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The Man Who Lived in a Hole in Hampstead Heath

A man walks across snow-covered Hampstead Heath, London, United Kingdom (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

He was a local handyman with a bone disease which ended his work as a stage hand. He was a regular at The Garden Gate pub who enjoyed an ale in the evenings. At the end of those pub evenings Dominic Van Allen went home — to a bunker he’d dug and fortified, well hidden in the brambly section of Hampstead Heath. It was warm, safe place to sleep and enjoy a bowl of soup re-heated on his stove.

As Tom Lamont reports in this fascinating piece at The Guardian, Van Allen wasn’t destitute. He earned a little money doing odd jobs, but there was no way he could earn enough to pay notoriously high rents in London. He wasn’t an addict or mentally ill, and because so many Londoners are far worse off, Van Allen ‘”never quite reached the top of anybody’s list, and was eventually told: “It’s unlikely you’ll get housed.”'”

Still: it came as a surprise, one ranger told me, when they came across a patch where steam was rising out of what ought to have been solid ground.

He would never plausibly make London rent. Social housing was just out of reach. A mortgage purest fantasy. Van Allen had taught himself, instead, how to borrow a piece of this expensive city, night by night, on unarranged loan.

Halfway along the footpath, he turned off again, this time stepping directly into dense bramble. He found a narrow gulley that had been cut between the thorns and followed it through a zigzag turn to a small clearing, where he bent in the dark and patted the earthy floor. There – a concealed hatch. Van Allen tugged it open with his fingers and descended into the ground, closing the hatch behind. Below, he flicked on lights at a switch. He hung up his coat.

There was space in the bunker for two camp beds, pushed against opposite walls. In the 4ft gulley between the beds, Van Allen could stand, comfortably enough, without his head scraping the trussed timber roof. The floor underneath him was poured concrete. He’d put up hooks for his coat, his bag and his cooking utensils, and there were shelves by the bed for odds and ends. Push-button LED lights were stuck to the walls using tape. There was a portable gas stove down here, and now that Van Allen was in for the night, he lit it and emptied a can of soup into a pan. After eating, he washed up with wet wipes. Litter was tied inside plastic bags, to be spirited away to a distant bin, early tomorrow, before the heath’s park rangers came on duty.

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