The Alton Estate is a Grade II listed council estate situated in the heart of Roehampton in south west London. Flanked by a golf course (which no one from the estate plays on), a private school and a university (where no one from the estate is educated), various private clubs (including the Lawn Tennis Association opened in summer 2007 by the Queen), clinics (including the Priory) and mansions, the Alton also has the glorious Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common on its doorstep (where no one from the estate visits). It is also surrounded by affluent Putney, Richmond, Barnes, East Sheen and Wimbledon. Poor Roehampton: the thorn in the crown of south west London.
London changes so fast. Roehampton used to be posher than gentrified Putney (and Putney was rough in the 1950s). Elizabeth Taylor used to live in Roehampton (in Fair Acres on Roehampton Lane), Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) and Maureen O'Hara (Jamaica Inn, The Quiet Man) both went to the Sacred Heart convent in Roehampton, and English actors such as Jack Hawkins (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) used to drink in pubs there in the 1950s. Before then, way before then, Roehampton was just a village with mansions, and a popular destination for the gentry to rest in when they were tired of London. Various prime ministers lived there, Admiral Nelson spent some time there, HG Wells and Swinborne visited often, and the Marquess of Downshire lived in Downshire House, to name but a few.
The sprawling Alton estate, built in the late 1950s, changed Roehampton dramatically and irrevocably. Roehampton village was dwarfed by it and never recovered. With a population of some 10,000 people, the Alton takes up most of Roehampton. Designed by the London County Council Architects Department, in 1961 it was optimistically described as 'probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world'.
The only conflicts there now tend to be of a domestic nature but in the late 50s, architects were waging a battle on the Alton which would affect how we live (not how they – architects – live; architects very rarely live in their creations). It was a battle between east and west – that is, Alton East and Alton West. The post-war modernist architects and planners were split between the hardcore 'New Brutalists' who followed the French architect Le Corbusier and a softer approach influenced by the architecture of the Swedish welfare state. Alton East (finished in 1958) was built in the softer, 'humanist' manner which included external decoration such as brightly coloured brickwork – something the Brutalists found unnecessary and against their beliefs. Alton West, finished in 1959, was built of sterner stuff with no frivolities – mainly, just plain angular concrete. On stilts. I lived in one of the long, rectangular blocks on stilts in Alton West, what Elain Harwood calls (in her book England – A Guide to Post-War Listed Buildings), 'One of the great statements of modern architecture in London'.
Surprisingly, both approaches work well together and the mix of buildings catering for different families (and architects' whims) blends in harmoniously with the rolling grassy landscape. Many of the mature trees were kept from the gardens of the old mansions (which were mostly knocked down; four survive), helping to create a leafy, pleasant environment. What makes the Alton special is how it fits into its landscape; there is space, there is light, there is green, there is concrete.
Although seemingly universally loved by architects, to most people (including, maybe especially, those who live there) the Alton is just ugly concrete blocks and – indeed episodes of The Bill and other fictional TV programmes bare witness to this – as an example of public housing gone wrong. But it wasn't always this way.
New wave French film director Francois Truffaut was probably the first to utilise the harsh 'beauty' of the estate. In the mid-60s Truffaut was looking for a cutting edge, futuristic looking building on which to film parts of Raymond Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the burning temperature of paper). Along with other locations, the newly built Alton estate was chosen and features prominently at the start and end of the film. The film, released in 1966 as Fahrenheit 451 – and yes, Michael Moore did 'borrow' the title for his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (and Raymond Bradbury tried unsuccessfully to sue) – starred Oskar Werner from Jules and Jim fame and Julie Christie in a somewhat stilted (not helped by Truffaut speaking no English) but fondly (if dimly) remembered dystopian sci-fi classic. Godard's Alphaville (1965) now looks more prescient.
Since then the Alton has featured in numerous architectural documentaries (as well as books) and is evoked as a fine example of post-war public housing (it is Grade II listed after all). Conversely, it also features in both apocalyptic visions of the future (such as a dreadful BBC What If? drama about an energy crisis) and equally dreadful BBC police dramas such as The Bill and Prime Suspect (and in the 70s, Minder and The Sweeney) as a symbol of inner-city crime ridden poverty (with loads of trees and green space! And Grade II listed! And right next to Richmond Park! In south west London too!). It's more than likely the only police you'll ever see on the estate are actors in costume.
