It has all the ingredients of a Grand Designs programme for Channel 4, Kevin McCloud walking through the rubble and telling viewers that the restoration of 121 Mortimer Road poses problems not seen before and unlikely to be featured on any subsequent show. You might recall in 2006 the house’s previous owner was given the epithet ‘Mole Man of Hackney’ when it emerged that William Lyttle had gained the reputation of one of London’s finest eccentrics.
For 40 years the civil engineer had secretly burrowed a labyrinth of tunnels under his house, spreading up to 22 yards in every direction, removing an estimated 3,500 cubic feet of soil.
One apocryphal story was that he claimed to be digging to the local bank to break into its vault only to discover that when he arrived it had become a wine bar, but Mr. Lyttle always claimed he just had a very big basement for use as a wine cellar.
His neighbours begged to differ when one of his tunnels collapsed in 2001 leaving a hole in the pavement above, or another time when he cut a 420 volt cable plunging the street into darkness.
It eventually became too much for even the liberal Borough of Hackney and in 2009 he was moved to, presumably, a flat above the ground floor in Lawrence Court and billed for £100,000, the cost of stabilizing the street. With Mr. Lyttle safely above ground level the council removed 40 tonnes of excavated gravel and junk from his back yard.
In June 2010 William Lyttle died taking with him the reason for his extreme DIY, but he left one lasting legacy. It is reported that while at the flat Mr. Lyttle couldn’t resist knocking a hole between the kitchen and living room.
The 20-room detached house in Mortimer Road was put up for auction with a guide price of £750,000 with planning permission to demolish and build two new 4-storey townhouses in its place.
In the event the property was sold for £1.12 to artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble who once prophetically produced a piece entitled ‘The Undesirables’, which comprised a mountain of detritus collected from outside their house with a shadow image of the artists above. The artists have hired architect David Adjaye to come up with a design retaining as much of the original property and trace the existing print of the area dug out in order to create a basement space.
If they go ahead, as a lasting tribute to Mole Man will they excavate the trashed four wrecked Renault 4 cars, a boat, several baths and fridges and numerous TV sets under his home? They are still there, encased in the concrete used to shore up the property.
Photo: 121 Mortimer Road Mark Pilkington (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo: William Lyttle Christine Quigley