While there is certainly no shortage of rich people populating London, there are many more of us here leading a lifestyle incomparably less glamorous. When it comes to property agencies, I typically fall under the classification of a “young professional”, with monthly net income probably not exceeding GBP 4k. One can immediately see how I could never dream of affording renting in a prime London location, or even in its second – or third – best alternatives.
In fact, I never even aspired to do so. When I came to London 3.5 years ago and started the flat search, my demands for the place of living were as follows: (i) the rent should not exceed GBP 200 per week; (ii) the accommodation should not be shared with even the closest friend and (iii) the location should be within easy and prompt reach from Liverpool Street Station, where my first London employer was based. The first and the third point automatically excluded those so-called prime London locations such as Belgravia, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Notting Hill and South Kensington. Of the less prime but almost as pricey, Hampstead was perhaps the closest to satisfying my criteria, but then the “easy reach” would be a little stretched; it takes over 20 minutes Tube travel from Hampstead to Moorgate, and there is no direct connection with Liverpool Street.
I was thus left with less sounding options. Areas adjacent to work – such as Aldgate, Whitechapel or Shoreditch – did not attract me for their slight lack of character and relatively high rents – the latter largely induced by the proximity to London’s financial lungs, the City. My eyes fell on Stratford, the Eastern hub for the Jubilee and Central Lines, Docklands Light Railway and London overground train network. Since the area used to be rather a dump – which was invariably showing – the rents were affordable, if a little on the rising side given Stratford’s strategic future role in the London 2012 Olympics. Travel options to Liverpool Street were twofold: by Central Line (10-12 minutes, two stops in-between) and by National Rail (8 minutes, non-stop).
The rather modern building on Gerry Raffles Square where I consequently settled was situated next to Stratford shopping centre, huge Sainsbury’s supermarket and Theatre Royal – as well as a 5-minute walk away from Stratford Tube Station. The location’s major downsides were its classification as Zone 3 (spicing up my monthly travel pass), the alleged lack of safety (admittedly overshadowed by the notorious likes of nearby Forest Gate and Westham) and its undisputable lack of glamour with my fussy investment banking colleagues (who nicknamed my E15 postcode a sarcastic E45). Having weighed all the pros and cons, I went for a one-bedroom flat in Stratford, priced at GBP 175 per week.
Gerry Raffles Square building in Stratford – my first and second London home The first few months quickly revealed several deficiencies of the property. For a start, it was on the first floor, with only a garage underneath. This meant that I was the immediate receptor of the enormous traffic noise from the ever-busy Great Eastern Road. What’s worse, the proximity of a large supermarket had a flipside in huge lorries arriving around 5am and stopping next to my windows. The height of the lorries almost made it possible for the drivers to peep inside my room. Let alone the passing double-decker buses, whose passengers likely perceived me as some reality show character. I eventually relaxed to the point of not reaching for clothes to cover my occasional nudity. It’s not like I ever was going to see those people again, right?
Secondly, the flat was rather small. I could not dream of inviting people to stay, as the sense of claustrophobia was close to unbearable. Even for myself, there was nowhere to turn. Add to it a joke of a kitchen – really a part of the living room – what they call a kitchenette in this country. Clearly not a housewife’s paradise.
Finally and most crucially, I was very unlucky with the neighbours. With all my due respect to India, I can barely stand Indian food – which was a daily menu choice of the next door flat, resulting in all sorts of stomach-turning aromas. What’s worse, my neighbours seemed to have placed their stereo system right next to my bedroom wall, and would not surrender to bedtime until about 3am. I think I would still recognise some of the Indian beats nightly penetrating my swollen head of an investment banking analyst. And the problem with the Noise Pollution team in this country is that they tend to arrive AFTER the noise has stopped, making you stay awake waiting for them and looking like a complete idiot making a false alert. But this is a topic for another story.
My London flat #1 – only big enough for one Latvian flagAfter one year in that location, I fled. Not too far, however. With my job, I could not dream of a thorough flat search, and instead opted for that one flat I viewed on the day I was sick (off – or more likely from – work), in that same building on Gerry Raffles Square. It was definitely an upgrade. I was now residing on the fifth floor and therefore less exposed to traffic noise. There was a guest bedroom and generally more space. The bathroom was much larger and better equipped. The floors had laminate surface and not those ridiculous fitted carpets the entire nation is so obsessed with. Best of all, I had a huge balcony for my bicycle, my laundry and myself. All the extra beauties dragged my monthly rent to GBP 220 per week, but it was well worth it. After all, my City friends were paying more for tiny studios in the so-called “prime” locations. London flat #2 – fifth floor view and less street noise
London flat #2 – spacious and cosy
London flat #2 – the balcony was nice, albeit not very well protected… Not even after a few months did I regret my choice. I loved my second Gerry Raffles Square location so much it literally hurt to leave after one year. In July 2008, I left the country to spend eight months in Greece – after which, unexpectedly to my friends and myself, I came back. And looked for my third and current London abode… London flat #2 – Packing up to leave …this time I was looking for a real trade-off in terms of proximity to work, character, connections and price. Stratford was history, as was the entire East London. After consulting some local friends, I focused my search on the south side of the Thames – London Bridge and Elephant & Castle. The latter was eventually brushed aside as a little too far and without many entertainment options. The former was walking distance from work and Tower Bridge. The first viewing – of a spacious property on the intersection of Shad Thames and Tooley Street – was a huge success.
I finally found a flat with a large separate kitchen – kitchen in the true sense of the word, not a kitchenette. The bathroom is blessed with a window, producing some panoramic views of London. The views themselves are incredible, the City skyline and Canary Wharf both observable from my 5-storey height. The street noise is within London limits. The heating had some hiccups in the beginning but is working perfectly now. In short, I would probably be close to an ideal state – had it not been for the price, which is somewhat above my previous Stratford location and a disproportionate share of my rather scaled-down income as a result of private-to-public-sector transition. London flat #3 – glorious views over London A well-known way to economise in London is living as a couple – in a one-bedroom flat but with two incomes. An approximate estimate indicates that a couple living together could reduce their monthly bills by a quarter each compared to living on their own. With this in mind, I seriously recommend to all single people renting out one half of their bed*. If you are not known for snoring, go to bed early and don’t go out partying too often, you would probably make a perfect bed mate. Really.
And if your future bed mate were an investment banker, appearing only occasionally in the early hours of the morning for an anxious nap before heading back to work – at this not able to stir their single limb – that would be even better. In fact, that would be close to perfect. ————————————————————
*not to be taken too seriously, if at all