Once dubbed ‘the town of the 21st century’, the vast housing estate of Thamesmead became 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 idealistic town planning rears above the hedgerows. Its fortunes are changing.

Architecture that was once lauded for being modern and forward-thinking, the estate of Thamesmead has undergone vast redevelopment to accommodate the widening commuter belt. The remnants of a dream, slowly sinking into the soft marshland. It was built hopefully, an exclusive housing estate for 60,000 people. Potential residents were vetted for their suitability. Soon after the first people moved into their homes, a school and other amenities followed. Yet hopes for Thamesmead began to wane and resident numbers failed to reach their targeted, lofty heights. The Greater London Council, the lead developer, would start 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 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, 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 before the construction of the estate. Today, horses are often found on the fields to the west of Southmere Lake, and on occasion, they can be seen roaming the fields adjacent to the Eastern Way. Thistlebrook Travellers Site, a purpose-built, permanent site for travellers is located in Abbey Wood, moments from a block of condemned flats.

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 1940s, this site was home to a thriving community of Romanies. The traveller community of Abbey Wood are visibly present today. Atop a cart, attached to a single horse, riders are often seen driving along the roads in the area. Their presence provides Thamesmead with uniqueness. Travellers are rarely ingrained into 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.

It's not all so bleak, however, as change in Thamesmead is generating greater opportunity. The once-abandoned community centre has been renovated beyond recognition. The Bow Arts Centre, housing creative community space for artists and residents, has a promising future. The flats that once featured in Kubrick's infamous film were reduced to rubble on the banks of the lake.

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 has worked with the London Borough of Bexley, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London as they seek to fulfil the potential that Thamesmead always had. Over fifty years after the first residents moved in, over £1 billion is being invested in housing, infrastructure and the community. They are not only striving to improve existing housing stock but also adding thousands of new homes alongside the unoccupied Thames Path.

Questions and concerns have arisen in the years since the development began. Peabody has long been associated with the ills of gentrification in London. Nearly a decade has passed since their redevelopment plans were released. Areas, some surrounding Southmere Lake, were outlined for their suitability for demolition and restructuring. Yet, Southmere 'Phase One' was completed in 2022, and 'it forms the civic heart of South Thamesmead' according to Thamesmead Now. 'The development includes 534 new homes, of which 55% are affordable, a new public square, a public library with community facilities', as well as 'commercial space for shops, services and cafes, and outstanding shared spaces'. When compared to the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate and its environs, this is a remarkable provision of affordable housing.

Times are changing in Thamesmead, Crossrail now connects nearby Abbey Wood with the city of London in a mere 19 minutes. The area has been seismically altered, with even greater change yet to come. The destruction of Thamesmead's tower blocks, dubbed 'hideous ... systems of prefabrication' due to a lack of government investment in their construction, seems inevitable. Their loss will mark the definitive end of the old Thamesmead project, after which one hopes that the Thamesmead of the future will face greater prosperity.

Thamesmead is to be built on Plumstead Marsh.
Another town – how human will it be?
New towns, new housing estates,
New homes, new streets,
New neighbours, new standards of living,
New financial commitments,
New jobs, new schools, new shops…
New loneliness, new restlessness,
New pressure, new tension…
And people:
People who have to cope with all this newness,
People who cannot afford old irrelevancies,
People who have to find a God,
Who fits in.

– Poem by Sir John Betjeman


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