, leaving nowt for us, other than some old stones.
From there we could step onto our first elevated walkway into the wonder of Thamesmead South, the original Thamesmead, with its ’60s Brutalist architecture and estates made almost entirely of concrete. It reminded me of watching ’50s sci-fi – a vision of what we thought the future was going to be. Disappointingly, no one wore a jumpsuit.
You can’t get a mortgage on these concrete houses, so they are open to cash buyers only. You can still get a 3-bedroom town house for £180,000. Five years ago, it was half that.
‘An apértif?’ said Roxy, handing me a hip flask.
‘Is that milk?’ I asked, incredulously.
‘Moloko with knives,’ she said proudly, having added vodka to emulate the favourite tipple of Alex and his droogs in Kubrick’s notorious A Clockwork Orange, filmed right by the lake ahead.
Already excited by the otherworld-ness of Thamesmead South, Roxy squealed when she saw the horses. Yes, horses. Loads of the buggers, all around, tethered to the ground.
‘Given its reputation, I’d half expect the horses to get stabbed in the arse by local herberts,’ she said. But the horses are owned by the nearby travelling community, which probably explains why no one messes with them. As we got closer to the huge Southmere Lake, we came across ever more horses. I had to pinch Roxy to make sure she wasn’t dreaming, because, now, beyond the melancholy nags, we could see herons, swans, moorhens and coots. In the distance, lay the headquarters of Channel 4’s Misfits, either incongruously, or congruously, I’m not sure which.
Thamesmead isn’t just a town, it’s a social housing experiment. One of its innovations was water, thought to be a calming influence as well as providing drainage for what was previously marshland. It was a nice theory, but when Southmere Lake was dredged a few years back they found no fewer than 21 vehicles sleeping with the fishes.
The high-rise towers that loom over the lake must have a stunning view, at least those whose owners haven’t blotted theirs out with England flags. A curious decision, for surely the most ardent nationalist would like to look at, I don’t know, England?
Thirsty and slightly sick with vodka milk, we cut across the estates to one of Europe’s less promising watering holes, The Barge Pole, crumbling at the bottom of more Modernist cubes. Inside though, it was thoroughly welcoming, with its chirpy Irish barmaid and retired all-day drinkers. We would love to have stayed and heard their stories, but we had a lot of land to cover. We got back on the walkways, over the canal and past ‘Fuck Feds’ graffiti to Thamesmead North. The housing there is more recent, more valuable and less interesting but at least you’d be able to insure it, unlike some of those living the Brutalist dream. It sort of resembled Luton, until Roxy sparked up a fat one in the sunshine by the river. Then everything looked lush.
There is plenty that the planners got right in Thamesmead. It is incredibly green and there’s a lot of waterside. But there are hardly any shops, or cafés and no railway. There are 50,000 people living there and you practically have to get a bus to buy 20 Superkings and a jazz mag. We did find the Town Centre, an undistinguished brick shopping centre with a surfeit of garish fencing but it hardly felt like the heart of anything.
By then we were exhausted and in need of a pint. I had promised Roxy a caged beer garden and the Cutty Sark didn’t disappoint. The outside space felt prison-like, separating us drinkers from them shoppers with a veneer something like shame.
Like the Barge Pole, the Cutty Sark was busy for a Thursday afternoon, as well as genial. While I remembered the ‘cage’ from a previous visit with The Dulwich Raider, I’d forgotten that it was also right by the canal and run by the unrecognisably slender darts legend Andy Fordham. Waterside pubs are not to be sniffed at and Roxy was soon feeding crisps to ducks and being fascinated by the journey of a lonely can of Foster’s, bobbing along with dreams of the open sea.
We had explored three of the Thamesmeads: South, North and Central. We still had to tackle the West, the most recent development. Roxy had already declared Thamesmead ‘the best deprived area’ she’d ever seen, but apart from trains, I wondered what it was deprived of. Corner shops, I suppose, and a thriving centre. I’m not sure it needs a casino just yet.
Thamesmead West also has a lovely park, lake and riverside and the houses are all new and decent. OK, it does host HMP Belmarsh, with some of the most dangerous and reviled members of society, but, you’re not going to bump into Jonathan King or Charles Bronson in Tesco Express.
Thamesmead was created to relieve over-crowded areas like Peckham and by many accounts did so happily for some time. It later developed a reputation for crime and social problems, though the horror stories are a little dated now. It faces challenges, real challenges, like a lot of places, but Compton, it ain’t.
The Thames Path at Thamesmead has won tarting up money and if the campaign to extend the London Overground from Barking to Thamesmead is successful, it will do wonders, much more so than the recently approved bridge to Beckton. It needs to be connected, not bypassed. Until then, it will still provide a wonky wander back to where the future used to be.