Finding Myself on the Heygate Estate

Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, in Sunshine

I moved onto the Heygate Estate in the fall of 2007, after answering an ad in Loot. Twenty years before, when I’d lived in a squat in one of the warren-like brick estates across the New Kent Road, I’d look up at the prison-like terraces of the Heygate, and wonder, “who the hell would live in a place like that?”
Now, I was about to find out: people like me.

I went round on a Saturday afternoon. The flat was high up in the monolith next to the Elephant and Castle train station, one of the half-dozen monoliths that make up the outer wall of the estate, and I walked up the curving gangway that led up off the Walworth Road with some trepidation. I’d talked to my flatmate/ landlord to be on the phone just the day before and he seemed reasonable enough. He’d had a pleasant, regional accent, and seemed pleased that I was North American, that I’d lived in New York before coming back to London since he’d been to New York the year before – we’d even seen the same Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Part of it was the estate’s sheer size: the terraces loomed overhead like the riggings of a battleship, and all summer the papers had broadcast a steady stream of accounts of murder and teenage mayhem taking place on estates like this one. I’d heard stories of crack houses on the upper floors, hookers hanging out on the streets at night. Even if I’d spent a good part of the intervening years not far from nightmare 60’s estates like the Heygate, or even more marginal – and dangerous – areas of Brooklyn, I wondered if I wasn’t going to be assaulted or robbed on my way to the viewing. Yet I was curious as well. I’d never been up the estate before, and had always wondered what it was like inside. If nothing else, I’d get a first hand view.

No one was waiting for the rickety tin can lift that bore me up to the building’s upper reaches, and no one was on the terrace. Barry met me at his doorway, standing behind the metal gate the protected the door proper. (MISSING PAGE – LOOK IN PREVIOUS COPY.

Snow on the Heygate

                                          Photo: Johnathon Gales

A couple of new photo essays of the Heygate have turned up in my google news feed, taken during the recent snowstorm in London. The above photograph, taken by Johnathon Gales, is of my old home, Claydon House, with the new ‘gateway to the Elephant’ the Strada Tower, rising up behind it. His blog, thoughts not thoughts has more photographs.

   What was most striking, aside from the empty windows, was the desolate quality of the Strada. At first I wasn’t even sure what it was – the tower was still at the foundation stage when I left last year. From this angle it looks like a giant American flag . . .

Also, more haunting images from Dan Tassell at  Captured City: the bleak beauty of the Heygate Estate

                                          Photo: Dan Tassell

Apperently, some people still live on the estate. These images remind me of one of my last entries when I still lived on the Heygate: Endgame One More Step, when I wrote:

How will it be when the whole estate is empty but for one or two holdouts? How would it be occupy a single flat in a building this vast, to feel the emptiness spreading out through the building at night, to walk down gangways past sealed off flats, knowing no one else’s steps will tread the concrete stairwells – to know the building will soon be rubble?

I wonder how that feels to occupy these hulking empty buildings now . . .


Valentines Day on the Heygate, 2009.

Found this on Youtube this morning:

Mostly old folks gathered in a community hall – I”m guessing the hall behind what used to be the doctor’s office, now the office for the Heygate Tennant’s Association. Probably the last time people got together like this on the estate.

It says a lot that in the six or seven months I lived on the Heygate, I was hardly aware that this older, white working class still existed. The faces I saw were mainly those of immigrants – Africans, South Americans, East Euros. This, I”m sure, had a lot to do with the fact I was an immigrant myself, albeit of a different kind. But it does say a lot about the alienating power of the estate, when you can’t even get a sense of the people who live around you.

Where are these folks now, I wonder?

Will Montgomery’s ‘sounds of the elephant

Photograph: Dollan Cannell.

Will Montgomery is a sound artist who has posted some sound recordings made inside and outside the Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall. In an article for the August, 2007 issue of Painted, Spoken, he writes:

“I’ve never lived on the Heygate and I’m glad of that. However . . . one night I was knocked over on the Elephant’s north roundabout. The impact destroyed the joint at the base of my left thumb, and the Elephant, like the fused thumb, has nagged at me ever since. . . .”

