“I want to stay here and die here”

DSC_0787A week before the ballot starts for residents to vote for or against the demolition of the Achilles Street area, me and Jacquie went to see Nancy who lives in one of the maisonettes in the buildings known as 363. These maisonettes are above the shops on New Cross Road, overlooking the estate on Achilles Street at the back. They are part of the redevelopment plans and face demolition. As soon as we walk in, Nancy tells us how distraught she is about the council’s plans to demolish her sanctuary, the only place where she has felt safe during a life that hasn’t always been easy. Almost in tears she shows us her beautiful home, which is filled with family photographs, perfectly arranged ornaments, tastefully chosen wallpaper, lace curtains and tablecloths, and chandeliers. The love for detail is immediately visible. I feel like I have stepped into a cabinet of curiosities, a cabinet of wonder. She points to the Italian-style floor tiles in the lounge, which look new but have been in the flat for 25 years. She also tells us about the wooden floors upstairs which she put down. Nancy and her family took out everything the council had put in and decorated it themselves. The only thing that’s now from the council is the new walk-in shower that Nancy needed after two hip operations. You would never guess this is a council flat simply because of the personal investment that’s been made. “It’s my home!”, Nancy says, visible upset at the prospect of losing it.

Nancy and her whole family (she is the eldest of 10 children) came to the UK from Cyprus in 1968. She was in her early twenties then. They first stayed in Battersea before moving to the borough of Lewisham, where Nancy slept on a mattress on the floor because there wasn’t enough space for such a large family. Nancy was desperate to get her own flat and was told to move into a hostel to speed up the process. When she hadn’t heard back after 3 months in the hostel, she moved back to her mum’s to sleep on the floor again. Then, after another month, she was finally given her own council flat on the Pepys Estate. This was in the late 1970s. Nancy lived in that flat for 7 years, but it wasn’t a good experience as she felt very unsafe on the estate. She remembers frequent fights, drug problems and other troubles. Her worst experiences were getting burgled and having firecrackers put through her letterbox. “I lived in a flat at the end of a horrible corridor that resembled a hospital corridor. I never felt safe there. One day I got burgled. They came through my window after climbing onto the scaffolding. I was at work – I used to work as a seamstress and sew buttonholes in a Deptford factory. All my lovely jewellery got stolen, even my shopping in the fridge was taken. I had no insurance at the time. I lost everything. Another time, somebody put a firecracker through my letterbox. It was around Christmas and teenagers were playing with firecrackers. I wasn’t in at the time. When I came back, the carpet was burnt. Luckily, the fire went out by itself. I was lucky the flat didn’t burn down. This was just after I had got pregnant, so I told the council I can’t live there anymore.”

During that time, Nancy passed the 363 building and noticed that the flat she now occupies was empty. She asked somebody how many bedrooms there were in the flats – she was told 2. She asked the council about the place and was told that it was unfit to live in and that she would have to wait until the flat had been refurbished. Eventually she got the phone call to view the flat. Although the council had only done basic decorating, she immediately liked it and said: “I’ll move in!” Nancy was 8 months pregnant when she moved in.

Her son was born in Guys Hospital in January 1987 and now Nancy has one grandchild. She also used to mind Chris sometimes (interviewed previously) when he was growing up on the estate. Her life in the 363 building has been a happy one. “I’m happy here. I have my GP down the road, Lewisham and Greenwich are nearby, Guys hospital is not far. The flat and the building are really good quality, there is no damp or any other issue here.” Nancy shows me her spacious balcony where she keeps her garden. There’s even space for a little wooden shed. She talks me through all her plants: the plumb tree, which carried lots of fruit last year and whose leaves have turned red during the early autumn start, olive trees, a money tree, a chilli plant with really hot green chillies, a lemon tree, a citronella plant and others. There is dill and mint, and there is a very special rose bush: one year for Mother’s Day, Nancy’s son bought her a rose, which has since grown into a whole bush with lots of flowers. As she tells me about each plant, she gently touches the leaves of each of them and clears away any dead leaves, making it very visible just what the garden means to her. There are also ornaments everywhere, and necklaces with blue evil eyes to prevent bad things from happening. After I tell her that I love dill, she cuts off the whole bush to give to me. She also asks me if I like mint and cuts off a bunch of leaves for me. She says having this outdoor space allows her to stay at home where she feels safe while having the opportunity of being outdoors at the same time. She can’t go out as much these days although she still likes going to Lewisham to do some shopping. She’s had hip operations and looks after a very ill husband. Her garden and the open space outside her front door give her much needed breathing space and allow her to keep in touch with her neighbours.

