Friday, 18 March 2016

"Half Price Paradise"

Article on the Estate published in Guardian's "Space" magazine, March 2001

Half-Price Paradise

So, you thought you couldn’t afford life in a garden city?  Caroline Girling visits the Well Hall Estate, London’s least known but best value leafy suburb.  Photographs by Jason Orton

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How often is it that you stumble across a proper secret, an undiscovered gem, a little pocket of 20th-century romance hiding in the suburbs?  Sure, we all love the beautiful houses of Chiswick’s Bedford Park, the clever cottages of Hampstead Garden Suburb and other offshoots of the garden city movement.  But who knows about Well Hall in Eltham.

The one thing we do remember is that this is where Stephen Lawrence was murdered.  The fact that the bus stop where he died lies on the arterial road in the heart of the place that embodies all the hopes and visions of early 20th-century idealists, somehow only heightens the sense of tragedy.  The Progress Estate, as it is now called, was designed and built in 1915 for munitions workers during the first world war.  The estate was meant to be a blueprint for mass housing in the future, a model of the “Homes Fit for Heroes” legislation, which was to provide soldiers returning from the first world war with appropriately Utopian, “garden city” homes.  It was done at breathtaking speed - 1,298 homes were designed and built in ten months flat - by HM Office of Works’ chief architect Frank Baines.  Baines was a remarkable man.  Within a day of being given the brief he had inspected the site, plotted the trees and hills around which he would run his lanes and paths and which clothe with houses.  The following day he worked through the night to produce the layout.  Within ten days the drawings and specifications for the first 40 homes had been issued for builders to tender. 

He could have put up rows of barracks.  Instead he built groups of cottages i a warren of streets designed to look “as if it had grown and not merely been dropped there”.  Maine’s vision was “to produce an architectural ensemble that seemed centuries apart from the age of total war”.  Walk the streets today and you  can still see his plan, as if freshly drawn.  The roads are as narrow as country lanes, the houses are closely grouped together, as if straight from a fishing village.  Paths tumble through archways between the cottages, which in turn have an endless variety of finishes: rough-cast render, half-timbering, weatherboarding, tile-hanging, colour washed rendering, brick and stone.  “Continuity, enclosure, contrast and surprise” were the cornerstones of the design.  It was meant to “unfold” before you, and it does.

Steve Crow, conservation officer with Greenwich Council, remembers darting through Well Hall when he was still in short trousers.  “I loved it as a child, because it had so many pathways and alleyways.  All the neighbours were aunties and uncles to me, and at Christmas we used to get together for parties in people’s houses.  And it was built so quickly.  You couldn’t imagine modern house builders being as quick.  The houses are very solidly built - no prefabrication - with four-panel doors, picture rails, skirting boards and cars iron fireplace surrounds.   No two houses are the same.  Even in a row which looks as if it is symmetrical, the internal detailing will be different - a fireplace across the corner in one house will be placed centrally in another.  There is a feeling that it was designed with great love and care.  There is no evidence of the material shortages which they must have had - some of the roofs were Westmoreland slate.”

The munitions workers who first moved here were considered key workers.  Many were women lured from domestic service by the better pay (a factory workers was paid four times as much as a parlourmaid), making shells for the western front.  It was a dangerous job - repeated exposure to TNT turned their faces yellow, earning the nickname “canaries”.  Sepia-tinted photographs kept by Crow show how Well Hall looked when the new arrivals came.  There are carts in the streets, boys in knee-length breeches and cloth caps, Edwardian women in long gathered skirts and starched high-collared shirts pushing basinettes.  “There were no shops and no pubs,” says Crow.  But there were home deliveries “I do remember basic groceries being delivered.”

David Blyce is 97 years old, and has lived on the estate all his life.  “My uncle and aunt were munitions workers, and among the first to move in,” he recalls.  “My parents moved in with them to start with.  I remember representatives from foreign governments being show it as an example of the best of British housing.  I married the girl over the fence.  Then, after the war, I came back here to buy my own house.”  He, and his wife Gladys form part of an elderly core contingent which has been here since the start. 
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Frances Power is one of the younger newcomers, although she’s known the area for a while.  Her father grew up in a corrugated iron hut in Eltham, known then as the Eltham Hutments, but since demolished.  He would have loved to think that she would one day afford one of these homes.  Her two-bedroom cottage still has the tiny hooded fireplaces in the bedrooms, each one with a leaf motif.  “A lot of them didn’t have bathrooms but in the kitchen they had a table with a little kidney-shaped bath and sink.  Some had outside loos.”

Cute as it was, Well Hall proved not to be the blueprint of the future it was intended to be.  Though the average cost of each home was a quite luxurious £622, most other authorities cut costs and standards in both design and construction.  In fact the biggest legacy of estates such as Well Hall was the featureless, speculative sprawl and ribbon development that developers put up between wars, the very thing that neatly and economically planned garden cities were meant to combat.  And, like other “garden city” estates, Well Hall’s idealistic beginnings were gradually eroded during the 20th century.  Until 1950, residents rented from Progress Estate Ltd which was part of the Co-op, before ownership passed to the Hyde Housing Association.  But today two-thirds is privately owned.

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A canny estate agent could certainly turn these pretty cottage with their half-hops and cat slide roofs, jettied windows and gable ends into conservation-area bargains.  A two-bedroom mid-terrace house with an upstairs bathroom costs £120,000 to £125,000; a three-bedroom house £150,000 to £160,000 (2001 prices).  Why, then are prices so low?  The reputation that Eltham has acquired since the Lawrence  murder might account for some of it, but not all.  Mostly, says Ian Skinner of Skinner estate agents, “it’s because Eltham is just not a high-price area, and the estate isn’t well known enough on its own.  Compared with fashionable parts of London it is very modest.”

It’s viewed as being the backside of London, closer to Kent then central London.  Yet it is perfectly commutable.  Trains run from Eltham station to London Bridge, Waterloo and Charing Cross in 30 minutes.  Were it transported to north London, Well Hall might have become as sought after as Hampstead Garden Suburb.

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