To an outsider, inconsequential sounds and shadows take a sinister turn on Tavy Bridge around late afternoon, as the day begins to darken: damp tea towels drying at half-mast, a weather-beaten flag of St George flapping on the balcony of a tower block. It's not simply because the raw climate here brings harder, faster winds than the rest of south-east London. It's because Thamesmead has a reputation - compounded, even created, by its use as a backdrop to violent scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange. But even Kubrick's glam-rock Droogs, with their bowler hats and baseball bats, pale beside the figure loitering around the estate's walkways and stairwells: a gangly white boy in oversized parka, his head lost in the protruding hood, his face concealed by a chalk-white kabuki mask. "No one knows who he is," says Roy Gisby, at the Youth Awareness Programme housed in Thamesmead's former bank. "So we're keeping the doors well and truly bolted."
Gisby has had a casual relationship with Thamesmead since the original foundations were laid 40 years ago. In fact, he helped to lay them. As a teenager working at the Ford factory across the river at Dagenham, Essex, he moonlighted in labouring jobs at Thamesmead on the days when industrial action halted production at the car plant. "I mixed the concrete for the Pyramid Club, and I used to DJ there years later, when I squatted here in the 80s," he recalls. "The club's all boarded up now. It's got 'concrete cancer'."
The pyramidal roof of the club is these days the only clue to its name. Along with its redundant neighbour - the original welfare centre, an elevated glass capsule suspended on concrete pegs - it survives as a reminder of how futuristic urban living appeared to architects in the 1960s. So here and now on Tavy Bridge - the first stage of Thamesmead's development - perhaps more than anywhere else, you understand why it was trailed as "the town of the 21st century".
Conceived in 1963 after the postwar, green-belt new towns failed to solve the capital's housing problem, it was expected to provide 60,000 of the 600,000 homes still needed. "A characteristic of Thamesmead throughout its history has been its resourcefulness in capitalising on given situations, to turn them to its own advantage," says Valerie Wigfall, author of Back To the Future: A Social History of Thamesmead (1997), updated and republished for the 40th anniversary. This has been true from its birth to its impending middle age, and the reason why so much about the Thamesmead story is unique.
It is built on 1,600 acres of marshland on the south bank of the Thames, previously part of the old Woolwich Arsenal. Because of the pollution from two nearby power stations, the tower blocks could rise to no more than 13 storeys. And the high water level of the area made it susceptible to flooding, so drainage is supplied by five lakes, the largest of which, Southmere, was transformed into a marina.
Water features were particularly encouraged by the Greater London Council (GLC) divisional architect, Robert Rigg, who oversaw the project. He was dispatched to Harvard, Princeton and select European destinations to recruit the foreign minds best suited to design this modern utopia, built by British labour. He discovered that in housing complexes in Sweden, lakes and canals helped lower the levels of crime and vandalism, particularly among the young.
It is a theory that hasn't stood the test of time at Thamesmead. Gallions, the housing association currently regenerating the Tavy Bridge site, successfully making-over two tower blocks and building a new health centre, recently dredged Southmere lake: along with the descendants of the 1,000 tench and 700 rudd deposited by wildlife officials in the 1960s, there were Cortinas, Mondeos and a Renault Clio - 21 vehicles in all.
"I've rarely visited the lake, and I never ever set foot in the Pyramid Club for a drink," says widower Terence Gooch. Now 74, he and his family were delivered by limousine in 1968, when the press turned out to welcome Thamesmead's first tenants. He and his wife and children moved into a three-bedroom maisonette, from which we now watch a horse grazing on the grass below, in view of the permanent Travellers' encampment opposite. "We was the only people here for six months," Gooch says. "There was nothing else. Our kids were picked up and driven to a school where they were the only pupils."
The isolation of those early months underlies his experience several decades on. The early promise that would have identified Thamesmead as a visitable town rather than a development - albeit one that was initially showered with awards - never materialised. And Gooch is not alone in being disappointed by what currently constitutes the town's central shopping area, and the lack of transport. The Jubilee tube line connection and the river crossing first mooted in 1968 remain the stuff of myth, although the latter is once again being talked up as a possibility.