“I’m so happy here”, she exclaims with her eyes filling up again. “I feel safe! I have never been burgled; nobody ever knocked down my door, never been in any difficulty here. I feel safe here because I know all my neighbours. I’m afraid to move into a new place because I won’t know who lives in the building, I won’t know who the people are and what they’re like. I just don’t understand why the council want to demolish perfectly good flats which have no damp, no issues with the electrics, no problems whatsoever! If I wanted to move, I would have moved a long time ago! Nobody from the 363 flats wants to move. The new buildings are built with low quality – cheap wood, cheap materials – with kitchens in the lounge and no outdoor space.”

Nancy takes me upstairs to show me the rest of the flat. Every corner is decorated with love and attention to detail. The neat array of family photographs, ornaments and lace cloths continues in every room. Every time I take a picture, she double-checks nothing is lying around and that there are no creases anywhere. In the end, she says: “Money is not important. Most important is being happy and the place where you live is so important for happiness. What are you doing in life if you aren’t happy? My home, this home, is where my happiness is. Here is where I feel safe, where I feel happy. I want to stay here and die here.”

In the end, Nancy shows me a photograph of herself in Cyprus in 1967. She was going to a friend’s wedding. It was the year before her family moved to the UK. 51 years on, she is still that same good-looking woman as in the photograph. Forcing her to move out of her home at this age will destroy her.

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“I dance in sites/landscapes to raise awareness of issues”

This text was written by Manuela Benini after she performed at the Tidemill Garden Eviction one year ago today. Photographs taken by Anita Strasser.

07XX Manuela Benini's Red Dress Performance during the Tidemill Eviction 29 October 2018. Photo Anita Strasser (1b)

My name is Manuela Benini and I have lived in south London for more than 24 years, so I consider myself a Londoner who was born in Brazil.

I have a life-long performance art project called “the red dress project”. As part of this ongoing series of outdoor interventions all over the world, I dance in sites/landscapes to raise awareness of issues that I believe are important to myself and communities in the places I live and perform.

I have lived in Lewisham for 8 years and have many friends who live in Deptford. I’m currently an MFA (Master’s of Fine Art) student that studies in Deptford at Trinity Laban. When I found out about the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign I felt not only the sadness of the idea of losing Tidemill Garden – what I considered a gem of a place in the middle of the city, an oasis of wildlife, different people and a place where I could just be –  but I also felt I wanted to support the campaign in whatever way I could. So I danced.

07XX Manuela Benini's Red Dress Performance during the Tidemill Eviction 29 October 2018. Photo Anita Strasser (6)

I feel the loss of a true community garden was a massive oversight by Lewisham authorities in the name of affordable housing, that we all know is only affordable for those who are in secure well-paid contracts, which is not the reality for a vast number of us Londoners. This is affordable housing for whom?

So my question is: How can the loss of a public space like Tidemill Garden, where a truly mixed Deptford crowd was represented, where trees and wildlife thrived, where the air was cleaner in a very polluted area, be justified for “affordable housing”? Who are the winners in this terrible loss of public green space?

We can’t change the fact that London is a growing city and affordable housing is a serious issue that many of us Londoners face. So the development of Deptford is a welcome initiative in my opinion, as long as it is developing opportunities for the community as a whole: building new schools, places where young people feel they belong to, activities for the elderly and people with different learning and physical abilities where they can thrive AND keeping green public areas. Pollution is a big challenge this city is facing and the loss of green spaces in the light of a climate emergency should NOT be allowed under any circumstance.

 

 

No vote for business owners regarding the demolition of their businesses on New Cross Road

The ballot regarding the demolition of the Achilles Street area opens today. It’s a YES or NO to demolition vote; refurbishment and infill is not an option. The demolition plans include the businesses on the parade on New Cross Road, but business owners aren’t allowed a vote. They have no say in the decision regarding the future of their businesses. A while ago, I interviewed Angelo and his nephew Marco – owners of the Launderette on 369 New Cross Road. I met Angelo in 2017, when he was still the owner (he handed it over to Marco in spring 2019). He told me about the Launderette.

“The Launderette itself has been here since the early 60s. It used to be a Father & Son operation with launderettes in different areas”, Angelo explains. “In the early 90s, my brother Joe bought this launderette and did a lot of refurbishing work, replacing the old machines with newer versions.” Angelo took over in 2008, and now, it’s in the hands of his nephew Marco. “It’s a contagious disease, I’m not joking”, Angelo laughs, and tells how many of his family and friends have become involved with launderettes. “It all started with my brother dating a girl whose father was of Italian origin and owned a string of launderettes. The relationship didn’t last but my brother thought ‘I’ll try that’.” His brother has since bought a few launderettes, including one on Jamaica Road which is now owned by another one of Angelo’s nephews.

Marco, who runs the New Cross launderette by himself now, wanted to carry on with the family tradition and took over the business in 2019. As soon as he started, he repainted and decorated the inside, but he hasn’t invested too much as he is aware of the development plans for the area. He also got to know his customers very quickly and built up nice relationships with them. He is particularly fond of Bill from Austin House, who comes in every Friday and tells Marco stories about the past. They also talk a lot about football.

