A tramp has been offered rights and £4 million for his landplot. He talks to Emily Monk about apple trees, Monty Python and why he will never sell it
For almost everyone worldwide, times were better before the crunching of credit; many were undeterred by a falling housing market and the then meek predictions of a disintegrating world economy.
Four years ago a mystery Middle Eastern businessman bought Athlone House for over £16 million; a large 19th – century building majestically shadowing a western corner of Hampstead Heath in North London. He has never lived there but the planned embellishments have an estimated value of £130 million, thus making it the world’s most expensive home.
Neighbours include the cream of the world’s super rich: Russian oil billionaires, African former dictators, Middle Eastern royalty. And at the end of its beautifully manicured gardens, beyond the sweeping staircases, abstract phallic shaped fountains and bizarre, apparently impressive, sculptures will be Athlone House’s most extraordinary feature: Britain’s wealthiest tramp.
Harry Hallowes, originally from County Sligo is now 71, but looks debatably younger. In 2007 he was awarded squatters? rights to a 60ft x 20ft plot of land at the southern boundary of Athlone House, merging into the beautifully disguised juxtaposed countryside of the heath and Highgate?s affluent concrete residences. The plot has been valued at up to £4 million but Hallowes says he has ?no desire to sell?. ?”Why would I want to leave all this?”? he said, casting a bare, weather beaten arm across his home, ?”I have everything that I need?.”
Taken aback by the lucidity of his expression and well-spoken English accent fringed with a hint of his Irish roots, I followed his gaze and outstretched arm. All this? ?All this? consists of two tents, a washing line, a small orchard comprised of about twelve apple trees ?fetched from the Isle of Wight?, a huge 8 feet high heap of rubbish, six or seven wheelbarrows rusted to the base so that only handlebars remain, and a blue tarpaulin mat delicately hitched up to some trees, under which hovers a decrepit camping stove, a saucepan and a very old calor gas can. Admittedly, more than most vagrants, but most vagrants haven?t been offered £4 million pounds for their dwellings.
I nodded and smiled, in the same way one might respond if asked in a full lecture hall whether you understand the complex formulas on the projector and blatantly don’t. “I’ve lived here for 21 years, and it’s very pleasant”, he said defensively. He wasn’t too happy about being interrupted on a Friday afternoon, especially not by “another bloody journalist”. “I can’t see what all the fuss is about, to be honest,” he mumbled with a grunt whilst bending over to weed his orchard. I showed him an artist’s impression of the planned developments and asked what he thought.
A little whistle and raised eyebrows immediately preceded a smile. “I didn’t know it was going to be a palace, I thought it was going to be a conventional concrete block”. He added that he was looking forward to getting to know his new neighbour, complaining that most of the other houses in the area were too far away to strike up friendship but insisted that he “gets on very well with the people who pass by on Hampstead Heath” and the Monty Python star, Terry Gilliam, has been a friend for years.
We talked about the plans for the house, comparing it to Blenheim Palace and as one critic described it, “a cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian Lunatic asylum”. Harry was beginning to soften, laughing about the possibilities of using the underground swimming pool, tennis courts (plural) or hiding in the “ridiculous looking hedges” in the five acres of landscaped garden inspired by the palace at Versailles.
I was struck by his knowledge of the world, eloquent conversation and particularly his avid interest in gardening and nature. I listened to a story of hitch-hiking to the Isle of Wight with his “very good architect friend”. A very good architect or a very good friend? I decided better not to question. They found several apple and cherry trees, “at a very reasonable price”, and so bought them back and planted them. What about the garden centre on the corner? “No no no, these ones are special”, he stressed, appalled at my suggestion.
To get food, a little money and water, Hallowes gardens for two of the families in Highgate during the week and spends the rest of his time “wandering around” or just “being with nature… I like to keep myself busy you see”.
More time passed, conversation flowed, ebbed, continued, paused. The sun began to dip slowly, behind the tree-embossed horizon and I felt absolutely and completely content. Here I was perching in the shadows of a vast oak tree on dusty, stoney ground, flints piercing into my now-numb legs, debating the importance of keeping oneself entertained with a septuagenarian vagabond, in one of the most hectic, busiest cities in the world. And he was right, what would he do with 4 million pounds? He wants to live amongst nature, watch the birds, feel the wind, plant his trees, but one thing is missing he said. “All I want, all I need in the whole world, well it would be nice at least, is to have some running water. Then I’ll have it all.”