Like other surviving long-term tenants, Gooch loves his flat: the light cast by the windows opening to a balcony that juts out like a cabinet drawer; the open-plan 1960s feel of a kitchen and large living room divided by a sliding partition. His neighbour joins us, and the two explain how the immediate residents on this landing continue to maintain the neighbourliness of the streets that Gooch left in Peckham, south London, when he finally moved out of rented rooms, with outside toilet, after 14 years on the housing list.
For a long time, it was to those Peckham streets that he and others returned for the sociability of the markets that were anathema to a 21st-century town. Yet it was the intention of planners to recreate that working-class camaraderie along these decks, walkways and bridges. Again, this distinguished Thamesmead from the new-town prototype, which focused on low-rise living, commuters and a sparsely populated suburb.
Surveying the complex from its heart, from the vantage point of the 21st century that inspired it, you see further proof of the characteristic that Wigfall believes defines Thamesmead. Here, density was transformed into a design feature in the creation of an urban environment on the outskirts of the capital: a self-contained community, with residents working in local industry, where buildings are thrust together, where tower blocks protect the low-rise blocks from Thamesmead's winds and where the spinal housing buffers traffic noise.
For some of the first settlers, the reality did momentarily match the vision, but it was largely due to their efforts to create a history and a future for this new town. Working with a community development officer - the first ever employed by the GLC - they established events that rapidly morphed into traditions: leisure activities, fundraising days to develop other amenities, a widely circulated Thamesmead newspaper, and a radio station. Today, the older tenants visiting the Pop-in Parlour for lunch, bowls, bingo and music hall songs are evidence of that original spirit. Their vibrancy is a counterpoint to the brutalist, pumice-grey homes many of them love and wouldn't wish to leave. It is crime and the recent arrivals, they say, that are blots on their landscape.
Initially, as a further attempt at generating that working-class camaraderie the GLC hoped for, older relatives and children of existing tenants featured on a "special list" of those wanting homes at Thamesmead. But, in the 1980s, the policy was successfully challenged in court by the Commission for Racial Equality, on the grounds that it was discriminatory. This, and the decline of the vetting process that was undergone by the Gooches and the first generations of tenants, resulted in the area gaining a reputation as "a dumping ground". Thamesmead didn't create anti-social tenants, but the isolated landscape and the absence of local employment may have exacerbated the problems they arrived with.
"Crime is an issue here as anywhere," says Don Tidey, a resident for 15 years. "But the press always exaggerate the extent of it when it comes to Thamesmead."
Tidey liaises with tenants, Gallions and various community groups as part of a general plan to improve the image of Thamesmead to outsiders, and improve the experience of those on the inside. He concedes that press reports highlighting the issue of subletting properties have been welcomed. The stories lay the blame on the waves of west Africans arriving in this area in recent years: Thamesmead is apparently cited as the key UK destination in a commercial on a Nigerian television network.
Many of the younger generation of African teenagers dominate T-Block, the gang as synonymous with this patch as Red Alert is with Erith and the Cherry Boys are with Charlton. "They are home-alone kids," says Gisby, who became involved in youth and community work after taking a business management degree. "Most of them move over here and live with their uncles. We try to get them involved in music projects here before they offend. We don't take offenders or reoffenders. We're goodies for goodies, not goodies for baddies."
The Youth Awareness Programme, Gallions, the Thamesmead Trust charity and many Thamesmead residents are attempting to unite and rebrand the fragmented town. But central and local government have a part to play if the failures of the past are to be addressed.
Thamesmead falls between the boundaries of two boroughs with polarised political traditions - Labour Greenwich and Tory Bexley - and which have, historically, created further division in relation to policies and funding. Having progressed from being a housing complex to a town, its success might now depend on it becoming a borough - and finally taking control of its own future.