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The long read: After decades among the hidden homeless, Dominic Van Allen dug himself a bunker beneath a public park. But his life would get even more precarious

Most nights, before bed, before it all went wrong, Dominic Van Allen whiled away the last of the evening hours in a pub called The Garden Gate. It was easy to fit in and feel smart there, chatting and drinking with a crowd who passed through in varied states of dishevelment. Dog-walkers brought in sodden dogs. Exhausted junior doctors shambled in after shifts with their sleeves pushed up. There were scarved and suited older men, frail as antique hatstands, and casually dressed professionals with jobs in finance or entertainment who owned expensive homes nearby. And its you rich buggers, Van Allen marvelled, genially enough, as he eyed the state of their trainers, who can afford to look the scruffiest. He wore durable boots, khaki trousers and a leather motorcycle jacket, and could have been mistaken for a bike courier, a builder, maybe a maintenance guy at the hospital next door, where he was known in the staff canteen as someone who would wander in at dawn to buy a discount coffee.

That winter of 2017, Van Allen was 44 years old tall, with close-cropped blond hair, blue eyes and a faint Yorkshire accent. At the pub, his was an ale. As soon as he judged it was late enough, Van Allen drank up and said his goodnights, bearing north from the pub and walking up a tree-lined road that hugged one side of Hampstead Heath. A vast open space that sits as a sort of green beehive haircut on top of metropolitan central London, the heath is untamed in parts and otherwise mown and managed like any public park. Every day, people visit by the thousand: runners, outdoor swimmers, tourists, bird-lovers on the trail of whitethroats and blackcaps in the bushes or goldfinches and kestrels in the trees. Sometimes a travelling circus unfolds itself on the hard-packed sand of the heaths carpark. Summer brings sunbathers, picnickers and sixth-formers sat in circles, while in winter, on those rare occasions it snows, people drag in toboggans. On this night, in December 2017, forecasters had predicted flurries overnight. Van Allen moved briskly, eager to get in.

He walked up the heaths western edge, beside a fringe of scrub where hogweed grew in tangles and brambles rose taller than him. It was known that homeless people sometimes slept rough in this scrub, pitching tents here after dark. Van Allen had done this, too, once upon a time. As a rule, he kept the fact of his homelessness to himself, because, wouldnt you? He knew there were a lot of people just like him, irregularly employed, regulars in pubs, the owners of passports and phones and all the right charger leads, only with nowhere stable to live. 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. When he reached a row of mansion houses that overlooked the heath, he turned off the road and on to a footpath that cut through the scrub.

Some aspects of Van Allens story are extraordinary. Others are nowhere near extraordinary enough. There has never been an accurate count of people like him, the visible-invisible homeless. Although we know there are between 55,000 and 60,000 statutory homeless (that is, those who apply to make use of state services) and although there are efforts towards an annual census of rough sleepers (carried out by head-counters who hit the roads every autumn to ask for a show of hands), theres a vast population the statisticians cannot account for. You could be sat next to someone, Van Allen would say, and not know it. Chances are the barman who served you tonight is one, sleeping in a shelter, sleeping in a squat, sofa-surfing, spending nights in a car or a van. Van Allen would say: broaden the definition of homeless to factor those in accommodation so precarious it could be taken away in a month, a week, a snap? Thats millions. Charities regularly try to draw attention to the complicated problem of hidden homelessness, a world of concealed partitions, crowded mattresses, beds-in-sheds, the back seats of nightbuses. Its a legally grey world everything that goes on between a fixed address and the shopping-trolley stage, as Van Allen would later put it, when he was arrested and interviewed by police. A world of just-find-somewhere, just-stay-out-the-way.

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.

Counter-terrorism command, lead interviewer: This might seem a silly question. But what was the camp for?

Dominic Van Allen: Housing. Nowhere to live.

CTC: [] You made it permanent by going underground, by digging What year?

Van Allen: They bulldozered it, when, February 2018? So it was [two years before that], spring 2016. The last of the thaw just coming in We just decided, sod it. Why not?

There was space in the bunkerfor 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. Hed 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 heaths park rangers came on duty.

