Upper Brockley Road is well known locally for, unfortunately, all the wrong reasons. There have been accusations of drug dealing down by the war memorial, those involved allegedly supported by some of the businesses on the short parade at the Lewisham Way end. Apparently, amongst the mass street parties and general intimidation, there has been the odd gunshot.
When I lived on Manor Avenue, just one street up and running parallel, I was blissfully unaware of all this, barely conscious of the cluster of young men hanging around the memorial gardens most days the weather was fine. In 2013, however, the internet and the joys of micro-local news it enables means that a lot of this stuff, unsubstantiated or supported by evidence, gets thrown around. Still things looked good for the street when the shops supposedly involved in all the trouble were forcibly closed down last year. With the good primary school, Myatt Fields, and the Wickham Arms halfway along, the road should have had potential so when a house became available we went to have a look.
I say house, but really it was a split level flat, the upper two stories of what had once been an elaborate Victorian residence, balcony and all. We went one weekday evening, just as the light was failing. I was running late, hurtling directly there on my bike trying not to sweat too heavily. I needn’t have rushed since the agent failed to show up at all. My girlfriend, fed up of waiting in the street for both of us, had knocked on the door so by the time I showed she was inside charming the vendors. They were a nice family, selling up after thirty years and heading back to the Caribbean.
It was a good size place. There were three bedrooms with a reasonable amount of living space, including an odd sort of mezzanine balcony above the steps down to garden which would have been good for bikes, or if needs be a writing desk. It had some drawbacks. The kitchen was frankly knackered and everywhere else felt as least a bit tired.
Half way down the shared garden there was a small mound.
‘Do you think that’s a grave?’ my girlfriend asked.
‘No,’ I scoffed, I mean: how could it be? But when I glanced back in the half light thrown down the stairway, it didn’t really look like anything else.
We decided to return at the weekend in the daylight. This time the agent bothered to come too although he did make us hang around in a light sleet for a while. A family of four looked around with us. God, I thought, easing up on my initial animosity towards anyone viewing the same places as us, going through all this with two kids in tow must be hell.
In the light, it was clear that more work that we suspected was needed. Rather than just exhausted the kitchen was actually falling apart. Many of the windows had gone blackly rotten in their frames. The carpet, in many places, was completely worn through to the scratched boards underneath. It felt hard.
It did have magnificent views both out the front and the back. Upper Brockley Road sits at the top of a slight hill and those four storey houses rise above much of the neighbouring stock. Unfortunately that didn’t over-rule the fact that it suddenly felt very expensive and there was something ethereal, something not quite right that we couldn’t put our finger on. The other family left after a cursory glance round as though months of chugging through every house over a certain size had made them worn to the process. Or maybe they just knew what they wanted. We, polite as ever, went away to think about it.
1820: Joseph Myatt stepped out the back door of Manor Farm and soaked in the warm summer’s breeze. He walked across the yard, rolling his shirt sleeves to just below the elbow and leant his forearms on the stone wall. There he looked out over his land, his world. Rows and rows of shin high greenery spouted out the dusty grey ground, all the way down the Croydon Canal in one direction and Deptford Creek in the other. Despite being inland, he was, like all of England, bound in by the water.
Amongst the bushes he could see the bent backs of workers, their white linen shirts turning damply dark under the heavy midday sun as they picked his strawberry crop. It had been a good decision to pack up the Gloucestershire farm and come to the south east; the better weather was good for his Myatt’s Pines and British Queens. The better the crop, the better his yield; the shorter the distance to rich London dining tables, the higher his profits. Yes, moving to the edge of the capital had been a fine idea indeed.
Down amongst the labourers, Joseph’s two sons supervised and kept order. They were tall, strong lads, no man could have wished for more and he felt a swelling of pride as they strode between the pickers keeping an eye of progress, watching out for nimble hands moving to mouth. One day, Joseph thought, one day lads, all of this, this little garden of Eden, will all be yours.
People had told him he was crazy. They said that his farm would never last so close to the city. That London would keep seeping outwards, like the old towns of Manchester and Birmingham had done, going from nothing to blooming cities in a generation, and the capital was even more insatiable in its lust for space. Myatt knew they were wrong. He knew the city would never expand further than the toll gate at New Cross, that it would never conquer the high hills that sat between his land and the gate. London liked itself to be flat.
No, his land was safe which meant he had time to experiment. The strawberry business was good, as were his other crops, but he wanted more. His idea was to offer the perfect accompaniment to strawberries by blending rhubarb varieties to develop a crop the bitterness of which complimented the stark sweetness of his fruit.
In a special patch of soil just outside the main house, where he could tend to its needs and be confident of it catching the right amount of light, looping rhubarb leaves protruded from freshly watered dirt. Joseph tugged at a branch and it yielded easily. He brushed the earth from the root and bit into it.
He chewed and then spat the mush onto the stone floor.
It was sour, but that was all right. Live was sweet, after all.
The following Monday, we decided to put an offer in. It wasn’t so much because we actually wanted to buy it, but rather because we wanted to know what happened next. Cheekily we offered over twenty percent below the asking price, just to see the sparks fly.
Unsurprisingly, they told us to get stuffed.
Then later in the week, standing in the middle of our lounge on the ground floor of our flat converted out of an early Victoriana house, my girlfriend said: ‘It’s the ceilings.’
‘What?’ I looked up from whatever book I was reading that week.
‘The ceilings in Upper Brockley Road. They’re just so low.’
‘Really?’ I looked up at the elaborate ceiling rose, white plaster protruding from a ceiling I can’t reach even standing on a chair. I wasn’t sure, but she was convinced. Unable to have a lack of consensus we looked again at the photos online, trying to gauge the height of the furniture.
‘If the sofa comes half way the window and the ceiling starts at the top of the window how does that make it?’ We couldn’t be sure, but we decided for our own nagging doubts that the uncertain worry had been caused by the lowness of the room, by the place compressing in on itself.
That’s the problem isn’t it? You get ten, fifteen minutes to blitz around a house filled with other people’s stuff, other people’s lives and on that basis you choose to spend your life savings and put yourself in debt for the next thirty years. It’s an impossible task so you start making crazy, illogical justifications. You make leaps of faith. I’d started quite enthusiastic, but my vim was beginning to be dampened.
A few weeks and a few properties later we figured out what the problem had been. By being in the upper stories of what had once been a single house, the property had very low ceilings. Not such a problem in the bedroom, but in the living room it certainly felt oppressive. It felt as though the ceiling was pushing down on, the room compressing in on itself.
Shortly afterwards, the agent suggested that if we raised our offer to within ten percent of the original asking price they’d go for it. Clearly no-one else had met his valuation and perhaps they could hear the faraway sunshine calling as London trudged into winter.
We declined to make a new offer and several weeks further down the line he was on the phone again: ‘They’ve accepted your offer,’ he enthused. ‘It was tough but I managed to get to agree to over twenty percent less.’ It would have been cheap and for a day or so we did think about it, but by that time it was too late. The moment had passed. By that time the shops at the end of the rod had reopened and the rumours had restarted and, besides, several other places had already broken our hearts.