Updated: Aug 3
In the summer of 2001 I found myself in a squatted mansion in Hampstead, London. It was on The Bishop's Avenue, known as Millionaires' Row back then but apparently now known as Billionaires' Row. The mansion was called Jersey House and was the oldest house on the avenue and was a listed building. The owners were an off-shore property development company. They wanted it empty so that it would degrade enough to get it pulled down for them to replace it with a swanky new one. It had apparently been squatted in the 60's and it had recently been a brothel. My room was the naughty boys room and it was painted black and it had lots of crude, sexually explicit writing in chalk all over it. I also had a studio space on the ground floor where I could paint.
There was around about 20 of us. Some lived in the garden in tipis and one in a tree. Many of us had come from a squat in Battersea that had been recently evicted. I had landed in the Battersea squat because my van had broken down and there was space for me to park it. It was an industrial space with 3 large buildings and a wide open yard at the back that went to the banks of the Thames and was right next door to the London Heliport. I knew many of the guys from the underground trance scene. I really felt at home there and moved into one of the offices. After putting on a party for around 2,000 people we were evicted, and many of us ended up in the mansion in Hampstead.
It was wonderful to be living in Hampstead, it's such a beautiful area. Hampstead Heath is a magical place and the surrounding area is stunning. And the squat attracted lots of lovely people. 3 girls from Poland ended up staying. They were art students on their summer hols and somehow found us. They made a lovely painting of all of us on a massive sheet of card. It was a very creative space, brightly coloured and vibrant. After about 5 magical weeks we got the eviction notice.
As soon as we got that, we planned our eviction party. It would be the Saturday before our court date which was on set for the following Monday. We put the bar in the kitchen, the main trance room was the large living room area next to the kitchen and we had a chill out in what was my art studio. Outside in the garden, which was enormous, we had a live stage run by a group of Krishna devotees. It was a cracking night and the next day was was utterly gorgeous hanging out in our stunning garden listing to exquisite music until late afternoon. The next day was our court case so we didn't want it go on too late into Sunday night.
Debs, Lennard and I volunteered to go to the eviction hearing. Only 2 were allowed in front of the judge so I stayed in the waiting room. Ginger Andy had mentioned that he had let in a journo from the Daily Mail early on in the party. He had shown him around as he had asked, and he then left. Maybe there was something in the paper about us I thought and flicked through a copy that was left there. On page 7, right at the bottom, read "Hippie Squatters Invade Millionaires' Row". There was only a couple of lines about us being there, but it turned out to be the start of . When we got bak to the squat we found a couple of journos from 2 local newspapers and shortly after, BBC London came around with a camera crew. They interviewed a few peeps and filmed some of the interior. The place was decked out so beautifully for the party and most of it was still up. They portrayed us as a group of artists, which is what we were, and we became the fun little segment at the end of the BBC's London regional news.
It created quite a stir. That week, most of the national press came to interview us. We were even interviewed by a German radio station. The front page of the Guardian had a photo of us splashed on it. Our squat became a media circus for a few days, it was interesting having so much attention on us. Some loved it but some were uncomfortable with it. Especially after the Sun turned up. They were the only paper we didn't let in. We asked them to write their questions down and pick up the answers later. About 30 minutes before they turned up I had to kick out a group of teenage school kids who had asked for a tour of the place. I showed them around and then they asked if they could buy some weed and so I immediately showed them the door. I'm convinced the Sun sent them in to get some dirt on us. This was the Thursday and we had been in a paper every day since Monday and the articles were generally positive about us. They ended up writing quite a nice piece though, so maybe I am wrong in my assumption.
On Friday there was a mass exodus to the Buddhafields festival in Somerset. A few of us stayed to hold the place. I think it was around mid day that David Aarononvitch from the Independent turned up. He loved the place, he was beaming and we had a really lovely interview. He was genuinely interested in our way of life. His article was published the next day and it filled most page 3. The headline was 'Squatters turn out to be the best tenants on avenue that taste forgot". This is the article:
“To get to Millionaires’ Row in Hampstead, you exit the Tube, turn right and climb the steep hill, past the cafés and boutiques. You pass White Stone Pond, levelling out where the horses that pulled the trams once used to drink, and stroll past Jack Straw’s Castle and the extension to the Heath where the cruisers go bonk in the night.
The road narrows at the Spaniards Inn, reputedly Dick Turpin’s resting place between highway robberies, and widens again near the entrance to Kenwood House. Keep on between the high trees and turn left at the lights, and you are no longer in Hampstead, but in the suburbs of Rio or Jakarta, where the incredibly rich keep the sequestered, guarded palaces they rarely visit.
This is The Bishops Avenue, created by the conjunction of huge wealth and lamentable taste. Along its half-mile, set behind railings and low walls, are 20th-century mansions whose one unifying feature is that they were designed by philistines. Some are sub-Palladian, some sub-Newport, some sub-mock Tudor, some sub-Regency. They have names in curly ironwork; The Summer Palace, The Fountains and Rented Hall.
The worst carries the word TOPRAK MANSION in gold letters 2ft high above six great taupe-coloured pillars. These piles are owned by companies such as Property Services, by the Kuwaiti royal family, by Cypriot and Indian millionaires, and they are vulgar beyond parody. Lulu once lived here.
In the garden of number 62 there was a party last weekend. But this was no marquee and Bently job, with Filipino waitresses dishing out champagne to socialites. Rather it was what we in the press call a rave, which is what happens when 1,000 young people get together in a house that isn’t theirs and have more fun than we’ve had since we were 20.
There were battered camper vans the length of the avenue, and men with wings were said to have been seen in the trees. One could only imagine the damage being done and the noise being made by these people.
