The price of poshness: The gentrification of Cla'm continues apace

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It's what we've all been waiting for down here; our own bit of Belgravia in sunny Kennington. White-gloved porters may soon be greeting haggard Northern Line commuters as we come up for air outside the Oval Tube station.

That was the unlikely prospect at least, as I joined the crowd outside No 1 Clapham Road on my way home this month. A long queue was forming at the entrance to a notorious local landmark, the Belgrave Children's Hospital. I was tickled to find, in an area that usually has more knockers than knobs, that it was now described as Belgrave Hall.

Well, pardon me. Life south of the river may never be the same again.

The huge Edwardian Grade II listed building looms on the Oval skyline like an Addams Family film set. At the beginning of the Eighties, cutbacks at the hospital sparked local protests and demonstrations outside Downing Street. But the graffiti was already on the wall. It was closed in 1985 and became a political

hot potato in Lambeth with various abortive schemes for its use, including a hall of residence and an Aids hospice.

The increasingly grimy building gained a new celebrity in 1989 when it was occupied by the Belgrave Homeless Project. It aspired to be more than a squat. The area was leafleted and banners went up in an attempt to highlight the plight of the homeless. For a time the occupation won considerable local and media support.

More than 150 people were housed there and Lambeth Council and the Brixton Council of Churches paid for electricity and running water. But just as the building around it began to decay, this attempt at self-help in the commun-ity gradually collapsed amid a growing number of horror stories. After a fire, the numbers

dwindled to 40. The project for the homeless became a centre for drugs and the police began to give the place a wide berth. It was finally emptied after the murder of a former school teacher there in 1991.

But now the windows were thrown open once again. So what had we come to see, as we wandered past the echoing remnants of the William Sheldon Memorial wing and the porcelain mementos of an earlier paternalism, plaques recording the cots donated by such worthies as the Brentford and Rangers Football Club? What would replace the signs of more recent residents - 'Ziggy loves Damie and 'This way to Woodstock?

Flats, ironically enough. It seems that the long-rumoured gentrification of Cla'm con-tinues. On the strength of two minuscule show flats I was being invited to flesh out the skeleton and buy. There was something unnerving about being greeted by suited gents with fitted-carpet voices outside the former Unit of Child and Family Psychology. Was this a final snatched victory for the Thatcher years? From the high-gloss brochure I was surprised to find that I no longer lived in the home of council fraud, drugs, muggings, murdered policemen and litter, but in lovely Lambeth - an 'area of easy accessibility with its original character still preserved, while Brixton is now notable for - wait for it - its 'exotic foods'.

'They must be joking,' said one amateur architect, as he tried to explain the conversion plans to his girlfriend, and we all played a giant version of Through the Keyhole. But they weren't joking. In three hours all the flats in the Stage One development had been snapped up. Today 31 of the 50 planned flats are not only reserved but are three times oversubscribed.

The secret? 'People who appreciate a listed building, location and a good deal, says Alan Selby of Alan Selby and Partners, the estate agent handling the sale for a group of Irish businessmen. Even rivals confess that Belgrave Hall offers a cheap deal. The flats range from as little as pounds 52,995 to just under pounds 100,000.

Most of the people who have put their names down are first-time buyers between the ages of 25 and 35.

I found myself pondering my own lebensraum. The 'Belgrave Hospital For Children Supported by Voluntary Contributions, as the inscription on the front (which is thankfully protected) describes it, could be a remarkable place to live.

Its mullioned windows, mosaic entrance and towering gable carry the stamp of the architect Charles Holden, who assisted Percy Adams and was influenced by early art nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. It deserved echoing oak corridors and spacious studios. But this is still the Oval. Instead, we had pokey mod-con flatlets converted for the absolute maximum use of space. I kept banging my head as I climbed up to the bed 'deck, designed to split these boxes into two-bedroom apartments.

Although Alan Selby admits that larger flats would have been more appropriate for such a building and would probably have sold, he explains that they would have taken much longer and 'velocity is everything. The conversion of the hospital has certainly been done with commando-like speed. It will be finished by February, complete with sculptured gardens.

The hospital was in appalling condition, as the Victorian Society says, and at least this obviously viable project has managed to save it from English Heritage's Buildings at Risk register. But I wonder how much the developers really care about the building.

Still, it will help to smarten up this part of the Oval, which already has a new delicatessen, a wine bar and a florist. Like me, many residents are glad to see a sad history take a new direction and the building's brick facade restored to red-faced health.

'It should have stayed a hospital, says Joan, a resident of 16 years, whose despair with the area has turned her towards the Liberal Democrats, 'but it looks lovely, doesn't it?

(Photograph omitted)

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