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 05Taking over the business was a great opportunity for Marco, especially being 21 years old. But being in the Launderette business doesn’t make you rich. As Angelo explained previously, “a launderette business doesn’t grow like other businesses do, and it doesn’t have a high turnover. Most launderettes are surviving because they are on good locations in council properties with a reasonable rent. What kills them is the high market rates, so once the new development is here, with rent prices double if not triple, we won’t be able to return. Even if we are offered funds to relocate, which the council has, and new premises in the new development, the overheads will be too high to run it.” Another issue is, Marco explains, the 2-3 years it will take to redevelop the area, during which the business would be shut. Additionally, the machines wouldn’t be running during this time and might not work anymore afterwards, so he’d have to invest in new machines, which would cost a lot of money. “I don’t have the capital to do that so I doubt I’ll set up again!” Marco still has hope that he might be able to stay but says “we don’t have the power to decide that.”

As business owners, they say, they are keen to see investment in the area and people with more money coming in but this shouldn’t mean that others with less capital, including themselves, are priced out. They agree that the parade and the area needs investment but they know that this is due to the council not having done a lot for its upkeep. “It’s a nice parade but it’s stuck in the 60s”, Angelo states. Lewisham Council did commission the artist group ARTMONGERS a few years ago to spruce it up a bit. They came into the shops asking people what they’d like to see, and Angelo, together with the artist, designed the shop front we see today. “It really takes an artist to see things from a different perspective. I was just going to suggest some writing to advertise the services but the artists said no, we need something more interesting and then he came up with the design you see today. It really makes a difference”, he says. “But that’s all that’s been done. Lewisham Council doesn’t involve itself much in making the parade look nicer, they are more concerned with housing. The plans I’ve seen for this area – 5-storey blocks across the whole parade starting from The Venue – this is huge! And I’m pretty certain the development plans will go ahead and I’m pretty certain we won’t set up another launderette here.”

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 08Many people might think that because of improved living standards there is no need for launderettes anymore. In actual fact, there is still demand, even if most people can afford a washing machine. “The association of launderettes merely with the working-class and people in social housing is outdated – we have customers from all walks of life. The demand today is due to convenience: the machines we have can handle high capacity and the laundry can dry quickly, so the whole laundry can be done in an hour. Drying is a particular issue today. Many people live in small flats with no space or facility to dry clothes so coming to a launderette solves that problem.” In this particular launderette the water is also treated before it’s used and people notice the change in the fabric, another reason, according to Angelo, why this launderette is doing good business. “If the launderette closes, people will have to travel further away for this convenience”, making this convenience less convenient. I immediately think of 90-year old Bill. Where will he have his laundry done?

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 06

“I want to live in this flat for the rest of my life”

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In September 2019 I met Christian, a young man in his mid-twenties who works as a project manager for a tech start-up. He lives in the building referred to as 363, which contains maisonettes above the shops on New Cross Parade on New Cross Road. The maisonettes and the shops are under threat of demolition as part of the Achilles Street development. From Christian’s front door you have a fantastic view into Fordham Park and over to the Pepys Estate and other high-rises scattered across Deptford. You also see the green shrubbery that surrounds the Achilles Street buildings. The approaching sunset over the buildings as we approach the door adds another dimension to the view. The first thing I notice is space – green space, space for play, for cars, space to breathe. We go onto the spacious balcony on the other side of the building, overlooking New Cross Road. This is Christian’s favourite place in his home and together with his dad we stand there for a bit and watch the world go by. It’s an interesting new perspective of New Cross for me. Being raised above the usual eye level, I suddenly see writing on top of buildings I have never seen before and I notice the sense of space you get from having the buildings set back from one of the busiest roads in south-east London. I ask them if they experience noise issues being so close to a major artery, but they say that the width of the parade does not allow the noise to come through good windows much. They can’t imagine what it would be like though if the building went right up to the road – like they will if redevelopment takes place.

The thought of having their family home demolished is very upsetting for Christian and his family. “This is our home, where our memories are kept. This is where some of our greatest memories happened, where our community is and where we feel a strong sense of belonging. I want to live in this home for the rest of my life! Having that taken away from us means we have to start building a life from scratch again because we won’t be able to afford a new place in the area”, Christian explains.

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Christian gets his photo album out and together we look through it. It contains mostly family photographs taken in this flat, particularly in the lounge. Some features like the fireplace, the wooden beams and a lamp are still the same. Other things like the photograph of Christian’s late grandmother, who passed away last year, are newer additions. There are photographs of birthday parties and other gatherings, school photographs and family portraits (see below). Somewhere in the flat there is also a VHS of Curtis’ first birthday party.