It's also featured in a Channel 4 advert, a recent episode of Little Britain, ITV's Torn, a short film (somewhat predictably about 'loneliness and isolation' – can you see a pattern forming?) called A Supermarket Love Song (2005) and is the setting for a yet again cliché-ridden low-budget film called Nadine (2007). On a more positive note, there's a glimpse of the Alton behind the deer over-looking Richmond park during the Alan Titchmarsh presented Nature of Britain (BBC1, October 2007), where they look majestic (the blocks, not the deer) in the late afternoon sun.
But this dichotomy sits uneasily with the Alton. Beautiful buildings or post-apocalyptic nightmare? Does it matter? Does anyone care? The residents certainly don't.
Even though all the filming constantly gets in the residents' way, none of the money ever gets invested back into the estate. I remember reading about an advert being shot (in September 2006) in a working class neighbourhood in Rome with Nicole Kidman. Locals demanded compensation for all the chaos caused by the film crew. They got something in the region of £17,000. People on the Alton have no voice and no choice. They have to put up with lorries unloading, cables in the way, equipment filling the lifts on an almost weekly basis. I remember when my daughter had just been born, a film crew were on our floor filming Nadine (see above). They were making noise all day and half the night. We couldn't move the buggy along the corridor because of film equipment, and they had the gall to tell us to be quiet! We never had any notice of the filming (or any filming, ever).
Finally – and this feels like recognition indeed – hip south London ceramic company People Will Always Need Plates have produced an Alton estate plate and cup range. Look under Ain't Concrete Great? – featuring brutalist architecture.
The Alton has a mixed, though predominately white, population. Being a council estate, it does inevitably have a lot of British white trash Chavs and Daves with their hoods and vicious dogs. There are also a lot of other whites such as Polish (a Polish Londis opened a while ago) and other Eastern European. The black population is quite high, with many black Christians. Regenerate – a local Christian movement – puts on a festival on the lawn every summer. Roehampton university being just round the corner, many students live on the Alton too.
I never really made an effort to get to know anyone there, but Mel, my ex, did. Her favourite people were 'Knowledge', the black albino rap artist; the foreign man with no arms who she often met walking his dog; the ever-cheerful 50-something black Christian man from the fifth floor who always said "God bless,"; the black family with the smiley daughter, and the Spanish-speaking family with the tiny wife and the man who worked all hours doing all jobs – latterly road sweeping – to feed his brood.
It wasn't until we were burgled the first time (out of three) that we started talking to one of our neighbours, Trish. A single mum with six children, she was the same age as Mel. She inspired a mixture of fear and sympathy in us – her oldest boy died aged about 7 while we lived two doors away and yet we didn't know until much later – one of her other children told us, quite matter of factly. We heard Trish more than saw her, shouting and swearing at her children or dog ("Bailey!"). She'd been the first person to find our flat after we were burgled – the front door had been completely smashed open by a rock. Mel became quite friendly with her for a while. Then Trish stopped talking to her altogether for no apparent reason. Not before, however, Mel had managed to look in her flat. As well as six children and a dog, she had two cats, various rabbits, gerbils and goldfish in a two-bedroom flat. She had twins who used to talk to us before being yanked away or shouted at by their mother. I asked them once about what they'd had for dinner. "Taters" (potatoes). "What else?" "Nothing. Just taters."
Many of the older residents have lived on it since it was built ("You can't imagine what it was like moving in! We'd never had running water or heating before!"), when indeed it must have seemed like a vision of the future.
The high population of Christians and beautiful views and Grade II listed status didn't stop people/animals pissing in the lifts on a daily basis. Okay, it's true, the Alton does have many of the problems facing most low-cost housing estates, but not nearly as extreme or frequent as others. There is no gun crime on the estate. The most shocking thing that happened in recent memory – and it felt like the whole estate was stunned by it – was the gang rape of two girls in August 2002 by a group of youths. Oh, and an ASBO boy got banned from Greggs (how uncool is that?).
View from the balcony
Looking out over the balcony, on one side we could see the deer in Richmond Park and on the other side London appeared to be one big forest; all we could see was trees. The seasons are so apparent on the Alton. You don't really notice them in cities because of the lack of nature, but on the Alton you are surrounded by trees, grass and foliage – quite rare for a council estate. My ex loved the ever-changing view from our balcony and documented it photographically with an almost Warholian obsession.
* Obviously, from the Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.