As far as I can tell, only one person complained. Perhaps they’re getting used to it. On 26 August, in the grounds of near-by Kenwood, English Heritage will be holding an outdoor Sound of Music event, and you’ll be able to hear 1,000 gay male nuns singing “Edelweiss” as far away as Milton Keynes. So the noise was tolerable. But what about the damage?
The party was well over by the time I arrived at No 62 yesterday afternoon. In a monsoon, I ran up a path through a neglected garden, overgrown now, with great straggling curves of brambles arcing overhead.
The building is said to be worth £3m, and it belongs to Sun Real Estate. They now want it back, and their eviction notices were plastered up in the porch. On the front door symbols had been painted. Suns, stars, that sort of thing. And in blue and white was the legend, “May all beings be happy”. I’m a being, so I tapped on the door.
It was opened by a white man with dreadlocks. He seemed most un-put out by my uninvited appearance. As I explained myself, other young men came into the hall. There I was, a stranger come out of the rain with a notebook and, as far as any of them knew, a nasty attitude. They couldn’t be nicer. They were, they told me, members of a community of artists and healers, and they called themselves the Invisible Expanding Collective.
But I was too busy marvelling at what they’d done to the deserted house. In the large hall, up the walls and the stairwell and covering the ceiling, someone had built what looked like a lush, brilliantly designed set for an expensive performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shimmering, gossamer material billowed from the sides, fairy wings and silvery light hovered in the air.
It was magical, and the sleeping hippy in me, dormant for three decades, could not help but smile at it. “Far out!” I nearly said. “Amazing! Groovy!” I was back to playing, stoned, with 10 friends and a parachute on top of Parliament Hill on a sunny day in 1969. My response was so ecstatic that they could see I meant them no harm and they relaxed.
They hadn’t wanted to talk too much since some of their most articulate members, the healers, were away at the Buddha’s Fields festival in Glastonbury, making a sweat lodge or a sauna in a yurt. There would be (it was explained) no amplified music and only as much electricity as could be supplied by solar or wind energy.
We went to Dave’s workshop, where he made his highly coloured pictures and lamps. Dave was a young Mussorgsky, ruddy, bright-eyed, handsome, his hair chaotic and his toenails painted turquoise. He was a credit to his mum and I bet she loves him to bits.
Carl was older. He’d been a nurse in casualty for 10 years. He was shaven-headed, had a tooth missing, an arm in a sling and was charming. He was also the political one. The collective realised, said Carl, that even empty buildings were “owned by someone and they have a right to their property”. Dave wasn’t so sure, and nor was I. “They haven’t got a right to keep it empty,” Dave said. But Carl was determined on non-confrontation. I got the impression that, for Carl, anger is a waste of energy.
Carl judged me well. The collective is shrewd. When the Hampstead paper came to call they found themselves interviewing a 26-year old locally educated daughter of a famous Highgate psychoanalyst. We take our analysis seriously in north London. So he explained they were not squatters who destroyed things, but “site-sitters”, who enhanced them then moved on. They had recently site-sat a £6m development in Battersea owned my Frogmore Developments. The security manager had offered them a reference, Carl told me.
I could believe it. The house, though dilapidated, didn’t look as though it had been empty for a decade or more. The collective had cleaned it up; collective plumbers and electricians had been at work.
They had decorated the walls and scrubbed the floors. When we went to the kitchen they apologised for the mess. There wasn't a mess. At least not what family of three kids thinks of a mess.
The collective must move on next week, though God alone knows that bohemian Hampstead would rather have them here than have the place neglected for another 15 years by a distant property company, or rebuilt by Ceaucescu’s architects. But what Carl and Co really want is somewhere they can stay for five years - a development awaiting planning permission, perhaps.
They could take care of it until the owners want it back. I cannot imagine better tenants.”
On the Saturday I walked into Hampstead village to get a copy and I saw David. "I think you'll like to article", he said with a beaming smile. After getting the paper I rung my mum and dad, they always get the Independent on a Saturday, and mum confirmed that yes, she does love me. That was lovely.
And just when I was thinking that the media circus had died down Cartlon TV invited us onto a talk show hosted by Nicky Cambell and haired around 11pm on the Monday night. That evening we were driven to their studios by the Thames. Two of us debated two estate agents over whether squatting is a legitimate form of living. During the day we did lots of research into the state of housing in London. Through the Empty Homes Agency we discovered that in 1999 there were 110,000 empty properties in London. We argued that many of these are left empty to put up property prices to serve the real estate industry. We also argued that there should be spaces for artists to get together and create. One reason we got so much positive press was that we were a group of artists and we were focused on making the property better. Unfortunately there are some squatters that trash places which obviously gives squatting a bad name.
Our opponents didn't do a very good job of arguing against squatting. One of them admitted that he used to squat many years ago. Apparently it was ok for him but not for us. He did though offer to find a building to house us. He never came through with that but I'm not sure that any of us pursued it.
The court case on the previous Monday had given us until the forth coming Friday to leave the building so we needed to find somewhere else and get ourselves packed and ready to go. Not sure who found it but we had an enormous 100 room nursing home lined up. It was also on Bishop's Avenue, literally a few hundred yards down the road.
Throughout that week we had a few well-wishers pass by to offer some kind words and to have a look around. I think we had made many people reconsider their views on squatters.
And the last of the media attention we got was on Carlton TV's London evening news that Friday. I had just got back from moving a load of things with Andy Lok and we were asked to stop while a reporter stood in front of Jersey House and announced that we were being evicted. She clearly welled up when she announced our departure. I found it very touching.