Christian’s parents came to South-East London from Ghana at different times and didn’t meet until they were both living here in the 1980s. After they’d known each other for a few years, they moved into a flat in Hawke Tower on the Woodpecker Estate in Deptford in 1989. When the mum got pregnant with Christian, they were given this flat in the 363 building in 1993 – the year Christian was born. His brother Curtis was born a year after. When being told about the flat, the councillor at the time said: ‘You are lucky, your flat is in New Cross’ but Christian’s parents didn’t actually know where New Cross was. Now, they can’t imagine living anywhere else. Gradually, the family made the flat their home – they decorated it, had birthday and family parties. One of Christian’s favourite memories is sitting on the floor in front of the hot fireplace in winter, wrapped in a blanket and watching TV.

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Christian and Curtis first went to St Michael’s Nursery on the Woodpecker Estate before they went to Childeric Nursery just around the corner from 363. The two of them were often dressed in matching outfits. “Mum had always wanted twins and since me and Curtis are only one year apart, we practically were twins. I remember walking through Fordham Park to get to nursery. I also learnt to ride a bike in Fordham Park and me and my brother used to cycle around the park. We always stayed in the area. We used the playground on Achilles Street, where we played with local kids from Azalea and Fenton House. The other kids often used to come to our flat”, Christian tells me. The boys then went to St Joseph’s Primary School on Deptford High Street before going to St Michaels Catholic College in Bermondsey. They often played football together on the parade in front of the block and they’ve had many parties and BBQs on the balcony.

Christian at St Joseph's School. Photo Stanley Baker Studios LtdChristian in St Joseph’s Primary School. Photo: Stanley Baker Studios Ltd, with the kind permission to reproduce it here

There are other close connections located within the area. Ever since they arrived, the family have been going to the Catholic Church of Our Lady of The Assumption on Deptford High Street. “The boys were baptised there, had communion there and confirmation. Now I’m waiting for holy matrimony”, Christian’s dad laughs. Christian also loves Deptford flea market. Funnily, he didn’t like it too much when he was younger. “Mum always dragged us down to the market to buy second-hand clothes. We were embarrassed because we went to St Joseph’s. Now I love the market, I always get bargains and I know everyone there. Funny how perceptions change but when you’re a kid you don’t always understand things”, Christian says.

After about 8 years living there, his parents managed to buy the flat off the council. It took a lot of hard work. Christian’s mum, for example, worked 2 jobs and studied at the same time. Christian’s dad started studying later. The parents had a plan: to work hard and build up a secure future for their two sons. “In a city like London it is especially important to have a security blanket that protects you from a life of uncertainty and instability”, Christian says.

Having the dream of homeownership fulfilled and the ‘assurance’ of providing their children with a ‘stable and secure’ home, Christian’s parents were slowly preparing to move back to Ghana. Then news broke that the council was planning to demolish 363 along with the shops and the four blocks on Achilles Street. Since then, and particularly with not knowing what is going to happening, their lives have been put on hold. The move back to Ghana has been put off until no-one knows when, and the family feel that the rug is being pulled from beneath their feet. “We’re living in limbo. It is very destructive and hurtful. We’ve worked so hard to have security and provide opportunities for our children and this is now being taken away. Those making the decisions don’t understand what they are doing to us and our neighbours, who have been here so long as well”, Christian’s dad says.

Losing this home would mean losing a kind of structure for Christian: a secure home, a sense of belonging, and the connection to the building through all the memories that have been shared in it. “Living in a flat in a new-build won’t be the same. They lack character, they don’t have the same amount of space and it would be an empty shell. We would have no connection to it, no family memories. It would be a house instead of a home.” But Christian’s family probably won’t be able to afford a new build in the area anyway (except shared ownership which does not provide the same security as full ownership). Although it seems they are being offered the current value of their home plus 10%, it still won’t be enough to buy a 2-bedroom flat in a new development or in the area. In fact, the way things are going, it won’t buy them anything in Zone 1 or 2.

DSC_0761This isn’t just about losing a safe and secure home, it is also a story about belonging to a place where one grew up and where all one’s memories are stored. Both Christian and Curtis love living in New Cross, with Christian describing his life in the area as “wholesome”. “It’s been home since I was born, it’s where my family are, and my close friends are here on the Woodpecker, in New Cross, Deptford and Greenwich. It’s a great community, it has a very diverse population, good transport links to other areas, and a great mixture of busyness and quietness. It has everything from Jamaican, Indian, Turkish, African food to Pizza for a good price, my dad gets his hair cut in Unique Hair Technique across the road (I used to go there too but now I go to a hairdresser in Deptford) and I love listening to Motown Music on the balcony and people watching. It’s a great place!”

