What makes a community? Is it the people that live in an area or the small businesses and open spaces that bring neighbours together?
As someone who lived in Greenhithe for 18 years of their life, I have seen Swanscombe, Ebbsfleet and the quarries by Bluewater change drastically as I’ve grown up.
After moving away from the area I was pleasantly surprised with the warm welcome I received as I explored the new housing estates built by the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation.
With so many new people moving into the area I really wanted to find out more about the individuals that lived there and what life is like in a ‘village’ that has been built from scratch in such a short time.
My first stop was Castle Hill, the estate is built on the eastern quarry, where thousands of homes have already been built, alongside a new primary school, a community centre, Co-op, pharmacy and estate agents.
The estate looked like a model village, nothing seemed to be out of place. Every car had its designated spot either in the on road parking spaces available or the carparks situated around the homes.
Castle Hill is very well looked after and very clean, I know it is a new build but even with the development being around for several years now the roads and pavements were spotless.
There was no rubbish scattered around and little things like no chewing gum stuck to paths and rubbish bins tucked neatly away on properties really kept Castle Hill looking neat.
Although I’m sure the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation had something to do with that, it was clear to see that the people living on the estate took pride in their community and wanted to keep its appearance tidy.
As I wandered around the village centre I bumped into two lovely ladies taking a break from their shift at the Co-op.
Sitting on a bench outside the shop they explained to me that they’re very busy at the store and the people from the Castle Hill community often go there instead of Sainsbury’s Pepperhill, the nearest supermarket.
One of the ladies said: “We get a lot of different types of customers, most people are nice but you do get the odd grumpy individual, you can’t have it all!
“The after school rush is always huge though, all the kids come in and we have a lot of customers because of the parents. The children are very well behaved but a bit hyper.”
I had a little look inside the Co-op and it suits the area brilliantly, it’s like a cross between a corner shop and a supermarket. All your essentials and an old fashioned pick and mix sweet line up in the same place.
Just up from the store is the local chemist.
Although the chemist dispenser was unable to talk to me directly without going through the press office, staff at the pharmacy were very lovely.
They had been open since July and after being greeted with a friendly smile I felt very comfortable, I’d feel happy to collect my prescription from there. The woman behind the counter was very comforting and had a very kind smile.
As I walked away from the pharmacy towards the nearby park there was a man with a very excited black Labrador.
The gentleman didn’t actually live in the area and told me he was a qualified dog walker.
He said: “I live nearby but am a dog walker around Castle Hill as a lot of residents here work in London.
“There are places to walk dogs but unfortunately they are more for lead walking.
"If you want your dog to run and stretch their legs you’ll need to head to parks in the car, places like Jeskyns (Community Woodland).
"However, there are still lots of dog poo bins and certain places to take your dogs.”
After chatting to the man it did become more apparent to me that during the day, when kids were at school and adults at work, the estate is very, very quiet.
I guess with people just living a stone's throw away from Ebbsfleet International station, it wasn’t strange for them to work in the City. After all, it takes less than an hour to get there.
Castle Hill is very much a community built to accommodate young working families.
I wandered around the area a little more and came across several parks, all well looked after, free of vandalism, which sadly is normally very common to see elsewhere, and spots, such as tennis courts, available to rent out for community use.
Feeling like the area had a lot to offer the families living there I headed back to the hub of Castle Hill as the afternoon school rush began.
After seeing the area rather empty throughout late morning it was lovely to see an array of parents chatting away and laughing on the school run outside Cherry Orchard Primary School.
It was here that I met Ola and his lovely dog, Fifa.
The 46-year-old man was waiting for his wife as she collected their son.
Ola explained to me that he and his family have lived on Forest Shaw road in Castle Hill for the last four-and-a-half years.
He said: “We used to live in London but we decided to move to Ebbsfleet Garden City to raise our children.
“We also really wanted to influence the new community that was building here.”
Ola’s laugh and smile were infectious as he explained the impact the local community had on his life.
“We always say good morning to everyone and respect all of the people that live in our area.
“All of our children play in the park together.
"I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that everyone on our road knows each other, we really made an effort to make sure we have a good community bond with our neighbours.” Ola added.
As I was talking to the father his young dog was getting lots of love from the school children that were rushing from the gates to meet their parents. It was then that I met Sophia and her mother.
Little Sophia and her family were good friends with Ola and met at the community park. At the time the little girl was petrified of dogs. However, it was Ola and the lovely Fifa that helped her overcome her fear.
I couldn’t help but smile as Sophia played with Fifa and Ola explained their friendship.
He said: “Our families met at the central park by our road, it is a lovely big area with lots of green space.
“It was there where Sophia met Fifa and overcame her fear of dogs, but, we’re still working on her sibling!”
Looking at the dog and the little girl you would never have known she was ever frightened of the animal. It was so heart-warming to see.
As Sophia and her mother left, the young girl arranged their next meeting and Ola promised that the following day Fifa would be at the park to play.
It was so lovely to witness and I really did feel a sense of community. It is clear that lots of young working families had moved into the area and grown together over the last few years.
Ola confirmed this for me, saying: “My family and many others are at the park almost every day socialising and we have all made it intentional that everyone knows everyone.
