In the early 2000s I moved to Peterborough in the belief that my work was going to be going there, and with the fallback position of it not being too expensive to commute from there to London and pay a mortgage. As it turned out the fallback plan was the position I found myself in.
I bought a modest but quite nice house, then remortgaged to do up the kitchen. I paid a lot for my commute but it was ultimately worth it and Peterborough was a reasonably quiet unremarkable area where my trip to the station each day involved cycling alongside a river.
I went through a redundancy or two, and then secured a new job with a big broadcaster. Meanwhile, the trains changed hands once or twice and the fares rocketed. It got to the point where I was spending nearly as much on travel to work as I was on my mortgage payments and the costs kept escalating. Since most of my social life was based around London I decided, with the encouragement of many friends, that it was time to start considering relocation. However, a couple of spells of house sitting for friends and trying out different commutes left me less than enamoured, and despite having many friends in Croydon there was no way I wanted to make it a home, especially when considering the size of property I could get for my money.
My sister was looking to move house and we came up with a plan whereby she and my niece would move in with me. In the end this didn’t come to fruition, but it set me looking for a three or four bedroomed place. I wanted each of the three of us to have a bedroom of our own and a spare room for guests visiting.
I got to know the Right Move website very well and started to run searches that placed my workplace in the centre and searched for properties within twenty miles with at least three bedrooms and within my budget.
Three areas came up. South Ockendon, Barking, and Thamesmead. The prices in South Ockendon were strangely low and led me to scratch my head a lot. The prices in Barking were more realistic but I didn’t like the layout of the houses I could afford since they tended to have the bathroom attached to the kitchen downstairs. That’s fine for a single person but not so great for a family or for guests who need to trail through the living areas with a towel around themselves after a shower.
I visited South Ockendon and discovered why the prices were so low. The concrete houses there were falling apart and mostly in dire need of repair or at the very least a fresh coat of paint – but most were well beyond this. The whole area looked run down and unpleasant and I had to practically step over a burnt out motorbike wreck lying to the side of a pavement. I was somewhat put off.
I heard bad things about Thamesmead. People said it often smelled bad. They said it was crime ridden. The whole area was described as ugly and run down and full of gangs. The pictures of the houses supplied by Right Move weren’t inspiring from the outside. Thamesmead is known for its concrete townhouses, high rise flats and maisonettes. But I looked a bit closer and discovered just how much house you can get for your money. At the time the going rate was around £160k for a four bedroomed place. These were proper sized bedrooms, though, not little broom cupboards with beds barely jammed into them. There was a bathroom upstairs on the second floor, and a cloakroom at ground level. Most came with a garage. Some came with two. There was a lot of storage space.
I considered some of the three bedroomed places, but despite being of reasonable size, they seemed pokey in comparison and didn’t have the garage.
I wasn’t enamoured of the outside aesthetic at first, although it’s kind of grown on me. It didn’t put me off, though. I figured I wasn’t planning on spending much time outside my house staring at it, and the insides were fine.
When I visited to view places people were friendly and engaged me in conversation. One day I arrived stupidly early for a viewing and decided to sit outside in a grassed area and wait before knocking. Some men came to clear some junk from a local garden, but the garden gate was locked. After some lengthy conversation they decided to scale the fence and unlock it from the inside. The neighbours watched with concern and one lady warned them, from her window overlooking the garden, that they had better be there for the reason they said they were, she was watching them. There were kids playing outside with bikes, and people wandering around blatantly displaying their mobile phones as they spoke into them. This was not the gang-controlled, dangerous, potential for mugging kind of area I’d been warned about.
I discovered that although the area isn’t on the tube, the train service is pretty regular, and there are buses that go to Bexley, Woolwich and Greenwich. There’s even a night bus that drops me ten minutes from home.
I checked out the crime figures and they were marginally higher than Peterborough’s own, but the population is vastly higher. The shopping situation wasn’t ideal, no giant Tesco or Asda within walking distance, but there is a Lidl and there are corner shops like Costco, and a medium sized Morrisons is just a ten minute ride away.
When I viewed my house I knew immediately that I wanted it and put an offer in right away; it hadn’t even been advertised in the estate agents’ windows at the time. It was kind of ugly, but I liked it anyway, and it was near the woods, in easy walking distance of the station, and very well maintained. One bad thing was the mortgage side of the story.
Mortgage lenders like people to buy bog standard brick built constructions that match the general idea of what houses look like. When people ask to borrow money for a concrete property the concept that springs to mind is that of normal terraced or semi detached shaped houses that didn’t originally have bathrooms. They’re the kind of thing that was thrown up to house the bombed-out families at the end of the war, and they’re sagging and crumbling and the paint is peeling and they have bathrooms tacked onto the kitchen because that’s where the water supply is. Exactly like the places I was looking at in South Ockendon. As such, the assumption is that concrete is bad and mortgage lenders don’t want to touch it with a barge pole in case it falls over.
Thamesmead wasn’t built at the end of the war, it was conceived and begun in the late 60s. The concrete is in perfectly good condition and could well last longer than many brick built places. When it was first put up there were issues with damp and leaks, but they were solved around forty years ago. All the same, mortgage lenders furrow their brows and shake their heads at non-traditional builds. Except Halifax and Bank of Scotland for some reason. And luckily my old mortgage was with Halifax anyway so it went quite smoothly from that perspective.
And that is how, in September 2009, I found myself living in Thamesmead and replacing a £4575+ travel ticket with an Oyster card, reducing my commute to somewhere in the region of 15 miles, rather than 85.