curiosity about the ways of the world

Knock knock: who’s there?

No fear of sleeping in these mornings. By 8.30 there’s a lusty knocking on the bedroom wall, nothing personal you understand, just a purposeful hammering and banging, drilling and pounding. I’m not complaining. They are knocking the old house into new shape and it’s good to hear sounds of life next door again.

It seems odd to be sandwiched between two empty properties, owned but unoccupied. For the first time in all the many years we have lived here, we have no full-time neighbours. I feel the absence on either side of us, no footsteps on the stairs, no children laughing in the garden, blank windows looking out from silent rooms.

I suppose this is what gentrification feels like. You wake up one morning and realise that if you were young and starting over again you could not afford the house you are living in. Double take. We couldn’t afford the house we are living in if we arrived on our own doorstep looking to buy it right now.

The street has changed a lot since we arrived at the tail end of the 1970s. We benefited from the property slump which enabled us to buy a Victorian house built for a merchant with enough money to employ a maid or two: cooking, cleaning, burnishing brasses, stoking coal fires in every room.  When we moved in the servant bells had not rung for a long time and most of the other tall terraced houses were earning their owners a living as Bed and Breakfast businesses. Every room put to good use.

old bell pull

The servant bells no longer ring

As house prices rose, gradually the B&Bs round us turned back into private family homes, rooms now full of young people, windows brightly lit at night. As families grew up the prices kept on rising – give or take a little recessionary blip – then something odd began to happen. While property values shot through the roof, occupancy rates dropped through the floor. The more expensive the residence, it seems, the lower the number of people actually living in it. There is no bedroom tax on private properties.

An article in the Guardian catches my eye this morning. Amelia Gentleman is writing about Kensington Palace Gardens, ‘the most expensive street in Britain’. She describes a millionaire wasteland, protected by security guards, and giving off a whiff of strangely desolate affluence: ”the sense of isolation that comes with not knowing if the buildings around you are actually lived in or are simply investment vehicles.”

That’s not our Edinburgh street, not yet anyway. This is still a friendly neighbourhood, with enough family homes to bring young children to the door at Halloween.  Perhaps the cycle of urban regeneration is simply returning the old houses to their original income bracket but it’s sad to see so many underused. The knocking on the other side of the bedroom wall is a reminder that houses are for living in.

A postscript: I have been finding this difficult to write because I am aware of my hypocrisy. Here we are, two old codgers rattling around in a big house full of memories: marks by the back door measuring the height of our growing boys are still visible.  (Maybe we will paint over them when we come to put our home on the market.) We would, of course, be nuts not to ask for a good price when we sell. But I regret the dysfunctional system which pushes houses like ours beyond the reach of ordinary, struggling, young people, like we once were, and turns homes into pension plans and investment projects.  Knock, knock. Who’s there?



  1. fay

    Ah, Fred, a timely comment (funnily Ray and I were just talking about your lovely flat) and I must admit I’m hoping we do see the grandchildren running up and downstairs before we have to ‘downsize’. Some nice news on the Walking Heads front, by the way, maybe not quite fame and fortune yet but encouraging all the same, more to come…

  2. Fred

    Lovely piece Fay. Don’t sell too soon I would say. We sold our family home 15 years ago which made sense at the time. But then grandchildren came along and suddenly we wished we still had our big house with its huge basement and games room to play in.

    Anyway you won’t have to wait long for your fortune to come along. It’s only a matter of time before Walking Heads floats on the Stock Exchange and joins the FTSE 100!

  3. fay

    It’s lovely waifs and strays what keep us going! If we ever fall into a fortune we will leave the house to a philanthropic trust with preservation orders on the walls and a special place for drummers, minstrels and dramaturgs of every stripe and stroke, with an in-perpetuity stipulation that you must keep on banging and carousing long into the night (allowing space for those who want a good sleep).

  4. Sandy

    What a lovely piece but melancholy. I am disproportionately sad to think of you ever leaving that house. But for now you do your bit with your endless hosting of waifs and strays or every stripe!

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