“I hope that this continues to spread as more of the new houses in the area are being built.
“It is the people that make this new culture and community.”
Speaking about the new garden city as a whole Ola expressed his family’s excitement at the thought of the new theme park being built nearby.
He also confirmed that although the building is still going on in Castle Hill it is very well spread out and there are no complaints of noise whatsoever.
Ola added: “Every part of Ebbsfleet Garden City is unique and it is the people moving here that are building a wonderful community.”
After saying goodbye to Ola and his family I spotted a group of mums waiting for their little ones on a bench.
Catherine Clarke, who had a child in year 3 and Claire Summers who also had a youngster in the same year and another in year 1, greeted me with warm smiles.
As soon as I questioned them about the school and the area their children were learning in, nothing but good reviews came rushing out of their mouths.
Catherine said: “The school is brilliant. I love it, it’s great for the children.
“However, I now know there is a massive waiting list for those wanting to join and it is only accepting kids who live in the area.
“There are too many houses being built! I do know there are plans for another primary and secondary school though.
“Despite that it really is great.
“I’m really impressed with the school and the staff are amazing with special needs children.”
The mums explained to me that pre and post Covid the the primary school has arranged beach trips, museum visits and even take the time to take the children to the park on the estate just across the road.
Catherine added: “The school also hosts after school fetes in the summer to promote small businesses and they have things like bouncy castles for the kids too.
“It is really really nice.”
Claire agreed that the school was a brilliant place, saying: “The school isn’t just great for the children. A lot of parents have become groups of friends and everyone always chats in the morning, even after all the kids have gone.
“There is even groups of us that head over to the parks together, so we’re all friends and so are the kids. There is that real sense of community that everyone has formed.”
As the school rush simmered I had a chat with dad, Stefano Spano.
He was sat on a bench reading a book as he waited for his son.
Placing his book under his arm he too, like the other parents I had chatted with, explained how great Castle Hill was for his family.
Stefano said: “My son and I feel very happy in this area, Castle Hill is fantastic.
“However, the roundabout work that is going on as you come into the estate is a bit hectic.
“I know it’s necessary but as they closed the roundabout I have been forced to come and collect my son without the car.
“This isn’t an issue though and I know all the work should be completed soon.
“My son has been at the school for one year now and we both feel very welcome.
“The school is great.”
After bidding farewell to the school mums and dads I took one final look at the hub of Castle Hill.
There were lots of seating areas, all cleverly designed to make people face one another when they sat, and more than one play park.
Beside the school is the Castle Hill Community Centre, as I walked in there was an adorable class filled with little gymnasts taking place, this is where I spoke to Craig Morrison, the estates and community centre manager.
He said: “The hall has been open for three years and is used by the Castle Hill residents as a gym, for coffee mornings, toddler football groups, karate classes and kid sessions.”
The hall is hired by private companies that then run their classes, Craig explained that many of these companies started from scratch and have grown their business thanks to Castle Hill and the surrounding areas.
He added: “The hall is also open on Saturdays and residents book it for kids parties, it is used quite a lot by everyone who lives here, it is always fully booked from the morning until close, we even have a kitchen available.”
Right on the other side of Castle Hill, by Bluewater Shopping Centre is where Countryside Properties and Latimer have started building nearly 3,000 homes in Ashmere.
Here I met The Blue Bean Coffee Company owner, Sam Bott.
The firm is an eco-friendly coffee roaster which provide coffee and coffee machinery to wholesale customers around London and the south east of England.
Sam has two coffee shops in Ebbsfleet Garden City, the Blue Bean Coffee Box, one at the high speed train station and another at the Ashmere new housing development.
Over a lovely hot drink, we spoke about his company and why something as simple as a cup of coffee can build communities.
He said: “So we've not just got coffee, we’re offering soft drinks, a range of locally sourced alcohol, and your essentials like locally baked breads and milk, all Kent based.”
Over the next few weeks new families will be moving to the site, and, although the coffee shop is only a pod at the moment, Sam, who was born and raised in Kent, and his staff, hope to become a hub for the new residents.
After this Sam hopes that the coffee box at Ashmere will move to another future phase in development to replicate what it's been done at Ashmere.
Sam finished: “My big focus is obviously helping to build a community in the area and we're really excited about being part of that.
“I think having a space where you can come to catch up with friends is crucial for residents in Ebbsfleet Garden City.”
“The coffee shop is building that kind of place where customers can come down and they can meet and mingle. It's a place to work from and help build the community with different events.”
After saying goodbye to Sam I had a wander around the Ashmere show homes, they really were beautiful.
Four bedroom detached houses start at £535,000 and apartments cost between £305,000 and £317,500.
To find out more about the stylish modern homes, click here click here.
The road layouts have been very cleverly designed and it is clear that a neighbourhood is being built that will engage everyone and get residents to socialise.
During the short time, I spent at Ebbsfleet Garden City I definitely felt that a close community was growing together.
Residents like Ola just confirmed to me that despite only knowing each other for a few short years they’d built a community that some homeowners have never had with their neighbours in other areas across Kent.
In answer to my question of what makes a community, I undoubtedly feel that it is a partnership between the people that live in an area and the businesses that bring them together.
I look forward to seeing what is next for Ebbsfleet Garden City.