Ever since they have found out about the potential loss of their much-loved home, their lives have been full of uncertainty. Christian says that, at first, he didn’t buy into the idea of ‘social cleansing’ and he thought that the people employed by the council to talk to residents in the newly opened community space at Fenton House really had the community of Achilles Street area at heart. However, having seen what is happening in New Cross and Deptford and noticing how the demographic is changing, and experiencing the threat of displacement himself, he does believe it is social cleansing. “You just need to go to Deptford flea market on a Saturday and then cross over to Deptford Market Yard. You can see a barrier there.” To Christian it feels like the heart of New Cross will be ripped out if the redevelopment plans go ahead.

I ask Christian and his dad whether they’ve made plans in case their home will be demolished. They haven’t. They can’t bear thinking about it; it’s too upsetting. They keep hoping that their home won’t be demolished and that they can finally follow up on their original plans.

DSC_0745View from the front door

 

 

Somethin’ don’t feel right

Photo on left: © Alexandra Waespi, with the kind permission to reproduce it here

Rachel Bennett has been running the band Raiemusic for over a decade.[1] The band (which has evolved to some degree) have performed in London venues including: The Forge in Camden, Hammersmith Apollo, The Albany Theatre in Deptford, Ronnie Scotts, Club Floridita in Soho, Cafe Concerto in Leicester Square, Map Cafe in Kentish Town, The Pheasantry in Chelsea, Cottons in Angel and lots of pubs in and around London. They have recently produced an 11 song album with renowned engineer and producer Wes Maebe. The music is Country with a hint of blues/soul and the songs are mostly narrative and protest based.

Rachel has written two songs in response to Deptford’s regeneration. You can listen to them below. Lyrics are at the bottom of the post. She explains their meaning and why she wrote them:

ROUGHSIDE

“I wrote this some years ago when it began to be apparent that it was ‘trendy’ to hang out in Deptford so we’d get news articles about how Deptford was this edgy place where you could hear live music in the bars. We got the Greenwich ‘well to do’s’ often appearing at gigs and also in the slightly less rough bars. Of course they were entitled to come but we always felt they didn’t fit in. The Albany was our stomping ground and when some theatre companies came to put on what we felt were ‘not our scene’ projects and workshops, we were a little less than celebratory … new employees coming from across town who had no experience of Deptford and who brought their ‘friends’ to do work there. There is a dark history around the Albany at that time [2] so we were very mistrusting.”

© Bennett/Cochrane 2004
Engineered and Produced by Nixon Rosembert at Studio 101A

Guitar Dan Cochrane | Lead and background vocals Rachel Bennett

 

SOMETHIN’ DON’T FEEL RIGHT

“This is a comment on the hype and night-life in Deptford and how the new faces and high-rise buildings don’t fit with the way we live. We feel we are being encroached upon and that our community ideals are put last on the list – when in fact they are the actual triumphs of a working-class area that has strived to do well for its youth. The youth clubs are gone, where those YPs who don’t want to dance or act could go and hang out. The Tidemill Garden saga is a total disgrace and we are all deeply saddened and affected by this. We are also heading for buildings with two entrances – one for the buyers and one for the council tenants … so the line … something don’t feel right … is about the above. The rest of the song describes our street life.”

© Bennett/Brown 2018
Guitar Jordan Brown | Lead Vocals Rachel Bennett | Background Vocals Abdul Shyllon

[1] Rachel also runs the famous Meet Me Choir at the Albany.

[2] More information about this can be found in Jess Steele’s book Turning the Tide, 1993, p. 204.

 

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Corporate Conspiracy

This text was written by Mat Kennedy, boat builder, member of Deptford’s residential boating community and board member of Friends of Deptford Creek.

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I moved onto a boat in Deptford Creek around 2012. Like many Londoners, there are areas of the city I have never seen and will probably never see. In 2012, Deptford was one of these areas for me. I grew up in Harlesden, which in many ways is Deptford’s reflection on the other side of the river, and maybe that goes some way to explain why the area fits so well for me. But the thing that struck me so completely was the sense of community in Deptford, something many areas of London including Harlesden have lost. There are very few places as tolerant of differences as Deptford. I feel like the sense of dignity extended on the street to even the most difficult or marginal characters is a testament to an area whose cultural identity is rooted in worldliness. There is genuinely a feeling of inclusiveness that somehow celebrates the imperfect, and in a world obsessed with aspiration and quite frankly mentally deranged because of it, this sort of attitude is of value and worth protecting. The market is, in my opinion, the thing that holds this together; its rhythm pulling everyone back out into the street three times a week and reminding people again and again that we are all alright and your neighbors are mostly nice people and the world is fun and all that shit in the news a false reality.

