“We’ve got family around us, and mum doesn’t want to move.”
“We’ve got a support group in the area...”
I’m sat on a paving slab in Cressingham Gardens estate, south London, trying but largely failing to sketch a vista that has far too much going on for my limited artistic talents. I’m at Drawing The Line, on a sunny autumn afternoon.
I try my best. What to focus on? I look around. A lot of greenery. A child bouncing a ball as he climbs the stairs along the red-bricked back of a small block of houses; a warren of small inclines, walkways and levels providing safe refuge from the traffic, as well as variety pleasing to the eye. There’s a cat dozing on the windowsill of a red-framed house. And turning the other way, a series of front doors, disappearing away, down the hill, with many windows festooned with campaign posters.
Instead of sketching these things, I’m overhearing the conversation I outlined above. One of our group has stopped to chat with fellow residents about the estate’s uncertain future, Lambeth council having taken the controversial decision to demolish it.
Organised by two south London dwellers, Diana and Ruth, to support and raise awareness for vital spaces under threat from austerity, neglect and council idiocy, today’s event one part drawing class to two parts social history.
With the surreal strains of Abba played by a brass band floating up from Brockwell park, resident and Save Cressingham Gardens campaigner Gerlinde Gniewosz outlines the situation. She is particularly concerned about the older residents, and what the proposed demolition will mean for them.
“We’ve got dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers here, and if you move them, they won’t know where they are. Their lives are over,” she says.
“We found out [about the demolition] on Twitter of all things. Do you know Twitter Boy?”
She is talking about local councillor Matthew Bennett. Not a popular figure around these parts.
A high/mid density, but cunningly low-rise estate, Cressingham has a beautiful setting, and is carefully designed to give a village-like feel. There are criss-crossing paths so residents can bump into each other, and the houses and flats are built to Parker Morris standards, with a lovely feeling of light and space aided by the floor to ceiling windows. Overseeing the project was Ted Hollamby, the renowned director of Architecture, Planning and Development for Lambeth in the 1970s.
The current Lambeth council plans to demolish the estate and replace it with a number of luxury flats, alongside affordable housing. Residents note the desirable location of the estate — right on the doorstep of Brockwell Park, with stunning views of Crystal Palace and the City — and draw their own conclusions.
Talking of drawing; it’s not going well. We’re encouraged to try drawing the same views from different angles. I choose a stairwell heading up to a second floor entrance door, thinking that the angles and diagonal lines will make for an interesting drawing. I look down. My drawing is a mess. I move across, closer to the house, for another try. A resident heads upstairs as I do so. He calls down: “you can come inside if you want! Much better view from up here!”
At one point, we stop and compare sketches. This is the moment I had been dreading. But everyone was very kind.
As we make our way to the end of the tour, I talk a bit more with Gniewosz about the estate and its stories. A certain John Major was the deputy chair of the housing committee which approved Cressingham — and according to Gniewosz, there’s a lady who lives on the estate — “a white witch now” — who remembers going on a date with him back in the day.
We reach some bricked-up flats at the edge of the estate, on Crosby Walk — uninhabited due to subsidence. Blue plaques have been put up by architecture enthusiasts, paying tribute to Edward Hollamby — and Major himself.
Bringing us back to the present, Gniewosz is talking about the council’s potential plans to redefine the estate as a “special purpose entity.”
“It’ll no longer be council land,” she warns. “They’ll have to give up rights to come back.”
We’re given postcards, already complete with stamp, to draw the estate and send out to raise awareness.