A new kind of villa civilisation is emerging on the Thames Estuary. But will it live up to the masterplan drawn up by the developers? Ross Clark reports
WHEN wealthy barrister James Harman built his Elizabethan mansion, Ingress Abbey, on the banks of the Thames Estuary, at Greenhithe in Kent, in 1833, he hoped it would become the hub of a villa civilisation to mirror the one lining the Thames between Kew and Richmond.
Grand designs: Ingress Park at Greenhithe in Kent is undergoing major regeneration by Crest Homes to fill its gardens with 950 properties
His architect, Charles Moreing, worked his way through the then enormous sum of £120,000, constructing turrets and crenellations of reclaimed stone from the old London Bridge and Houses of Parliament. The Capability Brown gardens, left over from a previous incarnation of the Abbey, were enriched with follies, grottoes and hermits' caves.
Then Harman moved in, waiting for others to see the potential of this richly wooded river buff, the first close-up view of England that foreigners had as they sailed into London. He could not have got it more wrong. It was not villas that started popping up along the coast but factories, cement works and, eventually, oil refineries.
When the Shah of Persia sailed into London in the 1880s he noted: "The only thing worth mentioning was at Greenhithe where there was a mansion standing amid trees on a green carpet extending down to the water's edge." It was intended as a compliment, yet it served merely as a reminder of just how badly Harman had misjudged his attempt at gentrification.
By the early 20th century, Harman's descendants had given up the unequal struggle. They sold off a large part of the grounds for development into the sprawling Empire Paper Mills. The rest of the gardens was left to go to seed and the house was allowed to fall into decay, while around it sprung up the grim, beton brut blocks of the Thames Nautical Training School.
Harman's ghost has had to wait another 100 years to see the area finally begin to go up. A villa civilisation of sorts is emerging along the Thames Estuary, albeit a rather more mass-market one than he had in mind. With heavy industry in decline and "brownfield development" as one of the great buzzwords of our age, the eastern flanks of the Thames have been declared the nation's single largest residential expansion zone - the new Thameside linear city as foreseen by Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s when he was Environment Secretary.
If you want to buy a new house in the South-East in the next decade or two, it may well have to be along the Thames estuary. The flanks of the Thames have been projected to absorb more than 100,000 new homes in the next 20 years, accounting for one in eight of all new houses in the South-East.
Welcome to Estuary England, home of the Ford Escort Cabriolet, the glottal stop and now the mega housing estate. Unless you already live here, the most you are likely to have seen of the forthcoming Thameside city is in a hurried glance from the Dartford Bridge, as you fumble around for a £1 coin for the tollbooths.
Save for a misty day, when all you can see is the silvery water of the Thames itself, it does not at first look exactly inviting. There are oil tanks, container parks and cranes as far as the eye can see, while two of the world's largest pylons carry the national grid across the Thames. Were there still a Shah of Persia to sail up the Thames, he might be tempted to turn back, concluding that Britain was beyond redemption.
Yet, somewhere, among the industrial litter are the first signs of improvement. Along rotting wharves, which not so long ago had intrinsic joke value, the first townhouses are going up.
Greenhithe High Street, a surprisingly pleasant backwater of 18th-century fishermen's cottages, was, until recently, buried beneath the soot and ash of heavy industry. Now, it has become the heart of a little riverside community. Though the new houses on the quaysides are of indifferent quality, the wonder is that people have been persuaded to live there at all.
But the most promising sign of regeneration is the rejuvenation of Ingress Abbey. Once again, a green carpet stretches down to the Thames and, for the first time in more than 100 years, the house presents a clean faÇade.
There is a cost attached to its restoration: in return for the £6 million it has spent restoring the house (which it has sold to a technology as offices for £2 million), Crest Homes has won permission to fill Capability Brown's former 75-acre gardens with a whopping 950 homes.
It is the kind of deal that is becoming increasingly common, as heritage officers seek to have endangered buildings restored at no public cost and planners try to squeeze building plots out of every last inch. And it is a deal with which, given the state of the park just a couple of years ago, it is difficult not to find sympathy.
Aerial photographs taken in the mid-1990s show the paper mills as an ugly mass of dirty brick, prison-like buildings and the rest of the site, while retaining many of the trees, is unkempt, spoiled by former chalk-workings. Now, a formal avenue of trees, reminiscent of a Parisian park, leads down to the Thames. Soon it will be joined by a riverside walkway and paths through the woods.
There is also a quality that was absent from mass-market developments until recently: the kerb-stones are granite, the pathways in a warm gravel. The houses, too, are a new departure for estuary England, where the mock-Tudor window and the neo-Georgian plastic pillar - often used on the same house - have ruled. Mock-Tudor hasn't been abandoned but, in keeping with Harman's original villa, it has been taken upmarket.
It is an environment to which many new home-buyers may find it takes time to adjust. Gone are the sweeping driveways for three family cars which, until recently, buyers believed they had a right to expect. The Thames Estuary is at the frontier of the brave new world of PPG3 - the name of the Government document that obliges local authorities to increase the density of new developments.
At Ingress Park, the traditional developers' practice of building 12 to 14 houses to the acre has been dropped in favour of 25 to 30 houses to the acre. That means a home for every 1,500sq ft. You do not achieve this sort of density by building detached houses in landscaped gardens. "That's the closest you'll find to a traditional house on the whole development," says Crest's development executive Steve Atkins, pointing out a detached, rectangular home.
The majority of the development will be three-storey terrace townhouses with parking underneath. "We're putting in balconies and roof gardens to make up for the fact that the houses won't have large gardens," adds Mr Atkins.
Developers, bless them, have been only too keen to adhere to the Government's campaign to save the countryside by building homes at ever-higher densities. Mr Atkins goes on at some length about how impressed the planners were that the site's masterplan obeyed the strictures of PPG3, but omits to mention that squeezing in more houses to the acre might suit the developers' interests, too.
With more Ingress Parks, Estuary England could lose its reputation as a showcase for all that is ugly about modern Britain. But it is when you leave the development that you wonder whether the new Thameside city will be quite the paradise that the planners' blueprint forsees.
A mile away lie the sprawling car parks of the Bluewater shopping centre. The high-density of the housing is mocked by its low-density distribution and and by the vast gash in the Downs that is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the ever-spreading lanes of the A2/M2. You have to ask whether we have got it the right way round: people are made to live hunched up on brownfield sites, while commerce and road and rail projects are granted every acre of greenfield land they demand.
One wonders what poor Harman would make of his neighbourhood.