Today Deptford is at a crossroads; as a post-industrial area, there are large tracts of land earmarked for development. In addition to this, there is a vast reserve of publicly owned housing stock, schools, hospitals, social care buildings and other municipal service centers being directly sold off to plug funding gaps or bargained for ‘affordable’ new build housing. Central government is starving local councils and instructing them to extract revenue from existing assets while simultaneously setting new build targets. This lack of funding in combination with a target driven housing agenda means the classification of what constitutes affordable has been willfully stretched to the point of absurdity. The housing crisis is being constantly referred to as a supply issue while tens of thousands of so-called luxury flats sit empty, bought as investments or simply as a way to park vast sums of wealth. Luxury investments are touted on a global marketplace while often substandard ‘affordable’ housing is sold at inflated prices to a captive market of young buyers trapped by the terms of the help-to-buy scheme. Developers and government sell the idea that the new apartments will act as a stepping stone towards a life of rising investment value, security and wealth. But this is a lie, and not only a lie that threatens to ruin the lives of so many individuals in the coming years, but a lie that threatens the very fabric of London as an un-ghettoised metropolis. Nowhere is this more evident than in areas like Deptford. In order to facilitate the allusion of an investment on the rise, Deptford has needed to undergo change. This is not the sort of natural change that areas undergo through socio-economic shifts. From the outset this has been a coordinated and shameless corporate campaign waged by developers and wealthy investors, supported by major press publication through lazy repetition and encouraged by a government lacking in imagination to see when it is being completely shafted.

Some examples include development companies like Cathedral, heard to ‘only fund art projects aimed at drawing well-heeled punters to the area’ (anonymous source) while openly touting ‘off plan’ developments to far eastern investors as a rising opportunity in an artistic area. Deptford Market Yard has culturally appropriated the name of Deptford Market on Google so that it appears as if it is Deptford Market (a street market that has existed for hundreds of years). The Old Tidemill Garden, flanked by around 60 bailiffs at the time of writing, holding off the community while they decimate a public garden that could easily have been integrated into plans for more apartments. The list is very long and much of it is of an insidious nature; it’s the drip drip effect of a weird type of social conspiracy that aims to sanitize, manipulate and divide a community and ultimately supplant it with a vision of something that looks like an investment opportunity. These actions are seriously damaging trust and are designed solely to sell flats, but by creating this narrative, a new reality forms on the street, a strange world of invisible dividing lines and resentments.

It’s impossible to describe the anger felt in London as a whole and more acutely in areas like Deptford towards the deceptive strategies deployed by councils and developers and the narratives they spin; from building site awnings adorned in fake graffiti and local cultural referencing designed to somehow camouflage the unattainable price tag to the fundamental premise of a housing crisis based on supply propagated as both a profitable piece of bullshit for the developers and an ideological feedback loop for a state. Almost anyone I speak to can see something deeply unhealthy about the way this is being done and no matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on, it is clear that the state has an obligation to protect people from corporate conspiracy – a role which it negates because it is complicit.

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“I don’t want to move. It’s home!”

Julian Kingston has lived on his boat Sabine in the Theatre Arm of Deptford Creek since 1987. His wife Jeannie Seymour joined him in 1996 and together they have lived in Deptford ever since. Julian has been a wood craftsman and boat builder for over 35 years and was involved in restoring Massey-Shaw, London’s oldest fire-boat, and in conservation works on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth.  Julian is also involved in the Lenox Project, which proposes ‘to build a replica of the Restoration warship Lenox in the dockyard where she was originally built – King Henry VIII’s Royal Dockyard’ (www.buildthelenox.org). This is not only to respect Deptford’s history as a shipbuilding area but also to create jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities for local young people. It was a response to the development proposals at Convoy’s wharf by Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa that totally ignored Deptford’s local communities and its heritage.

DSC_2488Julian in his workshop on a Thames Lighter

When Julian moved to Deptford, the plan was to restore Sabine, an 1895 German one time steamer in Deptford Creek and go travelling again, but Deptford got into Julian’s blood and he stayed. When I ask him why he stayed, he laughs: “It’s Deptford, isn’t it? It’s got something about it. I think there are enough people here who don’t like being pushed around and that makes it interesting. I also like the creative element in Deptford but not the one that’s marketed by developers but the creativity that comes from the people themselves.” Anyone who knows Deptford well will understand what Julian means.

Julian and Jeannie enjoy living on their boat. They also have two other boats, a dinghy and a Thames Lighter that had been used as a fireboat in the Millennium River of Fire, which houses their workshops (Jeannie is a dressmaker) and garden. They also have bees and together they produce Creekside Honey – sometimes for sale at Creekside Discovery Centre in years when the harvest is good. In her beautifully written piece about their life on the Creek (read full piece here), Jeannie describes it as idyllic and wonderful, at least until all the trouble started with nearby construction works.

‘It was absolutely magical. Julian’s boat was the only boat in this arm of the creek. We had the whole place to ourselves in the evenings and at weekends. There was no DLR, no one in the college, no one in Mumford’s Mill, no flats at the end of the Creek either. We could even star watch because we had no light pollution and we could sit out on the deck watching the water undisturbed.’

Jeannie and Julian’s garden and bees on their boat Sabine (at the back of bottom image)

Ever since the DLR was constructed in the late 1990s, their lives have been anything but peaceful as they have had to keep fighting for their right to remain on the Creek and with that their right to remain boat dwellers. I spoke to Julian in summer 2018. Here is his story:

“The first major disruption was the construction of the railway (DLR). Up until that point, the land was actually owned by a partnership of my kid-brother and two other guys. They owned a film catering company, which took them to film locations all around the world. I built and repaired their kitchen trucks and eventually became their transport manager. As they expanded, I suggested that they buy the land I was squatting on, where they could keep their fleet of trucks and where I could have my workshop and use a bit of the yard for my work. They bought it with the peppercorn arrangement that I am moored here, use their access and occupy a bit of the land with my workshop and that in return I also got paid as their transport manager and looked after their fleet of trucks and containerised kitchens. It was a really good deal…until the railway came along. It started with the bailiffs coming round about once a week in their Mercedes and smart suits telling us that we had to evacuate the site by a certain date. My brother and his lot were offered a paltry compulsory purchase which came to half the amount they had originally paid for the site, and an eviction notice from the council. I got so fed up with these characters coming round, I went to the planning office to see if there’s anything on file that would put them off. I found all sorts of interesting historical facts about the site but also an incriminating letter which in the end resulted in a very favourable deal for my brother’s company. They received just over a million and an agreement that they would continue to own the site and get it handed back after construction finished. They were nevertheless forced to re-locate outside London to keep going.

Unfortunately, this deal didn’t account for the fact that Jeannie and I were living on this site. We suddenly had the railway company breathing down our necks, demanding that we vacate the site immediately. To them we were just (quote) “water gypsies” and they thought they could just get rid of us like that. But this was our residence, so we went into a legal battle to get moved to another secure mooring while the railway was being built and that we would be able to move back once construction was complete. We had to move during construction because our boat was directly under the proposed railway and they had to put a batter slope against the sea wall (e.g. crushed concrete and brick rubble) to reinforce it during construction. The agreement was that this would be removed upon completion and that our berth would be recreated. We won in the end but it was a 4-year battle that turned me grey and nearly bankrupted us – I had different colour hair when it started!

Julian in his self-made study under a picture of Sabine at the beginning of the 20th Century.

They then put us on the mooring over in the main basin – under Mumford’s Mill in Deptford College. The trouble was, Sabine is a vintage vessel and needs proper mooring so I gave them exact drawings to make a suitable berth. The railway company hired a contractor to prepare and make a suitable berth but the contractor messed up and made the berth 8 foot too short. As the tide went out Sabine very gradually tipped over and there was the imminent danger of breaking the back of the ship. I was furious. The keel could have snapped! I rang the company, but they didn’t want to know. We spent the next tide furiously trying to dig out the keel and get her to sit upright again. We were absolutely knackered and went to bed only to wake up to the sound of running water under the floor. A huge piece of flint left in the berth by the contractors had punched a hole the size of a 50-pence piece into the bottom of the ship and we now had a leak in the most inaccessible place. We needed to get to dock and got our insurance company on the case to inspect the berth. After endless discussions, during which the railway company refused to be in the same room as me (the second time this happened was with Hutchinson Whampoa at Convoy’s Wharf), the insurance company, the railway and their contractor settled on a satisfactory deal, with the rail company paying for an over-plating both sides of the keel for the entire length of the ship, which was brilliant. So, we did alright in the end but boy it was a fight.

But the trouble just went on. When we came out of dock, we couldn’t get back in the Creek because they hadn’t removed the batter slope. They had allegedly run out of money, so instead of removing the rubble, they spread it all across the Creek. This meant the water was one metre shallower so there was no way of getting to the berth to moor our boat. Once again, I had to threaten legal action to get the railway company to understand that we couldn’t return to such shallow waters and that they had to create a berth where our boat could sit. I even contacted the Port of London Authority (PLA), who are responsible for navigation issues, but they claimed this wasn’t their waters. I had contacted them once before, soon after moving to the Creek to offer payment for mooring, but they didn’t even know where we were in the creek and said it wasn’t worth doing the paperwork. Attitudes are very different today. Anyway, the rail company very begrudgingly agreed to create a berth by lifting out tonnes of spoil. They cleared just enough for us to get in the channel. The rest of the rubble was left in the Creek. In a way, it’s turned into a rather nice environment now – especially in the summer you can see these great bushes of water pepperwort growing – grubbing in the rubble that’s left. It’s turned into a diverse environment rather than just gloopy mud. And I quite like the finished railway and living under its sculptural curves but it is a mixed blessing in that it is the prime instrument that has attracted the feeding frenzy of developers to Deptford, but it’s also the reason that we do not already have some vast “luxury tower” right next to us. It’s all rather funny!

