Long term Kentishtowners will recall the Father Christmassy resident of Highgate Road throughout the 1980s, known to all simply as ‘Yorkie the Tramp’. This ruddy-faced local legend occupied a bench in a prime location; in front of the listed modernist flats of Haddo House with a view of the Georgian splendour of Grove Terrace just across the road.
The fact that a homeless man was left alone to construct a small shack in such a public spot, then sit out front daily drinking super-strength larger whilst joking with the passing schoolchildren highlights the different social era it was. But Yorkie’s permanent abode was not the strangest thing about this place.
Directly behind where his original bench stood there still lies an odd monolithic concrete box. It houses a long-sealed doorway through which stairs descend to the abandoned underground home of Camden Borough Control.
Built in 1953, this was the council’s Cold War bunker, one of a set of such remote command centres dug across London in the rather futile hope that town halls would continue to exercise some form of jurisdiction when the bomb dropped.
The vast WWII ‘deep level shelters’ in Belsize Park, Camden Town and Goodge Street are more well-known local subterranean oddities, and were originally planned to be repurposed into a high speed branch of the Northern Line – but ended up becoming archive storage facilities. Camden Borough Control was purposely located out on its own, however, a self-contained, never-used underground nerve centre.
It was taken out of use when the Civil Defence Corps was disbanded in 1968; then, as nuclear policy shifted again in the 80s, so too did the location of the council’s bunker, rebuilt under Town Hall in Euston Road.
While the warren of rooms at the original site have been left to crumble ever since, it’s still possible to see the unusual manhole emergency exit covers and ventilation shafts dotting Highgate Enclosures, the landscaped gardens directly above.
The Enclosures are also the last remaining link to what was once Kentish Town’s own village green. This was an area of ancient common land that increasingly became enclosed as the surrounding roadside plots were developed (local names like Little Green St nod to this).
In 1897 the last of the green space was protected by covenant during the building of Lissenden Gardens (a sop to ensure the ambitious mansion block scheme was approved quickly). Therefore the village green remains in our midst today, against the odds and shaped by centuries of peculiarly Kentish Town decisions and histories.
From modernist tower blocks to underground control centres via Edwardian town planning – let’s not forget a friendly old alcoholic known to a particular generation of schoolchildren for his beard and the bench he was allowed to call home.
You’ll find a full photographic tour of the bunker on the fascinating website Subterranea Britannica
Words & Pictures: Tom Kihl