Going back to Middle Park

When my first child was born, we were living in a privately rented ‘flat’; in fact a set of rooms, with a shared, unheated bathroom down a flight of stairs. It wasn’t ideal with a new baby, having to leave the pram in the downstairs hallway, bathing her in the living room, with water brought in from the kitchen.

Artists at work in our council flat

When she was three months old, Greenwich Council awarded us a flat on the Middle Park Estate in Eltham. Yes, a proper flat! Self-contained, and though it was upstairs (only one flat below us, none above) it had its own garden. Several other people had rejected the property. It was due for renovation, but if we were prepared to stay while a new kitchen, bathroom and replacement windows were installed, it was ours.

My daughter and I holed up in a bedroom while the work went on. She wasn’t crawling yet, so having a kettle at floor level to keep me and the workmen going during the day was manageable. The worst day was when the windows were replaced, the chill and the dust hard to cope with between the removal of old frames and the installation of new. We took many walks round the leafy estate, discovered the café at the local shopping centre and the community centre that became our home from home along with the Adult Education Institute. There were creches so I could go to classes, plus parent and toddler activities. The estate was alive with children; the green in front of our flat was a space where children could play together, watched over by their parents from the windows of their flats and houses.

By the time my second daughter was three years old, we had outgrown the property. The soundproofing between flats was poor, and the woman downstairs, who had initially been friendly, spent much of the day banging on her ceiling with a broom handle. A birthday party at home turned into a cacophony of children’s laughter and broom handle percussion.

Some of the houses and flats on the estate started to sport new front doors and mock-leaded windows. It was the late 80s, and the Right to Buy your council house had been brought in. We didn’t want to go that route, and saved for a deposit on a house in the Medway Towns, London prices being unaffordable.  The day we handed back our keys, our estate officer said that no one else was doing this – moving from council housing to a private buy. Most were buying from the council, and selling on after a year or two.

Thirty-four years after leaving that flat, I went to have a look at it from the road, with my second husband and my granddaughter. It seemed too weird to knock and say that I used to live there. The flat itself has different windows, and there is a high fence and gate to the garden. The green in front of the flats and houses is still there, though some of it has been lost to parking spaces, and newish trees are dotted on it, where it was just grass before. When we were driving through the estate, I pointed out where my friends had lived, and remembered the time when my older daughter (aged four) decided to push my younger daughter home from the Community Centre because I was spending too long talking to someone. I was quickly alerted by Mr Curly, a chap from the Pensioners’ Group, who spotted them, already halfway home, and came running to find me.

The strange thing about the estate in 2022 is the lack of children. It was half-term, but there were none playing on the green in front of my old flat. In any case, the trees would hamper a game of football or catch. Is this because children don’t play out anymore, or just that the now owner-occupied residences are more mixed, more singles or child-free couples, not so many families?

I don’t know how long the flat remained a council property, but I do know that it sold for £300,000 a year ago.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when there was community and children played outside the home, when a neighbour would alert you to a runaway child. What I am truly nostalgic for, though, is a time when you could rent an affordable property from the council. If we had been that young family today, living in rented rooms, where would we have ended up?