On the whole, Van Allen slept well. Beyond the timber walls there was more concrete, to keep out groundwater, and together with the Hampstead clay, this muffled all but the most extreme-frequency sounds. (On fireworks night he heard the bangs, but not the crackles.) When he first moved down here, Van Allen worried about oversleeping and he sometimes set a morning alarm on his phone. It was never needed. He was decades-trained to be up and on the move before the citys day shift began, before London became more closely observed by its security guards and park rangers and police officers, any one of whom might inadvertently happen on the latest of his impermanent shelters and blow it.

Illustration: Ben the Illustrator

Even by his own standards (and Van Allen had a rich history of securing guerrilla accommodation), the bunker was outrageous. He knew its eventual discovery was inevitable. He also knew that, as long as they observed small precautions, this outcome could be deferred for improbable lengths of time.

So. No giveaway litter. No lingering near the hatch during daylight hours. And no boasting, not at The Garden Gate, not while fulfilling handyman jobs around town. Liked by his friends for his graveyard sense of humour, Van Allen told them hed built a ranch. What he did not say was that the ranch was 14ft by 10ft, about the size of a generous disabled loo, and hidden under one of the countrys busiest public parks.

That December, when he woke in the morning and popped his head out, he saw the forecasters had been right, and that several inches of snow had settled on the bunkers roof overnight. Insulated by concrete and clay, Van Allen had stayed warm enough to sleep in a T-shirt; satisfied, as he tended to be, by the minor technical triumphs, he padded away in the direction of the hospital to get a coffee in the canteen. He left bootprints behind, but very soon the tobogganers would be out, mushing up the snow, whizzing down the slope just a few feet from his hatch.

Counter-terrorism command: Tell me about yourself, Dominic.

Van Allen: In what respect ?

CTC: Just your history, basically.

Van Allen: Ive been homeless for 26 years. I dont know, I used to be stage crew. I developed some sort of bone disease

CTC: That was the end of that career?

Van Allen: That was the end of it.

He was born in 1973, up Wakefield way, and gone by 21, drifting south to London and a flatshare in Pimlico. He worked as a barman, a painter and decorator, a labourer and an airport cargo driver before he found a job he liked, as stage crew. On the books of a production company, Van Allen worked mostly on music concerts and outdoor TV broadcasts, a dependable scaff monkey, so-called because he would willingly cast aside his smoke and steeplejack up a teetering scaffold, to rig a speaker or aim a spotlight. He put up fencing for U2 in Hyde Park, and once pulled an all-nighter there, building out the backstage area for Live 8. He did jobs for Channel 4, LOral, the Proms. Crewing suited Van Allens lifestyle in that it took place behind the scenes, went on late and often meant modifying city spaces to suit the specific needs of a moment.

He had abandoned the Pimlico flatshare when it got too expensive, taking up squatting instead. For a decade, he shifted between council-owned sites around London, until 2011, when the laws governing squatting got stricter, sites became scarcer and ever-sharper elbows were needed to secure a berth. Van Allens health was bad. Hed been working on a broadcast for terrestrial TV, carrying production equipment on a roof, when he stepped awkwardly and broke a leg. Still on crutches, he broke the other leg, which scared him. Doctors diagnosed a bone condition and warned that the spontaneous fractures might continue without rest. The crew work had to stop, and Van Allen could no longer keep up with the hardscrabble competition to secure and defend a place in the squats. He spent a while moving between authorities, trying to make the case that (his words) he was fucked. Hospitals referred him to councils, or councils referred him to housing trusts. There were applications to Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham local authorities, the Peabody trust, the Guinness Partnership. There were queues. Forms. Means tests and medical evaluations that could feel as if they were made at a glance. There were bad days, in waiting rooms, when he lost his patience and argued with the stressed employees behind their protective glass. Van Allen wasnt especially young or old, wasnt an addict, wasnt a parent. There were so many others (my words) more fucked. He never quite reached the top of anybodys list, and was eventually told: Its unlikely youll get housed.

Get him started on the subject, ale in hand at The Garden Gate, or on those rare occasions he called in to correct a glib host on talk radio, and Van Allen could go. Were an island of, what, 96,000 sq miles? Population thats sky-high, growing, and the same number of houses we had 40 years ago. Too many people! Not enough houses! Me and most of my friends, were all in the same boat, long-termers, a community hundreds of thousands strong, not crashed in the gutter, people in paid employment, and all fucked have been for years. Its the way the legislation is We didnt choose this friggin path. This is the Housing Act of 1996 and every bullshit piece of legislation thats been put in place since. Its not our path. I fought it for years and then I threw in the towel. Said to myself: Fuck it, Im going camping.

Illustration: Ben the Illustrator

He had a few thousand put away in the bank, and he could still take on handyman work, putting up shelves and assembling flatpack furniture for 20 or 30 a gig, often arranging these one-off jobs through an app on his phone. Knocked, tired, but still with a Crusoe spirit that never really left him, Van Allen bought good boots and a good tent and moved his life outdoors. Like a lot of people who drift into homelessness, the knack came piecemeal. Van Allen shaved his hair to a grade one, for easy cleaning with soap. He got to know which swimming pools had the cheapest one-off entry fees for showering; which drop-in centres let you use their address for post. He bought underwear and T-shirts in bulk, cheaply, online, so that these could be discarded if necessary crash and trash, he called this. He became a regular at a Catholic church where they cooked a daily breakfast for the homeless.

Any possessions that did not fit in his 15-litre rucksack were understood to be temporary. Stuff got stolen, confiscated, trashed, so Van Allen learned to keep reserves of essentials, especially tents. He had these stashed under bushes and on rooftops everywhere from Camden in the north to Stratford in the east, Southwark below the river to Richmond out west. Should weather prohibit camping, he kept on his keyring a certain type of skeleton key, meant for use by the fire brigade, that could open emergency-access doors. He became a confident navigator of a second, shadow London, favouring places where other people werent: boiler rooms, back staircases, parks after dark, the tops of tower blocks.

Good-weather months he camped on the heath, becoming familiar with the parks night-time rhythms first the hour the rangers knocked off, then the last of the dog-walkers, and, after that, the twilight time when the homeless presided, gathering on benches to share a beer or a spliff before they bedded down and ceded the place to the magpies and moles. There could be an absolute stillness on the heath at one or two in the morning a stillness shredded, more than once in Van Allens experience, by the arrival of joyriders, convening to gun their cars over the empty grass before disappearing as suddenly as theyd come. A twin-rotor helicopter, military, he guessed, often flew over around 5am, signal it would soon be time for him to rise and break down his tent, hiding it before the rangers arrived. After years of this, Van Allen wondered about something more permanent. In the language of the circuit, securing somewhere to spend the night was parking up. What if he parked down?

Counter-terrorism command: Tell me what you know about this area of Hampstead Heath.

Van Allen: Ive been there for about seven years Sounds stupid, dig a friggin bunker [but] Im getting too old for breaking tents apart and shoving them under bushes.

For centuries, would-be colonists have tried to annex a piece of the heath for themselves. People in flight from plague camped here in the 17th century, as did gospellers, passing travellers and highwaymen (some of whom hanged here, too). In the 1830s, an excitable lord, licking his lips on a neighbouring estate, tried to enclose a chunk of heath for his private use. He was thwarted by the courts, and the brazenness of that attempt helped bring Hampstead Heath into public ownership in 1879. Animals have always come and gone, medieval wolves, later Keats nightingale, later still a rare wallaby, spotted bounding through the trees in spring 2019. Gardeners were permitted to dig allotments here during the first world war, and in the second, the fields and summits were commandeered for booming anti-aircraft guns. Probably the heaths most discreet settlers at least til Van Allen came along with a shovel, a sack of cement and a Makita power saw have been the beetles, long-term masters of the gnarled wooden fenceposts.

Van Allen did not immediately go for his moonshot, his bunker, and in the months before he roughed out a rectangle and broke ground, he prepared with practice digs, equipment tests and other subterranean schemes of milder ambition. Between 2013 and 2015, working with an accomplice, Van Allen dug a series of holes across the heath. Each hole was the exact size of a wheelie bin because thats what they were for, the bins buried upright and with their lids still accessible, making them ideal for storage.

The accomplice in this work was a Polish labourer, then in his mid-30s, called Marek Wjcik. (His name has been altered in this story. The Guardian has been unable to contact him to learn his version of events.) According to Van Allen, Wjcik was informally employed as a labourer on building sites around London. He knew carpentry, masonry and how to lay foundations, skills that meshed well with Van Allens own improvisational bravado, learned from years of hurry-up work as stage crew. Over beers on a bench, the two men had been discussing an ambitious dig. What do you think, Van Allen asked Wjcik. Start tonight? The parks night patrol had trundled by, distantly, along its normal predictable route. They wouldnt be back for hours. Sod it, Van Allen said, why not?

The site hed prepared was in the same fringe of scrub that had concealed campers forever, only better hidden. He had hacked into a huge, wickedly thorned blackberry bush, hollowing out the interior using bolt-cutters. The site was close to a cluster of their underground storage bins, which was helpful because the bins now contained a garden-shed miscellany of tools and materials: supplies of cement powder, fertiliser and caustic soda; a cordless drill and a power saw; two spades. Van Allen and Wjcik got into a nightly routine, waiting till about midnight, downing an energising beer, and digging for an hour or more.

Illustration: Ben the Illustrator

It had been hell, when they were burying the wheelie bins, to hack through tree roots. Now they mixed a solution of caustic soda and soaked the ground with it, to soften whatever grew under there. Stones had to be clawed out by hand. Whenever it rained between their nightly digs, the pair would return and spend ages scooping out the wet clay, which both slowed the work and had the effect of making the emerging bunker much bigger than theyd meant. As the shovelled-up ground formed a doughnut shape inside the bush, Van Allen worried the site might be spotted from overhead. Drone enthusiast? The satellites that supplied images to Google Earth? He paused the work, just in case, and bought a camouflage net.

All very Great Escape, Van Allen thought, once they were about 6ft down and deep enough to start installing timber struts. The bunker would need a lot of wood. He later insisted this came from fallen tree branches. When they were ready to reinforce the walls and pour the floor, Van Allen trundled a wheelie bin in the dark over to one of the heaths bathing ponds. (One-part water.) He trundled over to the sandy carpark. (One-part sand.) Mixed with four-parts cement powder, this was their concrete. Timber slats formed the roof, which was fitted with insulation foam and a flush, hinged hatch.

While they waited for the concrete to set and harden, Van Allen embarked on a programme of tactical horticulture. He uprooted hawthorn bushes, whole, and replanted them around the clearing as fortification. Should anyone blunder through, despite this, he set about rewilding, spreading compost everywhere, encouraging the bramble to grow where it liked. Flat squares of chicken wire, salvaged from thrown-away barbecues and sprinkled with fertiliser and seed, allowed grass to grow over the bunker roof. Soon there was no need for the camo net and it was hard to tell, unless it had been your idea in the first place, where the ancient heath ended and the new plot began. Van Allen had budgeted 100 for the job, and come in under. It had taken about two months. Without ceremony, one night, they moved in.

Counter-terrorism command: Any wildlife killed?

Van Allen: No Were not Australians Im not rustic.

CTC: OK. What Im getting at is, there was a firearm inside your campsite.

Van Allen: Were not knocking off the wildlife Theres a Marks & Spencer down the road.

Some rules for bunker life, 2016-18. If you were in at night, no crackling around in the undergrowth for a wee. Van Allen kept an empty juice bottle by his bed for this reason. (The Innocent brand was best. Wide neck.) If you wanted a hot meal, you reheated soup in the bunker, sometimes pre-made mashed potato, or the milder Thai curries that M&S sold; but no smellier foods, nothing that might lure a curious animal into the clearing. Behind every dog went another of Van Allens rules, theres an owner. And Fido can be worse for you than the neighbourhood watch. Foxes were different. When the same fox started to come creeping through the clearing, Van Allen knew it meant the heath had largely emptied of people, and he could relax. He became fond of the animal, and sometimes bought it pet food.

He had never identified, much, with the downcast-in-a-doorway image that some of the charities pushed. He was homeless but he had a travelcard, a bike locked near the hospital, a bank account. The bunker afforded other aspects of everyday normality the camp bed, shelves for things, a place to listen to the radio aloud, a place to shave his head. When I first heard Van Allen had built a bunker, and under a park that is visited by some 9 million people every year, I wondered why he would choose a spot so close to the heaths edge, a few strides from the road and the mansion houses. Was it provocation? A statement? Later, when everything had gone wrong, Van Allen gave a more prosaic reason, one that estate agents would instinctively understand. Better transport links.

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Years ago, Erno Goldfinger wanted to build a concrete block of flats in this same desirable location. The famed architect proposed a huge grey angular block that was ultimately objected-to by sceptical neighbours. (Those against the scheme included the writer Ian Fleming, then at work on his spy books and in a position to blight Goldfingers name forever by borrowing it for a Bond baddie.) Further up the hill, in 2017, a woman bought a piece of heath-side land and built a pretty wooden cottage on it. Again, permission was debated and this time neighbours secured an order for the cottages demolition. That year, while Van Allen was underground, his closest neighbours advertised their own place for sale. Six beds. Five floors. A double-wide garage just over the scrub. Offers were invited in excess of 9m.

When it comes to the game of property and land rights, theres an urge to sniff or roll eyes at what goes on be irritated or even perversely impressed by those who would blow up a womans cottage or ask 9m for opening bids on bricks and mortar. The thread through all this stuff starts to look like unblinking nerve, a trying-for-what-you-think-you-can-get-away-with. Van Allen did not doubt that the excavation of his bunker breached park rules. He was aware that what he considered Womble-ing would be called vandalism by others, and he accepted the possibility of a fine, maybe a minor charge, as the price of stable shelter. The bunker was him trying something. His show of nerve. By the time of the snow in December 2017, he had been getting away with it longer than he ever realistically expected.

Van Allen: [We invited in] a couple of other transients every now and again, but they were rare Once every few months People we met who were in a bit of a state people who were fucked.

Counter-terrorism command: And why ?

Van Allen: Because youll see them, theyre sat on a bench. And they look lost. Its 10 oclock at night and they aint got a pot to piss in [We] just [offer] a cigarette, say: Were over there, mate.

He had become a familiar figure to the park rangers, and they would exchange cordial hellos. Van Allen called them Parky all of them. He wondered how suspicious Parky had become. I was always [there] at dodgy times, he later told authorities. And no dog to walk. The rangers knew and didnt know. For a long time, rough sleepers on the heath had been ushered on, ideally over borough lines, to become somebody elses problem. More recently, one ranger told me, a policy of benign management had been adopted. This method meant patience, waiting for the right time to deliver a proactive nudge so that the homeless person in their sights moved on in the direction of help, not just another patch.

Often the rangers waited til winter to do this, when the scrub became sparser and easier to inspect for camps. Winter was also a time to plunge in to clear up litter and the other unexpected items that got left behind buggies, shopping trolleys, old munitions, empty bottles of champagne. Over the years, they had discovered bodies on the heath, murder victims and suicides. 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.

After the snow there were days and days of heavy rain. Van Allen was driven out of the bunker by damp and spent some time in a charity shelter near Bloomsbury, waiting for it to dry out. On his return, one night, he clomped through the bramble and saw that a laminated note had been staked near the hatch. Rangers had chosen their moment. In the note, he was encouraged to move on, and perhaps approach his local council or a housing trust for help with accommodation. Reading it, Van Allen thought, wryly: Yeah. Might try that.

He recovered a few possessions and moved these to the buried storage bins that were still undisturbed in the scrub close by. He would have to abandon the camp bed; that was annoying. Otherwise, Van Allen was not sentimental, and he left the bunker without another look. Days later a mini-digger tore up the clearing. With the roof picked off, one ranger told me, it was like looking down into the foundations of someones home.

Illustration: Ben the Illustrator

Four walls. A roof. Some door off a communal passage or a Banhams-bolted gate at the end of a driveway or even, some hatch in the mud. These are the fundamentals of a home, and they insulate and shelter, they screen off a little privacy and secure our favourite bits-and-pieces. Home can be a simple matter of demarcation. All that for all of you! This little bit for me. Absent a clear-cut threshold, everything gets complicated and compromised: safety, sanctuary, a sense of rootedness and control, a place in the normal push-and-pull of communal trust. Van Allen had learned long ago that, without any legal partitions or boundary-markers around his hideaways, he could always lose possessions he liked and needed. He did not expect that, one day, he would need to argue the ownership of possessions he wanted nothing to do with.

If he had taken the advice in the laminated note, and moved on from the heath, that might have been the end of this phase of Van Allens life. He would be somewhere in his shadow city; who knows, maybe he would have landed more formal digs. As it was, he and Wjcik took up camping again, pitching tents in the scrub near their storage bins. Van Allen did not mourn the lost bunker but, through the summer, he may have been demoralised in subtler ways. A new complacency crept in, and the camp started to sprawl. They left out litter (some of Van Allens crash-and-trash T-shirts were later found in the bramble) and took more risks. Van Allen and Wjcik got carried away, one weekend in September 2018, and tried to bury an enormous new wheelie bin, without preparing the ground with softening caustic first. It wasnt a job that could be finished in a night, and with nowhere to hide the bin, they left it halfway out of the ground where it was partially visible from footpaths. A couple of nights later, after his usual beer in The Garden Gate, Van Allen went up the hill after dark and collided with a crime scene.

Van Allen: You must have found a load of my stuff, [my] clothing in the bushes?

Counter-terrorism command: Yeah.

There were police vans in the heath car park and uniformed officers had formed a long, snaking cordon that encircled his camp. Later, police would erect blue-and-yellow forensic tents and bring in dogs, plainclothes detectives and investigators wearing boiler suits and hazmat wellies. Van Allen approached the cordon and altered his accent, Hampstead-blend, to ask what was up. He could see there were officers from neighbouring boroughs, far more than would be needed to move along some stubborn homeless people. You cant come through here, Van Allen was told. He retraced his steps, cutting across the darkened heath to the bathing pond, where he found Wjcik on their usual bench. Whats all this bollocks about? They agreed it did not look promising. They shared a last beer together. Van Allen had other places he could sleep. A carpeted corner in a public building, lent to him by a sympathetic caretaker. The water-pump room in a tower block. Swapping between these places, through the autumn, he kept thinking about the scale of that crime scene.

Van Allen told a friend, a man named Keong Lim, that he couldnt make sense of it. All those police for a few buried wheelie bins? His spade and discarded T-shirts? Lim worked in the Catholic church where they cooked the free breakfasts. He liked Van Allen, and was grateful to him for fixing odds and ends around the church. One day, Lim recalled, Van Allen asked for help in finding out more about what had happened on the heath. They searched for it online and found a story in the local newspaper, the Hampstead & Highgate Express, that had been followed up by reporters at the Sun, the Mirror and the Evening Standard. A Breaking Bad-style makeshift crystal meth lab had been discovered on the heath, they read. Wooded area Containers found Cordons put in place. Van Allen turned to Lim and said: Fucking hell. This is about me.

He wondered if they had found his reserves of white, granular caustic soda and mistaken it for something more sinister. News outlets as far away as the US and Australia had run the story of the Hampstead meth lab, usually illustrating coverage with a picture of the actor Bryan Cranston as chemist-turned-kingpin Walter White. Van Allen hadnt seen Breaking Bad. He was more of a BBC Parliament man, believing, with some justification, that life was weird enough without bringing in fiction, but he got the idea. He decided to lie low.

Illustration: Ben the Illustrator

In February 2019, he was contacted by police. While picking over the camp, investigators had found a padded envelope in the scrub. It came from a building-supplies company that Van Allen sometimes shopped with online. The old envelope had both his name on it and the address of a drop-in centre he used for post. Investigators had traced his number and now they told Van Allen they wanted to chat to him about the makeshift camp. Genuinely curious, Van Allen asked: What took you so long? Months had passed. He hadnt been back to the heath since.

Van Allen didnt know it, but the investigation had altered since those fanciful stories about a drugs lab appeared in the papers. While digging up the camp, police had found an improvised weapon, a handmade pipe gun, about the size and shape of a bicycle pump, that was shallowly buried near one of his storage bins. Through a series of steep escalations, the case had passed to officers from counter-terrorism command. Van Allen was told he wasnt in any trouble himself; but would he meet to talk? He suggested a McDonalds not far from the heath, expecting the matter would be easily cleared up, 20 minutes, tops.

Counter-terrorism command: So obviously, we met you today at McDonalds And when you started talking about the hides, the things dug into the ground thats when we decided to start arresting you, OK?

Van Allen: Mm-hm.

CTC: We just wanted to give you the opportunity to talk to us on tape about the situation.

Van Allen: Mm-hm.

He was arrested and taken for interview at Colindale police station, where he spoke at length about the camp in the scrub. Unimpressed by an officers drawing of a site he had colonised and modified with care (This is a terrible sketch, he told police), Van Allen borrowed a pencil and made improvements. When it came to questions about the handmade pipe gun, Van Allen issued a flat denial, as interviewing officers recorded in their notes. He told them: Ive been on that site for seven years and I didnt put it there. Its nothing to do with me. Later he was told that small traces of his DNA had been found on the weapon. Van Allen was advised by his solicitor to stop talking, at least not in his usual freewheeling style. Instead, he issued a second, written denial.

Van Allens trial for possession of a firearm took place at Blackfriars crown court in summer 2019. His legal team thought the three-day trial had gone quite well, all things considered. The prosecutions own expert witness, a DNA specialist, had acknowledged there was no way of knowing if Van Allens DNA was on the firearm by primary or secondary transfer that is, whether he had ever physically touched it. Van Allens barrister had told the jury about another possible suspect, and insisted they could not rule out the possibility that Van Allens strewn clothing had been used to wipe down the weapon before it was buried by somebody else. Even so, when they were sent out to deliberate, the jury decided on a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Van Allen to five years.

He was moved from HMP Pentonville to HMP Thameside, another concrete box. He would not accept that his new situation, formally sheltered at least, was improved from a state of homelessness. Freedom was freedom, wherever you kipped.

Not long after Van Allen was sentenced, I started to take frequent walks out of The Garden Gate pub, up the road that bordered the heath, into scrub. It took a few attempts, picking through bramble studded with cans and go-fetch balls, but, finally, there it was: a bleached lesion in the undergrowth, all that remained of the old ranch. Piles of branches had been put down by rangers to cover the holes where the storage bins were. On one visit, a rat the size of a running shoe scuttered across the clearing. Midges churned about, disturbed by my presence. I had a deeper sense that I was trespassing; afterwards, a ranger said that, since Van Allen left, another homeless person had claimed the patch. The ranger was red-cheeked, having spent the morning cutting back bramble that was creeping on to the footpaths. He explained how quickly the heath bramble grew and how ferociously it resisted being manicured as if, I thought, the ground beneath us had a rebellious spirit, too, and would not be told what it was for.

In prison, Van Allen had secured a new lawyer and was working towards an appeal. Those who spoke to him said he remained in decent spirits. His sense of humour, black as a night spent in a bunker, was a blessing. As part of his rehabilitation, he was asked to take part in a self-improvement course, one strand of which covered his accommodation needs. Had he thought about applying to a housing trust, after his release? Van Allen could see the funny side of that.

There had been incongruous laughter at his trial, too. Accused, police, lawyers, members of the jury all chuckled together at Van Allens wordier flights while he was under interrogation. At one stage, hed spoken wistfully of the old bunker: My permanent des-res, Van Allen called it. Just an ideal spot. You had the train station, you had a cafe, you had a Starbucks, you had the hospital, you had the 168 bus, the 24, the 46 You couldnt see in from the footpath. It was bloody brilliant.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/mar/05/invisible-city-how-homeless-man-built-life-underground-bunker-hampstead-heath