Monday was, as one newspaper put it, the 'Glorious Twelfth', but before I was able to indulge in the simple pleasures of an indoor swim and a couple of outdoor pints, I had set myself another lockdown target.
As I've recounted in previous diaries, I spent most of Lockdown 2.0 renovating a flat in Peckham which I bought last September. This was pretty much complete by the time the tiered system which preceded Lockdown 3.0 kicked in, and thereafter I think I could be forgiven for resting on my laurels.
But some elements remained unfinished, which is where one must enter the bizarre world of English property law. My building is an 1880's Victorian terraced house which was divided into three flats some time ago. I 'own' the lease on the top flat (which covers two floors), while others possess the leaseholds for that underneath me and another in the basement. Both of these are rented.
I share a hallway with the flat underneath and a 'garden' area at the front with both. I say garden, but until recently it was little more than an overgrown patch of grass with an array of fearsome – and long established – weeds. Some even had trunks. So if anything was to be done to the shared hallway and garden, it required permission from someone else, the owner of the 'freehold' on the whole building.
This my Scottish mind still finds difficult to compute, for every other property I've owned – in Edinburgh or Aberdeen – has been freehold. In London, however, this is rare for anything other than self-contained houses. Occasionally you'll find a flat which comes with a 'share of' freehold, but this does not apply in my case.
I was put in touch with the freeholder by the previous owner of my flat (or rather the previous owner of its lease) and she seems perfectly reasonable. Legally, she is responsible for the general maintenance of the fabric of the building, though not the cost of doing so. That, as in my old tenement in Edinburgh, is divided equally between all the flats.
Anyway, with the Glorious Twelfth (and indeed spring) in sight, I was determined to revamp the communal areas before I got distracted by swimming pools and beer gardens. I tackled the shared hallway first, sourcing a reclaimed Victorian front door, brass fittings and a south London-based joiner I knew to be reliable to install it. I did the rest myself, which included expelling the last of some horrible 1990's laminate flooring from the building.
This is sometimes known pejoratively as 'gentrification', though my neighbourhood in North Peckham is some way – geographically and psychologically – from what I call the 'ground zero' of gentrification closer to Peckham Rye. On a micro level, my downstairs neighbours seem happy with my improvements, something their management companies or landlords would have been unlikely to instigate.
The academic studies of gentrification I've read also reach some surprising conclusions, chiefly that gentrification does not automatically lead to massive social displacement (a common trope is that poorer residents are forced to relocate due to rising rents). Indeed, the overall improvement in an area's fabric and amenities through gentrification can often have a much broader, cross-class beneficial impact.
A reminder of my area's status came through my joiner's recommendation to source something called a 'London Bar' for my (or rather our) new front door lock. This is a length of metal with a D-shaped kink to fit around a rim lock. Once fitted inside a front entrance, it basically reinforces and strengthens a door frame against forced attack – in other words, against it getting kicked in.
Judging by historic damage to the previous front door and frame, something like this had indeed occurred a decade or so ago. Similar considerations proved necessary when I turned my attention to the communal garden, which probably last received any sustained attention at the millennium. Given outdoor contact has been permitted since last month, a former housemate volunteered to help, and we spent a productive Saturday turning the existing earth, weeding, levelling off and distributing bags of gravel acquired at my local B&Q.
This process produced an astonishing amount of surplus soil, which as I write has just been disposed of by a garden waste company I found online. I went for plastic rather than ceramic pots for a few plants, something frowned upon by some acquaintances but necessary given the likelihood of anything fancy getting nicked. Friends of mine in Stockwell even have their exterior pot plants chained to a wall.
This Sunday past was the dénouement of my renovations. The end corner of a street-facing front wall was missing five bricks, an inconsequential gap which was nevertheless unsightly. My brother donated some bricks and I got to work with the pre-mixed mortar. I don't think I'll be changing careers any time soon, but plugging that gap was an immensely satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
And now I feel a bit deflated, as I always do after finishing a book or DIY project. My restless mind immediately moves to planning the next activity, although when it comes to my modest slice of real estate in south-east London, there's nothing else to do. Even beer gardens are unlikely to fill the void – most are fully booked for the rest of this month.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian