I got a call the other night from my sister, to say ‘If you want to meet your neighbours, turn on channel 4.’ I wondered if we were going to see a drug bust or the arrest of a serial killer. Should we be preparing ourselves for questions from the police? He seemed such a quiet man – always kept himself to himself. In fact it was Grand Designs, the programme that ‘follows some of Britain’s most ambitious self-building projects’, this week starring our local water tower.
In some ways it will be odd to live in the shadow of this Venetian Gothic tower, newly unveiled as a luxury home, eight storeys and a hundred feet tall. Will we feel like feudal tenants? Will the toweristas themselves, living on such a vastly different scale from the rest of us, be conscious of slumming it? Wouldn’t they be more comfortable in a nice Georgian square north of the river?
The water tower was built in 1867 to supply the Lambeth Workhouse, where Charlie Chaplin spent time as a child. Until this radical make-over, grade two listing had preserved it from demolition, though not from weather-damage and dilapidation. The largest surviving workhouse building now houses a cinema museum. To the ghosts of those long-dead inmates, the new flats built around and between the Victorian structures must represent unbelievable luxury, so much further from their reach than the refurbished water tower is from ours.
Actually the tower is only the most visible aspect of the site’s economic diversity. The new flats have been built during a period when private developments of fifteen properties or more must include affordable housing (a requirement due to be scrapped by this government). So they maintain the social mix of an area that includes the Elephant and Castle, a scruffy, vibrant hub of activity where languages and cultures jostle for space, and from which eight of London’s bridges diverge like spokes from an axle.
It’s clear from Grand Designs that our new neighbours could have played it safe and put their money and creative energy into any number of easier projects that would have incurred less debt. I’m glad they took the risk of rescuing this historic building and I hope they enjoy their panoramic views.