Far from Chelsea: diggers during the regeneration of Elephant & Castle in London. Photo: Getty
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The bizarre secret of London’s buried diggers

After excavating your mega-basement in Holland Park, it’s cheaper and easier to leave the JCB entombed down there with the pool, personal cinema and staff quarters. 

I’ve made a discovery about what is buried under the swimming pools and basement conversions of wealthy west London. This booty is worth about £5m. More revealing, however, is another fact: this £5m was tossed away like small change tipped into a busker’s hat. It is not Nazi art, or plutonium that has been used to kill the enemies of Russian oligarchs. It is a fleet of diggers.

Beginning in the 1990s, buyers of London’s most expensive addresses began to feel a little hemmed in, even claustrophobic, inside their houses. Where could one take a swim, for example? Or watch a film on a cinema-size screen? Obviously, the idea of leaving the house to pursue such pastimes – and thus engaging with the human colour and spectacle that were once considered inextricably bound up with living in a city – was too ghastly to countenance. No, all pleasures had to be brought within the boundaries of one’s house, thus protecting the owner from the dangers of face-to-face interaction with normal civilians.

So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.

The challenge of adding new subterranean floors to London houses has become a highly lucrative business. The heavy lifting – or, in this case, the heavy digging – is usually contracted out to basement-conversion specialists. These firms discovered that it was reasonably easy to get a small digger (occasionally two) into the rear garden of a house on an exclusive 19th-century square. Sometimes they simply knock a hole in the wall and drive the diggers straight through the house. In other cases, the windows are so large that a digger can squeeze through without dismantling the bricks and mortar.

The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?

Initially, the developers would often use a large crane to scoop up the digger, which was by now nestled almost out of sight at the bottom of a deep hole. Then they began to calculate the cost-benefit equation of this procedure. First, a crane would have to be hired; second, the entire street would need to be closed for a day while the crane was manoeuvred into place. Both of these stages were very expensive, not to mention unpopular among the distinguished local residents.

A new solution emerged: simply bury the digger in its own hole. Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.

The new method, now considered standard operating practice, is to cover the digger with “hardcore”, a mixture of sand and gravel. Then a layer of concrete is simply poured over the top. Digger? What digger? The digger has literally dug its own grave – just as the boring machines that excavated the Channel Tunnel were abandoned beneath the passage they had just created.

How many of these once perfectly functioning and possibly still serviceable diggers are petrified underneath central London, like those Romans preserved cowering in the corners of houses in Pompeii? Estimates vary. One property developer I asked reckoned at least 1,000; another put the figure at more like 500. In some of London’s newest luxury conversions, “sub-basements” are being tucked beneath the existing basement conversions. But developers are stumbling on a new kind of obstacle as they burrow deeper still: abandoned diggers from the last round of improvements.

On one level, the series of calculations that ends with hundreds of vehicles concreted underneath basements is entirely rational. On another level, it is a postcard from the front line of one of the craziest stories of our age: the global struggle to own elite London property.

In 1985, Michael Wood presented In Search of the Trojan War for the BBC. For many of us brought up in the 1980s, this was our first taste of archaeology. At times, the methodology seemed intriguing. Wandering around classical Asia Minor, the irrepressibly enthusiastic Wood would pick up a coin or trinket, or perhaps stumble on what might have been a foundation stone. He would then stare deeply into the camera and suggest something like, “Here, surely, lies the inner sanctum, the very essence of the seventh great Trojan civilisation.”

Three millennia from now, when Wood’s successors are excavating the dazzling ruins of west London, they will surely decipher a correlation between London’s richest corners and the presence of these buried diggers. The atrium of the British Museum, around 5000AD, will feature a digger prominently as the central icon of elite, 21st-century living.

What will the explanatory caption say? “Situated immediately adjacent to the heated underground swimming pool and cinema at the back of the house, no superior London address was complete without one of these highly desirable icons, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Compact Cat’. This metallic icon was a special sacrificial gesture, a symbol of deep thanks to the most discussed, revered and pre-eminent god of the age, worshipped around the world: London Property.” 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge