The architect’s vision of contented tenants living in harmony
Built in the Borough of Brent, Northwest London, and located in the Wembley Park area, Chalkhill was developed as a ‘Metroland’ estate since 1921. Between 1966 and 1970, based on the design of Park Hill in Sheffield, about 1900 houses and flats were developed, designed to provide homes for 1,400 families.
Buddings Circle and Wellsprings Crescent, where I once found a red purse lying in the curb and went with my father to hand it into the police station, consisted of low rise two-storey developments. The main housing, 30 five-storey blocks, were built using the ‘Bison’ system of pre-cast concrete panels, ensuring fast and precise construction.
Chalkhill Estate, with its unappealing concrete exterior, boasted dwellings, with spacious rooms, along corridors. Each accommodation had a ducted heating system and ‘state-of-the art’ electric utilising. There were no dustbins as every kitchen was fitted with a novel waste disposal unit called a ‘Garchey’, in its sink that chewed up all the rubbish. My mother found this a godsend, though the noise scared me, and the unit sometimes figured in my nightmares.
Arranged in crab-claw configurations, the blocks connected by ‘walkways in the sky’ named Goldbeaters Walk, Greenrigg Walk, Redcliffe Walk and Bluebird Walk and had decks running their length, designed for hand-pulled milk floats that could make door to door deliveries, via service lifts.
As well as providing good living conditions, Chalkhill Estate also contained a row of local shops, a medical centre, car parking and a tenants meeting room. Open space was developed, providing a number recreational facilities for children and the elderly. There were seating areas with flower beds, climbing frames and other such things at almost every corner. My mother once scared me as I came down a big slide. I watched the fear etch her face because she thought I was going to fall off. I never attempted to climb one for a lot of years after.
Adjacent to the shops was a paddling pool and sand-pit – both were popular in the summer as a meeting point for parents and children. When playing there, I was always guaranteed an ice-lolly.
When completed in 1970, Chalkhill was described (in the “Sunday Telegraph”) as ‘one of the finest municipal housing estates in Britain’. They offered homes for 1,100 families, but initially around half of these laid empty. Many remained vacant for long periods because rents at £6 for one bedroom and £11 for a five bedroom were beyond the means of many would be tenants. With a big shortage of council accommodation, controversy struck.
With the intention of filling the flats, Brent Council offered homes for rent to private tenants. Included were families where the parents had come to England from the West Indies to work for London Transport or as nurses in the hospital or families of Asian origin escaping from discrimination against them in East African countries following their independence. Passports had to be produced and references provided to prove they were of good character, with sufficient income to pay the rent, along with people from the council’s housing waiting list and those from overcrowded Victorian tenement flats, without bathrooms – one of which I lived in with my parents and was the reason we came to reside at Chalkhill, when I was eighteen months old in the early summer of 1970. The estate became a mixed community, which felt like one big family for many living there.
As families moved to Chalkhill, it was essential to build a new school for their children. The Chalk Hill Infant School was taking pupils by the end of 1970. Shortage of funds meant that the junior school did not open until 1972. When finally completed, the 250 pupil Chalkhill Primary School, where I became a pupil, was the first in the country to be built on an open plan system.
During the mid-1970s the drafty ‘walkways in the sky’ rapidly became suitable escape routes for criminals. Chalkhill Estate was earning a reputation as a crime hotspot attracting any number of unsavory characters from neighboring areas, the two high-rise car parks an ideal hiding place for stolen cars and shady drug-deals. A constant stink of urine filled the air coming from the lifts when they were operational. My family was one of the lucky ones who lived on the ground floor of Greenrigg walk. We rarely needed to use the lift. Milkmen who delivered all types of provisions to the residents’ doorsteps, restricted their operations due to the high number of robberies. On numerous occasions, football hooligans would visit the estate after matches at the nearby Wembley Stadium, vandalising property and buildings and attacking local residents.
The sand-pit became dangerous due to the large quantity of broken glass; the paddling pool, a lonely circle of empty destruction. Local shops were frequently robbed.
The flower beds and seating areas were destroyed no sooner than they were repaired. One by one, the privilege of using these facilities was gradually lost, some removed due to poor maintenance and vandalism, others replaced by different facilities only to become vandalised once again. When my father returned home from work, sometimes in the dark, he would walk with a stick, even though he was perfectly fit. He also carried a sock full of change, which he used whilst driving his London Taxi. It provided a good cosh due to the fear of walking through the estate, until he was safe behind our front-door. Thankfully, he never had to use it.
In August of 1976, during a heat-wave, the hottest recorded UK summer, my parents moved us, including the addition of my two siblings, to Hainault in Essex. My last memory of Chalkhill, the night before diverging, was of being drawn to a noise in an upstairs window of our family flat. As I peeped out, bottles came hurtling, some filled with fire, lighting the night-sky. Saved only by the strong double glazing, my mother came into the room and guided me away. If I close my eyes tight, I can still picture the motley crew, too many to count, their faces contorted in revulsion.
During the years that followed, due to concerns about the conditions on the estate including poor quality and notoriety, the initiative of closing walkways and installing door entry systems could not prevent the decision of the demolition and remediation stages of the final 450 house scheme.
They demolished 1900 houses and flats and Chalkhill Estate was refurbished early 2000. Over the years, I have returned to Wembley several times to watch concerts, including Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi, at Wembley Stadium though I’ve never revisited Chalkhill Estate. The stadium was demolished in 2003. And rebuilt in 2007.
Sadly the restored Chalkhill has been given the nickname ‘Crack Hill’.
From the late 200s, the local youths in the area began to refer to their gang as the ‘Crack Hill Mob’ – ‘The Chalk Hill Boys’ and ‘The Blue Gang’
The dream was ‘A road to the sky. Whole communities would move to the area; it would be care free.’