I was used to seeing abandoned buildings around London; every borough seemed to have them. But most were tantalisingly out of reach, separated from the street by security fencing adorned with threats of CCTV and round-the-clock security. So I was both thrilled and taken aback when I saw no such barrier to the blocks of boarded up social housing that sprawled across a corner of New Cross in south-east London.
I had only been living in the area a few days when my housemate mentioned the place, adding that she liked the way the sun glinted off the sheet metal that covered the windows and doors of the flats. It was an image that lodged itself in my imagination and sparked off a month-long obsession with the grisly estate and its ultimate demise.
My first visit was on my way home from work. Autumn was in full swing and a bite in the air accentuated the savage decay that I saw around me. Beside the entrance to the first building, bins were overflowing with clothes and shoes and other possessions. Rotting mattresses were laid out on the grass and rubbish was strewn across a concrete courtyard as if the tenants had suddenly become disgusted with their belongings as well as their dwellings and made a hasty exit.
I walked gingerly up a flight of steps and into an entrance hall. It was dark. Power lines had been ripped out of a wall casing.
From here, corridors led off to various landings where rows of sealed up flats stretched out. As I passed down them I could see that a number of attempts had been made to gain access. The metal screens were torn open to different degrees, some easily high enough for a body to pass under. I peered inside a few to find indiscriminate mounds of rubbish and furniture piled up with no indication of what might be the remains of previous occupants or the personal articles of new ones.
I made several return visits after that, sometimes scouring the outside of the buildings to examine former back gardens that had turned into overgrown refuse grounds. A number of metal screens were ripped open here too as though some crazed animal had finally broken free of its compound. One in particular had been entirely removed and a curtain covering the open doorway rippled eerily in the breeze. A shattered pane of glass bordered the porch and mounds of discarded clothing covered the vegetation outside.
Only once did I come into contact with anyone living on the estate. I was passing by the entrance to a flat when I heard voices from inside and to my horror, a figure began to crawl out from beneath a gnarled screen. I was met by a hooded and hatted man of Eastern European origin who seemed less interested in my presence than I was in his, except to discover that I was English and that I had somewhere to live. For him, this was home along with two other men who followed him out. At one point, one of them cut his hand on some glass and politely asked me if I had a tissue. I hadn’t and we carried on talking as we walked down to the street at which point I went on my way, not wanting to tempt fate with another, less congenial encounter.
Soon, the buildings started coming down. I made it a near daily ritual to wander past the destruction and see what shapes the diggers had moulded out of the crusts of concrete that were still standing. Obviously, there was no hope of exploring these any more, but other blocks still remained open and I continued to look around them as often as I could.
Aside from all the grit and atmosphere, what fascinated me was how seamlessly I could pass from a civilised, active and ‘normal’ part of the neighbourhood into a feral, seemingly lawless zone of chaos and detritus simply by crossing the street.
Was anyone concerned? Did anyone even notice?
The only other people I came across who showed any interest were a team of Council officers who appeared one day while I was taking pictures of a reflection in a large puddle.
“You’re not from South London, are you?” one of them asked.
“Yeah, I live just round the corner.”
Then, seeing his bemusement, I added. “I like this kind of thing.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” he replied.
I made only a couple more visits after that. By now, one block remained, while the rest of the site had been reduced to a sea of dirt and rubble. A police dog unit had shown up, presumably to deter anyone looking for some short-term accommodation. However, there was still a side entrance accessible from the main road and I ventured in to take one last look around.
As I turned a corner, a view opened out from a balcony overlooking the rubble where two giant dogs resembling a cross between a Rottweiler and a Great Dane, prowled the space. Before I knew it, one of them had spotted me and, with a growl, he came lumbering over. I would liked to have had the intestinal grit to point my camera over the edge and take a snap of what might have been a frightening yet memorable picture, but the thought of unleashing the fury of these two monsters not to mention attracting the attention of the police officer meant I hurried back to the safety of the high street instead.
My other visit was just before they erected barriers around the block prior to its demolition. While I was there, I caught sight of a solitary woman watching me from a corner window, the last of a tribe presumably about to leave her dwindling habitat. I gave her an awkward smile before turning my camera to the jagged facade in front of me and attempting to capture it as best I could in the fading light.