A country of estates

Centuries ago, our green and pleasant land constituted a sparsely populated countryside of vast estates, owned by the landed gentry and worked on by oppressed serfs.

Today, that lush countryside is being  inexorably filled in with estates of a very different kind.

I’ve just got back from my third road trip in a few weeks to the east of England. My mission was to take photos of mortgaged properties. I could tell you why, but if I did I’d have to make you suffer the same trauma I’ve been through.

I snapped just over 700 newly built properties, mainly in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, with a handful in Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire for a more central diversion.

The Shires. It conjures up an image of a bourgeois life close to rolling green belt land, buffering towns and cities.

Not any more. The urban team are gobbling up the green team, like Pacman on speed.

I saw new estate after new estate. Sprawling, dystopian communities with minimal infrastructure outside the over-priced house walls. Often, another new estate is already being built just a cement mixer’s churn away.

Some are designed by enlightened developers, sacrificing a few extra plots to create lakes, play areas and an illusion of space. And yet they still seem desolate, unreal places, especially with a chill winter wind whipping across the flatlands.

Others make no such pretence. Houses and apartment blocks jostle with each other, cheek by jowl, brick by brick.

They all have a certain scale. Hardly any new estate seemed to have less than 100 properties. Most were probably around 1,000. Some are townships, like Hampton in Cambridgeshire, just south of Peterborough.

Since the first arrivals to Holly Walk, Hampton Hargate, in 1997, more than 4,750 new homes have been built at a rate of up to 500 a year. 

Eventually Hampton will have up to 8,500 new homes spread over its four local areas, with additional schools, local centres and leisure facilities, as well as commercial and retail areas. Construction started in 1996 and is scheduled to continue until at least 2023.

At least the Hamptons has the scale to justify its own complete infrastructure. So it just keeps on growing. As will many others now, with builders and developers empowered more than ever before by the government’s further relaxation of green belt planning restrictions.

We all know the reasons behind the unprecedented demand for new housing. But don’t get me started on that thorny subject….

So all in all it has been a depressing, eye-opening, pavement-pounding jaunt around the eastern estates, my lord. I can report that our green and pleasant land is now, well, grey and sad.

My only pleasure came from the inventive whimsy of the estate road-naming teams.

Like birds? Just in case you never see one again, live in Magpie Close, on a vast estate outside Corby in Northants. Or Blackbird Road. How about Thrush Close. Or Robin Road. Siskin Close. Jay Road. Lapwing Close. You get the idea. The only tweeting here though will be 140 characters on your smartphone.

Racehorse fan? Ooh….you could move to another sprawling Corby estate and pretend to live on a racecourse. Chepstow Road, Haydock Close, Newbury Close, Kempton Close, Ayr Close, Cheltenham Road, Newmarket Close, Aintree Road. Just like being there.

But for a touch of class, move to an estate in Witham, Essex. Yes, Essex. Holst Avenue. Purcell Road. Elgar Drive. Ravel Avenue. Or soak up the blues on Gershwin Boulevard.

Laugh? Not really. I was crying, and the tears fell on to the concrete, covering over what was once lush, green English countryside.

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