The casual glamour of a zone 5 London suburb can take many forms. In Becontree, I found it in the worn paint that looked like animal print on a garage door, in the insouciance of a four-wheeled blue Reliant Robin car out the front of someone’s house and in the nobbled shadow cast by a pollarded tree on to the block of flats on Beverley Road.
Verity-Jane Keefe, the artist behind the Living Together art project developed to mark the centenary of the Becontree estate, was showing me round her adopted patch. Becontree was London County Council’s grand plan to house people en masse after the first world war, reaching into the Essex countryside for the answer to London’s demand for housing. It was to become a habit. For Keefe, the bolshy pride of the flats, which look like stretched-out Photoshopped versions of the terraced housing stock the estate is famous for, represent a special example of this unique project that was built in the 20th century sweet spot where large-scale ambition met patrician duty.
When I was asked by Keefe to be the writer in residence for Living Together, I was, for a time at least, not actually allowed to visit Becontree. Instead I was locked down in Southend-on-Sea in south-east Essex, thinking about the place from a distance, by following her work, speaking to her on Zoom, and trying to feel my way into somewhere I had not visited for a very long time. Ever since my first visit I have felt a sort of kinship with Becontree. The perfunctory brick aesthetic of the houses not slathered in render was influential on the council-built terrace I grew up on in Southend. After I moved to London in my early 20s, I visited Becontree when desiring some sort of release from the inner-city. I would walk around and marvel at its scale and the way it sits there on the edge of Greater London like a kind of portal, sprawling yet self-contained, suburban yet with idiosyncratic flourishes such as the pedestrian cul de sacs known as ‘banjos’.
I had moved back to Southend in the months before the pandemic and now live nearer the seaside than when I was a kid, just a walk away from the amusements and beach-topped mudflats that still presumably attract some Becontree residents each summer, although I would guess not as many as the number who once came on buses and trains as the dust settled on the estate. As restrictions lifted ever so slightly, I finally made the trip up the A13 in our old Volvo, in the opposite direction to the time-worn flow towards promises of sand-gritted meals of donuts and chips, of sunburn and trips around the Crooked House or down the Helter Skelter. On the way I passed the iconography of south Essex: roadside trees and bushes from which frayed streams of plastic wiggled in the wind, huge warehouses and industrial zones, subdued greenbelt farmland, wind turbines, and signs for not one but two freight ports.
Our walk into Becontree commenced like a zoetrope of rough-cut render, pargetting, brickwork, pastel painted pebbledash and green, green grass that bounced against the bright sunshine. Straight lines and circular streets, corner pubs and established trees. Cars have marked their territory everywhere you look, parked on pavements in spaces marked in white paint, on paved-over front gardens, and sometimes even making the most of the NO BALL GAMES green spaces that no one quite knows what to do in.
Keefe has spent a decade decoding Becontree’s strange language and documenting its desires. Her newest work is Walk #1, a video of an early morning north-to-south wander that offers Becontree up as a living sculpture, and a place, like all places, that gently defies the easy narrative of stasis in the face of a pandemic year. People matter as much as architecture in Walk #1, and they populate the streets, main shopping drags and parks. There are people in masks walking their dog, people in casual gear off to go and do up someone else’s house, people talking to other people on a video app, and, I presume, people protected from our gaze behind the safety of brick walls, sleeping under their duvet, eating their breakfast, or diligently selecting the right emoji for their group chat.
Becontree wasn’t officially completed until 1935, by which time 100,000 people were living in almost 30,000 dwellings. At the beginning of Walk #1, Keefe reminds us that Valance Avenue is so wide because it once contained railway tracks upon which to transport the ‘stuff of this place, bricks and timber in … rubble and detritus out’. During the peak years of construction in the 1920s, up to 4,000 houses a year were built here. Walk #1 dives into this sea of homes, Keefe’s steady gait akin to floating past the estate’s greatest hits and underrated gems, such as the first terrace on Chitty’s Lane, which was completed in 1921. Perhaps more importantly, Keefe’s work takes notice of the individuality of everything that has happened since. Much of this dates from the years after Right To Buy was introduced by the Thatcher government, when people started to buy the houses it was always assumed they would rent, individualising them with columns flanking doors, ivy crawling up the brickwork, satellite dishes, bold extensions and snazzy little palm trees.
‘A tour of Becontree is demanding even for the enthusiast,’ Keefe quotes Nikolaus Pevsner in Walk #1. Every time I used to visit Becontree I would just walk until it started to make sense, but then have to go home again. It was no different today. It had only just started to reveal itself when we saw the time and realised we had to get back. On the way to our cars, we entered the school rush at chuck out time. Girls and boys who had been stuck indoors for much of the winter were now back in their uniforms and gossiping in groups or walking to sports classes. There was an intense crush around a bus stop, a sudden swell of bodies on the street that took us by surprise. Young life had stretched its limbs, exercised its vocal cords, and was ready for the ride home.