Published: 06:00, 14 June 2021
| Updated: 20:16, 15 June 2021
"Don't worry about getting through the gates, they're broken - like a lot of things here."
It's fair to say that quote was never on the brochure for The Hamiltons - a luxury development of 16 town houses off Upper Luton Road, which enjoys views stretching out across Chatham and Rochester and beyond from its hilltop vantage point.
This is what life is like on Kent's abandoned luxury housing estate
Developers AMG Chatham Ltd no doubt began with the best intentions of bringing a touch of style and elegance to this corner of Medway, until they went into administration in 2019 and the dream community was left unfinished and abandoned.
The gated entrance was designed to offer security and an air of exclusivity, but the intended ambience has long since faded - let down by a deteriorating driveway that spits gravel as my car hauls itself up the slope, wheels spinning momentarily on the rough surface.
I'm not the first to struggle here. When health and safety inspectors visited in October 2020, an inspector's car slipped off the edge of the drive where it rises from the road, causing minor damage and some distress - but today thankfully a metal barrier prevents any potential repeat of the incident.
Once up the drive the Hamiltons exudes an eerie quality - a row of 10 impressive three storey homes, smart and mostly finished, facing six half built homes - bare grey blocks that stand fenced off, cluttered with abandoned building materials and surrounded by signs warning you to keep out. The weeds have ignored them, and are slowly taking back the land outside.
One corner exudes distinct 'derelict farmyard' vibes, while the lush undergrowth clawing at the backs of the more stylish finished buildings gives them a hint of 'mid-jungle Columbian drug lord compound.'
In short, it's a pretty weird place to live at the moment, and if you did, it would help to have an imagination and a sense of humour.
Fortunately for Mark Phillips, he has both, and paints a picture of life at No.6, The Hamiltons, with a glint of amusement in his eye, despite having lived in a state of limbo on what amounts to a dystopian film set for the last three-and-a-half years.
Although it's clear he hasn't always had that glint of amusement in his eye.
"The junkies were along there at the back," recalls Mark, looking down from the roof terrace on a glorious sunny morning, Rochester cathedral shimmering in the distance behind him. "I had to call the police and I had to march this young guy off the site.
"I was nervous but I thought I had to put up a front. I can't let this go round Chatham that you've got a nice little corner at The Hamiltons to jack up your gear."
Mark and his wife Lucia came up with practical solutions, erecting new fences and buying their own industrial outside light to compensate for the absence of estate lighting. And fortunately The Hamiltons hasn't become the drug den they briefly feared it might - but it's still weird.
"I like to embrace it," adds Mark, 60. "I've always loved New York- I remember when the hipsters moved into the meat packing district and took over the lofts. You had gorgeous indoor areas but you would go out of the front door and in the stairwell will be a bloke shooting up.
"It sort of reminded me of the urban degraded glamour of that. You're in a beautiful house but in really weird circumstances."
At which point Lucia interjects: "You're talking to an artist. I felt like I was living on a building site."
It's a blunt but realistic point. Imagination and an artistic viewpoint can get you so far, but at some point the illusion shatters.
Mark and Lucia's story of life at The Hamiltons began when they moved down from London in 2018.
Both career civil servants working in Whitehall, they had dreamed of escaping the city, and while Lucia was perhaps slightly daunted at the prospect, having lived her whole life in London, she was nevertheless excited.
"The finishing was fantastic," she recalled. "Everything was brilliant, the views are fantastic - you've got the river, everything. You can't pay for this scenery. This is why I moved.
"We were perfectly happy to start with," adds Mark. "The houses all had their roofing up. They weren't all completed but they were gradually getting there. They were doing everything slowly but surely."
But a year later, the slow steady pace had become even slower and far less certain, until AMG Chatham folded and the work ground to a halt completely.
"We've never had a problem with them," adds Mark. "They were a bit slow but they just went bust. They were a three-man company and they were in the building and development trade but they'd never taken on anything this size before. I think they just overstretched themselves."
But Mark and Lucia did have a problem - and it came in the form of administrators Smith & Williamson. Hope had flickered that the project might finally gain momentum with new financial backing, but discussion and promises never evolved into action. Meanwhile the weeds grew higher - and the grass would have too if Mark hadn't taken it upon himself to mow the whole estate.
"They kept saying they were finishing the estate," adds Lucia, 57. "My thing was I didn't want to be living on a building site."
Then in Autumn 2019 there was finally action, but it wasn't the kind Mark and Lucia wanted.
"We were in America for a month and came back to find our house looking like these," says Mark pointing the neighbouring roofs and balconies, stripped of decking and balustrades. "They claimed they had found defects. What you're seeing on our roof now is the result of us putting right what the administrators took off.
"They said they were doing it to the whole estate, but they didn't seek permission. They just did it while we were away. All the terraces were stripped down. We thought that was a bit cheeky but we were hopeful that everything was going to be put back."
"They even threw our furniture onto the neighbour's roof," added Lucia.
"The Health and Safety Executive came in and did a site visit and said it was unsafe and unsecure. They told them to make our roof safe, and they just said they would put scaffolding up."
At which point Mark recounts the infamous moment, recalling: "As the health and safety inspector was driving off, there was a drop to the side of the drive and she went over it - there's now a steel rail there. The administrators did that afterwards."
If there was any ironic humour to be drawn from that scene, it wasn't enough to cheer up Lucia.
"We were very depressed at this point," she said. "I was almost suicidal. They were lying to me all the time."
Mark himself was already losing sleep, conditioned now to wake in the night whenever it rained to check for leaks, or climbing up to the roof to fasten plastic sheeting during storms; but seeing his wife reach this point was a wake-up call.
"She said one day she was just peering over the edge and thought 'what would it be like if I walked off it?' That frightened me.
"The big epiphany came in August last year. Lockdown was released, we got our heads back above water, and we decided we're not listening to these people.
"We're going to spend our own money and put it all right. We selected a roofing contractor to put all the roof back; a steel work contractor to put the balustrades back. We paid from our own money and threatened to sue.
"In November they appointed a solicitor to deal with us, and by January this year we had recovered every penny we had spent, which was £30,000 of our own money."
Taking back control was the turning point, and having already paid £485,000 for the home, the couple are determined to enjoy life in their dream home, whatever the surroundings. And there's hope those surroundings could yet be transformed.
Last month the estate was sold to new owners at auction for £2,357,000 - more than double its initial guide price of £1.1 million - so the Hamiltons could yet become the place its designers meant it to be.
But over at Number 1, owners Ashlee Hincks and Georgie Perkins are less optimistic.
"It seems like they took over the site and purposefully ran it down to sell it on," says Ashlee, 32. "We reported this for months and months and they didn't do anything to prevent it.
"We don't want to be here. We're hoping the developer will come in and do what's needed but myself and my partner want to get away. At the moment we're stuck. We can't sell, and we can't leave."
Which seems a mildly depressing note on which to depart from The Hamiltons, but nevertheless I'm left with a feeling of hope as I drive back to the gates.
And it's not simply a hope that I won't slide off the edge of the track and crash into Upper Luton Road, but hope that the new owners of the 'dream community' will wake up and start working.
Although AMG Chatham Ltd is no longer in existence, the website of a company called AMG Consortium Ltd lists The Hamiltons as one of its projects.
A man answering the phone number on the site, who did not wish to be identified, said he wasn't in a position to talk about the project, adding "The administrators are in charge so I don't know what I can say. There are potential legal cases."
Smith & Williamson have been approached for more information.