diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A reader got in touch over New Year to suggest I visit the first and last streets in London. That's the street which appears first in the index of the London A-Z, and the street which appears last. My A-Z gives the first street as Abberley Mews in Clapham SW4 and the last street as Zoffany Street in Upper Holloway N19. But my A-Z is twenty years old, and a quick check of the latest version reveals that both of these have been eclipsed by later contenders. So I've been to visit those instead. Both are cul-de-sacs. One's quite posh, one's very much not. Both have something to say about the state of housing in London today.

The first street in London: Aaron Hill Road, Beckton E6 [map]

Beckton is renowned for its vast sewage works and what was once the world's largest gasworks, so you're right, this is the 'not posh' one. One splendid Victorian street of workers' homes survives, that's Winsor Terrace (only a minute's walk from the road we'll be visiting), but that's very much atypical. In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation moved in and started transforming the area into a huge housing estate, of far lower density than you might expect today, blessed with gardens front and back, and parking spaces. But Aaron Hill Road is of slightly later vintage, carved out of the edge of an industrial estate in 1999, along with its neighbour Angelica Close.

One side of the road is the back of a warehouse, or rather two warehouses, occupied by lorry-friendly logistics companies like TNT. All the housing action is on the southern side, which in this case means flats rather than houses, because policy had moved on by 1999. A warren of three-storey blocks and courtyards is concealed behind, each grouped around spaces for cars rather than anywhere a child might play. Ground floor homeowners must make do with tiny corrals as back gardens, by my calculations not even twenty bricks long, although better than the 5 square metres of balcony they'd get if the site were being developed today.

It didn't feel an especially friendly place - signs saying Residents Only Private Property are stuck to many a wall - but given the dead end layout there's no call for anyone other than residents to be here. A mother lumbered home carrying bags from up the road at Asda. The occasional bin store door gaped open, with Christmas leftovers poking out awaiting Newham's collection. Several traffic cones stood guard to make sure nobody nicked that parking space. The general ambience remains very much end of last century rather than start of this. But what Aaron Hill Road does offer is relative affordability, that's two bedrooms for two hundred and something, if you've ever wanted to be top of the housing list.

And who was Aaron Hill? 400 years ago he was a poet and dramatist, renowned in London for his adaptations of Voltaire, and successful enough to be buried in Westminster Abbey. His first Newham connection is that he married an heiress from the 'Great House' in Stratford Langthorne, close to where West Ham station is today. His second Newham connection is that after retiring from public life he came to live in Plaistow, then a "pleasant rural village" on the edge of the Thames marshes, where he enjoyed reading, writing and doing the garden. The road named after him lacks adequate horticultural challenge, but I'm sure Aaron would be pleased to have bequeathed the first street in London.

The last street in London: Zulu Mews, Battersea SW11 [map]

This is the posh one, but only thanks to a developer with a lot of imagination. Zulu Mews is a relatively recent construction, squeezed into a gap beside a railway viaduct in Battersea in 2010. Several viaducts cross the area east of Clapham Junction, and this particular curve supports Overground trains heading round towards the Thames. When Alfred Heaver laid out the Falcon Estate in 1880, the terraces of Rowena Crescent were set back at a discreet distance from the railway to give residents some peace. But land is much more valuable today, so the scrappy dogleg behind their back gardens is now filled with ten sleek modern dwellings.

It may not come as a surprise to hear that this is a gated development. A two-part gate seals off Zulu Mews from the hoipolloi, the main section for cars and the rest for pedestrians, with sufficient gaps between the bars to see what's beyond. Residents pass through using electronic jiggerypokery, whereas visitors must press buttons and stand before a camera on a pole to gain approval and access. The rising street has an almost Mediterranean feel, with pristine shrubs potted outside certain front doors in lieu of an actual garden. No other touches of individuality can be seen, at least on the first six houses before the curvature swings round concealing the remainder from sight.

Each house has an integral garage, even if at first glance they don't look large enough, because having somewhere to stash a treasured runaround is important. Bedrooms and utilities are downstairs, then up top is an open plan living/dining/study area, with a separate free-standing wall to shield the kitchen and/or hang the TV. Gardeners need not apply because the only outdoor space is a roof terrace on top of the garage, amusingly smaller than the residents of Aaron Hill Road enjoy. Windows are in short supply. But such is the demand for luxury living hereabouts that these mews hideaways sell for almost a million pounds... and the tenth and final house double that! An estate agent's brochure is available here if you'd like to see what you're missing.

But you can also get a good view of these expensive properties from an Overground train, immediately to the north of Shillington Park. A long drab brick wall rises up, deliberately windowless to shield out the rattle of trains, and daubed with graffiti along its entire length. Local youth must regularly venture out along the embankment to use Zulu Mews as a canvas for their aerosol tags, and not even in a particularly artistic or colourful way. How residents must hate having LAGER, VODZ or some other scribble on the other side of their luxury bathroom wall, and not being able to do anything about cleaning it off.

And why is it called Zulu Mews? All the original streets on the Falcon Estate commemorate British Army victories which took place while the houses were under construction, including Afghan Road, Khyber Road and Candahar Road. The list also originally included Zulu Crescent, but that name proved too bloodthirsty for some of its residents so within a couple of years was it was renamed Rowena Crescent. Hence when a new mews development was slipped in behind Rowena Crescent it was gifted the original Zulu name as a nod to the past, and perhaps in recognition that society's no longer quite so squeamish. Had its name not changed then Zulu Crescent would have been the last street in the London A-Z, indeed in every edition since 1936... but where would be the story in that?

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