Brutal Beauty

[update – Ashley Wales, one half of former music producers Spring Heel Jack, was a resident in Nightingale. He kindly shared his memories with me, I’ve included them at the bottom of this post.]

I grew up in Islington, North London, but used to hang around the more deprived neighbouring borough of Hackney, getting up to no good like many teenagers. One of many memories that stand out is running around Hackney Downs with a couple of friends at dusk, trying to come down after taking too much LSD. It was the early nineties.

The cold air hit my face and I felt better at once. Although still hallucinating heavily, I was grounded by my closeness to nature – grass under my feet, the open sky above me. Across the park, spaced evenly apart in the distance, stood the towers of the Nightingale Estate. As the sun set, twinkling lights festooned the tall blocks as one by one, the inhabitants illuminated their homes. To me, this sight was every bit as beautiful as the sun setting over a forest.

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

Nightingale was built in 1968 and comprised the six towers seen above, plus a surrounding sprawl of medium-rise terrace blocks. Even without the influence of drugs, I always found these buildings captivating from nearly every perspective – standing at the base of one tower and looking up, then across the wide open space toward the other towers, or on the few occasions I was inside one, contemplating the view from high up. The blocks sat on a large, raised plateau and were arranged in such a way that no tower stood directly in the view of another. I was impressed by the scale, the uniformity and the repetition – of the towers relative to each other, of the twenty-two storeys in each tower.

I wasn’t alone in this aesthetic appreciation – throughout the mid to late nineties, Nightingale served as the setting for music videos by numerous bands including Travis, BlurSuede and more. It featured on several EP covers by experimental drum and bass outfit Spring Heel Jack. My musical backdrop for this period wasn’t indie and Britpop bands, but rather the Jungle pirate radio stations like Weekend Rush FM, broadcast from an illegal rig at the top of one of Nightingale’s towers.

Nightingale seen at night

Nightingale seen at night

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Between 1998 and 2003 all but one of the towers were demolished, paving the way for a wide scale regeneration of the whole estate. It’s a curious fact that these towers existed for no more than 35 years – the first to be demolished, Farnell Point, lived just 30 years. By most accounts the inhabitants of Nightingale were content, at least in the early days. Many came from cramped houses and were very happy with the relative large size of their new homes and the high-rise views across the city. I remember an interview with one delighted family who’d moved from almost uninhabitable council housing in a neglected industrial town in the north of England. Residents had everything they needed, including local shops and a youth club.

As time went on however, the estate fell into disrepair and crime levels rose. The sprawling, labyrinthine nature of developments like this, many built in the 60s and 70s, became an argument for discontinuing them. As one resident elegantly put it, with its masses of buildings and walkways, by its very nature Nightingale was ‘designed for skulduggery’. The estate’s demolition set a country-wide pattern, with local authorities deciding that packing council tenants into vast blocks and stacking them vertically in high towers didn’t work well, and so across the UK, these mighty structures crumbled down elegantly upon themselves in carefully controlled detonations.

Of course high-rise blocks are anything but consigned to the past, especially in major cities like London. The difference is, the kind now being built are expensive, luxurious, and available only to those who can afford them and the panoramic views they provide.

wide angle shot of Nightingale estate

Designed for skulduggery

Nightingale was the inspiration for the fictional housing estate Broadlands in my forthcoming novel The Release. Without my very real memories of a place that impressed me so strongly, I doubt I’d have been able to describe the setting for this story in quite the same way.

Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack shares his memories of living in Nightingale and his feelings about its demolition.

“It’s great to see some pictures of the Nightingale Estate. I lived in Rachel Point from early 1987 until its demolition in 2002 and was one of the last residents to move out before its blowdown. That was the reason we used photos of the estate for our sleeves, the cover of the Sea Lettuce was the view from my front room on the 15th floor facing east. The photos we used were all taken by Steven Parker, an old friend of ours.

I have great memories from my time living on the estate and still have dreams about it after all these years. Every time I walk across the downs there is a big gap in the sky where the six towers used to be, the view is just not the same anymore.

It was not all great though and was a fucking tough place to live, lifts breaking down, people using the communal areas as a toilet, and anti-social residents making your life difficult, basically the same as the rest of Hackney. But on a sunny day it was beautiful and majestic. The downs was just across the road and you could have been somewhere exotic, and you didn’t mind that the council had basically given up on the estate by the 80s.

I remember watching the blowdowns of the other blocks, Embley and Southerland point, standing on my balcony with my daughter and thinking “Jesus, all that concrete and it has just vanished in a cloud of dust.”

When it came to the blowdown of Rachel point I took my daughters to watch it, but Hackney Council were so pleased with themselves for getting rid of what they considered a problem estate that they held a party for local dignitaries like Trevor Nelson and council officials with champagne and cake, while the residents of the estate were treated like dogshit. It really upset me to see the block I had lived in for all those years reduced to rubble. I didn’t feel like celebrating. It was my home for better or worse.

Weekend Rush, the Downs festival, the fantastic views, friends who are no longer here and some great parties. I miss it still.”