The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate is unlike anything you have ever seen before, or likely ever will see again. Tucked away just around the corner from South Hampstead station in Camden, this extraordinary housing development couldn’t be less like the surrounding suburbs – which is probably why it’s been photographed more than most streets in London.
Also known as Alexandra Road Estate – or Rowley Way after its main thoroughfare – the estate has become immortalized in pop culture, and in recent years thanks to Instagram. The historic estate was built in the 60s and 70s; a particularly progressive era for Camden Council department of architects, which decided to flex its new muscles with an emblematic social housing estate.
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Mohamed Eltahir, 62, has lived on the estate for about ten years. He said he had moved into one of the Alexandra Road apartments from a property on the nearby road and had no prior knowledge of the estate’s importance. But a decade of life on the streets has changed that – now he talks about the field with pride and passion.
“It’s a unique building in terms of design,” Mohamed explained. “And in terms of view. There is also a very large balcony and a warm apartment.” The long-term resident and former trustee said the estate had “barely changed” while he lived there, and while “other people complain about the old design” he thinks it’s ” beautiful”.
Designed by renowned modernist architect Neave Brown and built as part of the lasting legacy of pioneering borough architect Sydney Cook, the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate has become an important benchmark for architects across Europe. Low-rise, high-density housing was boldly designed in retaliation to the government constantly pushing for more and more high-rise buildings.
The resulting estate, which was completed between 1968 and 1978, contained over 520 homes for over 1,600 people within its two rows of terraces – Rowley Way and Ainsworth Way. The size of 12 football pitches and defined by its two unique pedestrian streets, the estate came at a price. The final cost was around £20.9 million.
According to Association of tenants and residents website, that could make it “the most expensive social housing ever built in this country”. The now Grade II star The listed estate has seen tumultuous years since its construction, including severe deterioration in the Thatcher years, but has lived to tell the tale.
In recent years, the photogenic estate has supplied the set of some major blockbusters and TV shows – including Kingsman, 28 Days Later, Breaking And Entering, The Sweeney and Silent Witness. In fact, for most people, the domain is seen more often through a lens than the naked eye, and in recent years it has become a favorite backdrop for Instagrammers.
The hashtag #alexandraroad has racked up 2.7k posts on Instagram, while #alexandraroadestate has over 2.5k, and #rowleyway is also close with 2.4k posts from the same domain. So what’s it like to live on one of London’s most photographed streets? MyLondon spoke to three of the current residents to find out.
Speaking of the other people on the estate, Mohamed added: “I have been here for many years, they are very warm, welcoming, smiling people.” He added that there is still a thriving community center on the estate, where residents gather for cooking classes and other activities.
Mohamed said that although there are people photographing and filming the estate “all the time”, he has no problem with it, but feels “very comfortable” with his house in the spotlight . “I feel happy because it means we’re in an interesting building for people to come,” he said.
Another local, Zohaer Elmahmoud, 39, told MyLondon he had lived on the estate for even longer, 15 years, having also moved from another area. “It’s a good neighborhood,” concedes Zohaer, whose main impression of the street is how quiet it is. “I like it here it’s quiet it’s relaxed you know. The evenings are quiet, no one is shouting you know.”
Zohaer, who lives with his wife, daughter and son in one of the apartments, said that since living on the estate the ‘only problem’ his family had had was once they left it to dry her daughter’s shoes outside and they got stung.
The third resident, a woman in her 60s who did not wish to be named, is a veteran of Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, having lived there for almost 40 years. She said when she first moved there, “I had young kids and it felt like a safe place. When my kids were young, it was a great place for them.”
The resident said the estate still had a good sense of community, although she admitted there were “pros and cons” to living there. “I have a nice view of the back green, it’s nice and safe, you have your own little community,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s the heating system – it’s been 60 or 70 years [old] and you can’t control it yourself.”
The resident described how, because the heating goes through the wall to save floor space in the houses, it has to be set to one temperature for all neighboring houses. “We just have to get together and decide, it’s a happy medium,” she said, looking unimpressed.
I’m Anna, a journalist based in North East London with a particular interest in immigration, social equality and social housing issues. I have been with MyLondon since January 2021. You can follow my facebook page here.
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Speaking of the number of photographers and videographers showing up outside, the resident explained: “Sometimes it’s okay – you get a lot of warnings if it’s a movie or something – other times you get a group [just turning up] making videos, and for music.”
She said most people are “very polite” about it, but added that it’s “the ones who don’t ask and make a lot of noise” that residents are frustrated with.
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