25 Sep Thamesmead, London’s new town
Recently, we headed out to Thamesmead, London’s New Town. The part visited on the tour was in the borough of Bexley and the new Abbey Wood Elizabeth Line station has brought it much closer to central London.
Billed as the ‘Town of Tomorrow’ when it was built between 1964 and 1986, it’s a curious place. We accessed it via the ruins of Lesnes Abbey Woods in stark contrast to the shiny new of the station area.
When Thamesmead was being planned it was estimated that more than 50% of architects worked within local authorities and its development included sociologists too as the former Greater London Corporation’s largest project.
It was built from concrete to avoid waiting for bricks to be made and some blocks were modular and created off site. While it’s called a town, there’s a distinct lack of amenities with one block of shops spotted which looked like they were added much later.
What struck us, amongst all the concrete, was how green it was and we heard that there were 330 acres of green space and five man made lakes but there were very few signs of life. The lake we saw had hardly any seating and while a boat yard is under construction there were plenty of ‘no’ signs – no swimming, boating, ball games etc across the town.
There were some oddities with mock timber effect applied to some buildings, we were told this was as a nod to traditional design and almost apologetic to the modernist approach of the estate.
The town is now going through another period of change and these days, Peabody are now the manager and developer for the town.
They have, for some years, run an art fund to provide space for local artists to develop work and have it seen which is funded from film licences from organisations wishing to use the location while Bow Arts have taken on the Lakeside Centre to provide affordable studio space.
An area near the lake had seen new development in the early 2000s too with low rise blocks that hadn’t aged well. We also visited a new zone on the edge – we only visited phase 1 and 2 so it’s huge – which Peabody has developed following the demolition previous flats. This was very new and had the Nest building housing a library and community space. Around the new square was commercial space – slowly opening – and a children’s play area. Interestingly, the newer development had the sign of people – in the library, play area and using seating – which was completing lacking in the older sections of the town.
The masterplan for Thamesmead was to accommodate 60,000 people but at its maximum only reached 45,000 and Peabody hope that they can complete the masterplan and raise the population to the size the town was meant to be in constructing another 20,000 homes.
Thamesmead is so huge it really depends which area people live in as to how easy it is to leave. The newer development (South Mere) is within walking distance of Abbey Wood station but the older areas felt a long way from anywhere. When they were built, many of the homes had an integrated garage on the ground floor designed for a future where the car would be key and when people had to walk it was on sky ways, elevated walkways seen in many developments from this era. These two components have not stood the test of time well.
Hopefully Thamesmead of the future will be more integrated with its surroundings and contain more life which looks to be happening already from the small area we explored.
Read more about plans for Thamesmead on Peabody’s dedicated site.