DSC_1592Sabine under the DLR railway bridge, surrounded by water pepperwort in summer.

And then the current owner and landlord turned up and bought the site off my brother and his business partners. We’d only just got back to our residence and wanted to complete an agreed deal that me and Jeannie would buy the site off my brother’s lot for £200,000. I wanted to turn the site into mainly green space with a boatbuilding area but then suddenly there’s this chap offering £260,000 and wanting a vacant possession. Obviously, we weren’t just going to leave and so my own brother and his partners tried to get us out by taking us to court! I didn’t speak to him for about 10 years after that. Luckily the judge found in our favour and the guy had to buy the land with us as sitting tenants and the peppercorn arrangement still in situ, which allowed me to rent a small piece of land for my workshop and vehicles.

After that, more boaters arrived and we grew into a nice little community here. The landlord didn’t really care much for the site and my lease agreement never changed. Seven years later, the landlord teamed up with venture capitalists The Artworks Creekside, who came along with their redevelopment proposals in 2017. The Artworks Creekside were planning to construct shipping containers 3 storeys high at the yard for small businesses and studios, with “luxury” moorings, shops and cafes. Artworks had bought a controlling share in the site and now wanted to collect fees for mooring licences, which would make them a lot of money and pay money to the PLA as well, something the PLA had had no interests in previously. As the Artworks lawyer said: ‘We’d expect central London mooring rates for such a mooring because, after all, this is the Deptford Riviera’! A detailed overview of all this can be found on the Crossfield Blog.

DSC_0606Since our conversation, Artworks have put single-storey containers with little workshops into the yard in spring 2019.

We all objected to their plans and demands, not just us boaters but also people from all around. In the end, they backed down and amended their application to containers at ground level only, which seems to work well, albeit the planning consent is only for two years so what happens after that is not hard to guess! The boaters at Creekside No. 2 have formed a co-operative and after getting a surveyor to value the land, we made Artworks an offer of £380,000 for a long-ish lease on the waterfront. We wanted to secure enough space for our boats and a small linear path, garden and service area that would even double as a public path in daylight. As far as we can see, this doesn’t clash with any of their planning. But clearly they’re waiting for much more lucrative offers than that. It’s just like in other areas of Deptford, it’s social cleansing, just on water rather than land. It’s wrong to suddenly expect a whole community of people to radically change their lifestyles in order to feed the rental desires of some investors. Actually, I don’t really enjoy doing all this, I’d much rather have a peaceful life but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been here over 30 years and that gives Jeannie and I certain rights.”

Despite this small victory, Julian’s vision of a peaceful life is still a long way to go. Although the last year has been peaceful for the boaters, who actually appreciate some of the improvements made to the yard, it is uncertain what Artworks are planning to do with the site and the boaters in the future, and there are rumours that the space by Lewisham College, which is just opposite Julian’s and the other boats, will eventually see tower blocks constructed. This would mean a dramatic removal of Julian and Jeannie’s daylight, so dramatic it would subject to compensation in planning terms and relocation during construction. This would leave only two options: not build or completely relocate the whole community to an equivalent mooring. The chances of finding this are pretty remote. I ask Julian what having to move would mean to him. He says: “It would be a real challenge – we’d have to downsize dramatically. I think the only option would be either a marina somewhere on the Medway or possibly find another mooring somewhere nearby but that’s very unlikely. It’s funny isn’t it? From a practical level, the Creek is not great: air pollution is terrible because of the close proximity of Deptford Church Street and the almost constant slow-moving traffic due to the Tideway Tunnel and all the other construction sites steadily canyonising the creek, so there is the constant threat of something happening. But I’ve grown so fond of the place, I don’t want to move. It’s home, and besides, I’m passionate about seeing the Lenox Project through.”

DSC_1460

Once again, I think of Jeannie’s piece, where she says towards the end:

Landlubbers might think we are strange but actually we are no different from them. Our boat has a TV, a bath, central heating and we pay Council Tax too. The only difference with us is we go up and down on the tide twice a day… which takes some getting used to’.                     

Boaters are dwellers like all other dwellers. They have a right to live at their residencies like leaseholders and tenants have the right to live in their flats and houses. Taking away their mooring spaces displaces them in the same way knocking down houses/flats displaces the people living in them. Whether it is a boat, a flat or a house, these are dwellings which are situated in a particular place – Deptford in this case. This together makes up their home and taking this away is taking away part of their existence, of their being-in-the-world, of their sense of belonging and membership, of their right to live in Deptford.

DSC_2470Julian in his kitchen