Did you know that the word ‘cemetery’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘sleeping place’?
Today I’m going to write about a different type of cemetery. Not a traditional one – there are no mausoleums or gravestones here – but this is a place where a 3000 strong community used to exist, and now only the bare bones remain. Soon it will be gone altogether.
Many have written about the Heygate Estate in south London before me, and I feel somewhat under qualified to do so, given that I have no community links with the place. I have never lived there, I have never even lived near there. But I grew up in south London and I travelled through the Elephant and Castle enough times in the back of my Dad’s car as a child to grow accustomed to the landscape I could see out of the window. The Heygate and estate buildings like it were part of that landscape. So when I write about it, it’s because I feel as if I know it.
I won’t give you a detailed account of the history of the Heygate Estate. Other blogs and web sites have done that better and you can read some of these accounts below:-
The short version is that the estate was built in the early 70’s and housed over 1000 families. By the early 2000’s, the estate had become outdated and the local council began to realise that here was some land in a prime area of London, that could be ‘regenerated’. They stopped maintaining it, and the early proposals were put out in 2004, the residents informed, and promises were made that they could return once the regeneration was complete. The ‘decanting’ of Heygate residents in preparation for the demolition of the estate to make way for pastures new began in 2008, and tenants were re-homed elsewhere in the borough or further afield in some cases. Leaseholders were offered what the council considered a fair price that reflected local market value for their homes. Some accepted the offers and moved, others refused and remained.
The eviction of all the households in the estate became a very drawn out process, and at this time, only two residents remain within the hulking, sprawling estate. In the next few weeks, extreme measures will be taken to remove them, with the appearance of bailiffs likely. There are two sides to this story, with the Southwark Council web site explaining how it has ‘worked closely’ with the residents to re-home them in the places of their choice, offering fair prices for homes and with a ‘Right to Return’ clause in place that gives residents first refusal on the homes that are to be built on the site – homes that are already being sold to overseas investors for upwards of £500,000.
The other side of the story is that of the residents and the local community. Stories of unfair eviction and dirty tactics can be found all over the Internet, and have been all over the London and national press over the last couple of years. Heartbreaking stories of residents being offered far less than market value for their homes then being hit with a Compulsory Purchase Orders forcing them to accept those offers, of communities being broken up and scattered all over London, of defeated and downtrodden residents badgered into leaving, never to return (mainly because they’ll never be able to afford to move back).
Meanwhile, the Elephant and Castle Regeneration Project continues, with demolition of the now almost abandoned Heygate due to continue later this year (some of the site has already been knocked down) and plans for new, posh apartments that cost more money than most people would know what to do with firmly in place. Speculation over the so-called regeneration and likely gentrification of the area continues. In the interim period between the start of the eviction process and the start of the demolition, community projects have sprung up in and around the vast, labyrinthine concrete jungle that used to be home to so many families.
Over the past few years there have been art projects, exhibitions, sporting activities and gardening projects, as well as parties and film showings in the open spaces between the tower blocks. For a brief time, chickens called the communal spaces home (before they got eaten by foxes). The remnants of these activities can always be seen – in the makeshift allotments that can still be found on the estate to the colourful works of graffiti art that adorn the walls and windows, pillars and stairwells.
Most of the estate has now been shut off from the public, but time was, you could still walk in and among the dilapidation that was only getting worse as more and more people left the area. You could still climb to the top floors of the biggest blocks (the lifts had long ago been shut off) and look out over all of London.
You could still use the maze of walkways that covered the entire place like a futuristic transport system on a faraway planet. I began to explore the Heygate in late 2010, after a 6 month spell working in a tower block directly opposite it. Every day I would look out at the ghost town that was the Heygate and wonder what had gone on there. I knew nothing about it at that time, I just remembered those car journeys through south London as a little girl. Estates that seemed to go on forever and broken looking 60’s and 70’s architecture where what I knew and what I was familiar with. I began to do some research, and the thing that struck me the most, and made me sad, was the idea that a whole community of people who knew each others names and lived in such a close-knit environment had dispersed. The accounts I read online suggested that few of them actually wanted to leave.
The first time I set foot in the mostly deserted estate, I was hit by the force with which I could still feel a presence of life in the area. It was a ghost town for sure, but it had been a home, and there was evidence of that everywhere. The council had done a very thorough job of boarding up each and every window and door with sheet metal, of paving over every indication that humanity had once been there, but clues remained. A hanging plant here, a decorative door number there. Broken toys on lawns and an absolute ocean of satellite dishes affixed to the sides of every tower block. These remnants reminded me of the trinkets and flowers that people leave on the graves of their loved ones. The Heygate had become, quite literally, a cemetery for that community.
As time has gone on, and more and more people have been moved out, and more and more ‘interim projects’ have moved in, as well as more council-ordered spiked fences and metal hoardings, the estate has lost a lot of these personal touches, and the strong sense of many lives once lived there has been diluted – the memories are dimmer and that connection to another time, a time when families thrived there and life seethed from every corner of every block, has been broken and lost. I’ve been back several times, and each time there is less of that history and reality to see, but always more community gardens, more spray paint on walls, more art projects and graffiti in every nook and cranny. The Heygate has become something else. But as long as the buildings stand, the memory remains.
They won’t stand for much longer, and the cemetery will be gone, and only the memory of what once stood there and who once existed there will be left, for those that want to remember. The landscape will change and perhaps we’ll see more of those soulless, contemporary gated communities that have become so popular across the city, with less public space and less room for diversity. And maybe in 40 years from now that will look dated too.
For my part, I’m glad I got to go there before it was completely gone, and I’m glad I got to take these photographs. Sheldon jokes that I’m pretty good at writing my Cemetery Club posts about how ‘simply enchanting’ I find the atmosphere of the places we visit, and I guess this post wouldn’t be complete without a final mention for what it felt like standing in the middle of all that history, that lost community. It felt sad. But nice. Like something more than just the desolation and crime that you’ve read about in the newspapers existed there once. It wasn’t enchanting – it was melancholy and uplifting at the same time. It felt like a sleeping place.
All photographs by Christina Owen, 2010-2013