Then, explaining his interest in the shopping centre (from the same interview):

“What interests me now is it’s sound. In the late 199o’s, I began to admire it’s peculiarly roomy, dreamy acoustic . . .in the shopping centre you get, of course, voices speaking many languages . . . But more important to me is the combination of overlapping human voices with piped pop songs. Often you catch some ancient love tune . . . floating by. Perhaps some of the more worn-down uses of the shopping center went for those songs once. For me, the romantic love hymned decades ago by these tarnished old hits tallies with the pathos that now marks the hopes of betterment expressed in the architecture of the area.”

Further, he quotes Charles Dickens, and Walter Benjamin, writing about the Elephant, and mixes sound recordings of the shopping centre with pop-up photographs of the centre and the Heygate Estate. A nice testimonial. His site can be found at ‘’

New Design Revealed for Heygate

From BD the Architect’s Website: 

(image credit: Nick Wharton). 
A firm named Panter Hudspith (Panter? Hudspith?) has revealed plans for 145 homes at Stead steet and another 100 at Royal Road. The proposals are to go in early next year and construction begin in April (2010). 500 public housing schemes are to be built in total. 
In theory this looks benign enough – public housing on a human scale, etc. But I just wonder how long public housing like this, with parks, trollies, nice train station etc will remain public. I suppose the construction noise from ancillary developments will keep land value down for awhile. But not forever. 
But this is assuming Lend Lease and the council sign a deal. And the remaining residents are moved out (South London Press reported as mid-July 200 remain), and the estate comes down. 

Model of final design to replace section of the Heygate. 
The Londonist also mentions this story  – and  also mentions this blog, which is kind of them. Apparently, demolition was due to start in September, has been delayed though the council insists demolition will begin next year. 

Deal Still Not Signed . . .

From the Southwark News: 

The council is continuing it’s exclusivity agreement with Land Lease, the Aussie developers, but no deal has been signed. The Labour opposition accuses the Lib-Dem/ Conservative council of ceding control of the regeneration process and says: 

Regeneration in Southwark is now in total chaos, with an Executive totally out of their depth, the director of major projects resigning [see page 3], and still no deal on the table. There has been a massive lack of political leadership, and this failure rests firmly with the leader of the council, who has so far dodged any accountability, instead blamed everyone else, but still delivered nothing, and just the promise of more dither and more delays.

The council, however, says that everything is still on track despite the ‘worst recession any of us have ever seen’ and affirms that everyone will be moved off the Heygate Estate by the September deadline. 

Paint the Heygate

The person behind this has made his/ her site invite only (why?) since I last checked it a couple of days ago, but supposedly there is a campaign on to paint the heygate estate.

It was unclear from the site whether this would be the painting of the whole estate, one building – or perhaps just one flat – but it seems the organizer wants to bring in several renowned artists to ‘paint the heygate’. 
From a letter, he/ she sent to Southwark Council:

I have six world renowned well known urban artists (local and overseas) who have told me personally that they want to come down to paint the Heygate and work with this local community. Imagine the possibilities.

They list this video by Sony Bravia as an inspiration . . . 

One Mile Away . . .

Meanwhile, a new play is being written, featuring the Heygate Esate: 

From the Website: 

One Mile Away is a new play about a one-mile-radius area of London, being created by playwright Kat Joyce and theatre director Nathan Curry. It was commissioned by literature development agency Spread the Word

From Parliament to Elephant, Vauxhall Farm to Lower Marsh, Kat and Nathan are collaborating with many local people to build a literary picture of the many narratives in this complex area.  Kat will be weaving all the ideas into a new play, which will be performed by a professional cast in the summer.

In Spring 2009, Kat and Nathan will be running free writing workshops for local people who want to share their stories, contribute to making a new piece of theatre and learn about creating drama from our own narratives.

Anyone who has a connection to this area or a story to tell can contribute to One Mile Away. Share your story with us.


More Photos from the Heygate . . .

A photographer named Anthony Wallace posted this short Photo essay called Sealed Up in a magazine called ‘actuphoto’. He writes that he discovered some workers sealing off another empty flat while he was exploring the estate. 

“Inside, an old armchair had been left behind during the evacuation. The sunken seat cushion conjured up images of who had sat there and what kind of people had occupied the flat up until the previous day. 
The head of the welding team granted me permission to photograph other flats whilst they were being sealed. I found myself emphasizing with the abandoned objects and decided that I would collect one as a representative of each property. 
These photographs are a way of preserving the living spaces and some of the memories entombed in them.