Between the Tower of London and The Gherkin, there was an office where nobody worked.
You'd occasionally see bleary-eyed twenty-somethings emerge around midday to smoke on the steps in their pyjamas, talking animatedly in French or Polish. A group might turn up on the doorstep in a rented van to haul a sofa or a wardrobe up several flights of stairs. At night as the area fell silent, muffled music could be heard from the windows, the whirr of kitchen equipment would start up, and so would begin the hum of night-time activity which tells you that people lived here. I was one of them.
"There was a real chunk of the ancient Roman wall around London in the basement."
We're property guardians — young people occupying unletted spaces at the request of the owners as a form of security. When no person or company can be found to rent what had been an office, school, care home or hospital, the owners hire guardianship companies to install basic kitchens and bathrooms on every floor. What was once a school canteen becomes a yoga exercise room; what was once an ICU ward becomes a living room.
In our grand old office in Aldgate, toilet cubicles became showers, a reception area became a home-run fashion studio, and meeting rooms became bedrooms.
The appeal: huge spaces for cheap in incredible locations. We lived in a building called Roman Wall House; so called because there was a real chunk of the ancient Roman wall around London in the basement. We'd go for walks down the river at night, reading plaques about the history of the area. I'd cycle every day down Houndsditch, the road outside the city wall where people used to dump their dead dogs in the 1200s.
Our address was 1-2 Crutched Friars — our street named after the Catholic order that settled there in the same century. A hundred years later Crutched Friars got its most famous resident: Geoffrey Chaucer. He lived above the Auld Gate (which later turned into Aldgate) at the end of the road.
"My room had enormous holes in the wall plaster and stains all over the ground."
I lived in a formerly swanky double meeting room at the end of the second floor; two enormous interconnected spaces all to myself. I was paying £600 a month, which felt ludicrously cheap given the prime location. The experience is only as good as you make it though. All rooms come unfurnished, so guardians Freecycle like there's no tomorrow. I scheduled a day of pick-ups of odd unwanted furniture at hourly intervals from all corners of London, hired a van to bring it all in, and hey presto, I had my own studio.
There were serious drawbacks too, of course: living in relative squalor chief among them. My room had enormous holes in the wall plaster and stains all over the ground; evidence that squatters had occupied the space before us. One wall of my room was entirely glass with messages like "Inspire yourself!" and "Synergise!" embossed. We had to be creative; walls were covered in wall hangings bought from the nearby African fabrics market on Petticoat Lane. Any form of carpet I could pick up on Freecycle was a godsend. The room ended up a wonderful mishmash of cloth and wood. Perfect for group viewings of Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
"His room was so big we put up a badminton net in the middle of it."
Crutched Friars is a street so narrow that if I opened my second-hand cranberry velour curtains, the three people in their neat office cubicles of the bank across the street would curiously look in. Maybe they thought we worked at some hip tech company like Google. Though I'm pretty sure even their employees don't wear pyjamas.
I was one of very few born Londoners living in the building; most were EU nationals. Moving in as we did just after the Brexit referendum, many didn't want to commit to living in a city when they suddenly felt unwelcome. I shared my floor with handsome and fun-loving bartender Mahmoud from Italy (whose room was so big we put up a badminton net in the middle of it) and tall, more highly-strung florist Lena from Poland.
Mahmoud worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant at Oxford Circus, while Lena arranged flowers in a hotel in Mayfair. She filled the enormous office space with plants: cyclamen poised on the window, peace lilies in the fire escape. They'd work at close to minimum wage and despite only paying a fraction of what most Londoners do for their living space, they'd still struggle to make ends meet.
Mahmoud would sneak out a drink or two from work every night, so the halls of our floor were lined with empty bottles of Bollinger filled with peonies. It gave the impression of wealth, but Mahmoud and Lena both endured a tough winter there. In a building with no heating, almost everyone got sick. The guardianship company had an inspector who would poke around the building at random intervals to make sure we weren't doing anything that could cause any harm to the building. These draconian measures forbade having guests stay overnight and using fan heaters.
We soon managed to cheat the system though. Realising plug-in oil heaters were technically allowed and that our electricity bill was included in rent, we bought fast and in bulk. We left them permanently on for around a month, and by February most of us were wandering around in Hawaiian shirts and shorts in 30 degree heat.
"You couldn't dream up a more damning indictment of the London housing crisis."
The worst thing about being a guardian is having to be ready for eviction at any point with only 28 days notice. You sign up to this knowing one day it'll come but you somehow convince yourself that maybe it won't. We were guaranteed three months, which turned into six, then nine, then a year, with no eviction notice. Just as we started to believe we might live in this post-apocalyptic utopia forever, the axe fell.
90 guardians were evicted at once, and the company had only one other central London property: a 16 room building in Clerkenwell. The rules are that to get a room you have to go to the viewing, take one step inside the room and then say aloud "I want this!", paying £100 on the spot, before anyone else.
The viewing was totally surreal. On a cold September afternoon Mahmoud, I and about 70 others stood shivering outside the door on a tiny residential Clerkenwell street. We waited for someone from the company to let us in. People had arrived up to two hours early to get a good spot. Friends from the year before turned enemies. No one said a word to each other. The doors opened and everyone sprinted in and up the stairs, pushing and almost knocking each other to the ground. The rooms were all gone within 10 minutes. You couldn't dream up a more damning indictment of the London housing crisis.
"It now barely saves you money to live in one of these."
I did manage eventually manage to find a place to live; I'm now in the old sports hall of a sixth form college in Bethnal Green. But for the first time, I’m seriously considering leaving guardianship life. The amount of people wanting to be guardians has increased and the rents have shot up with it. It now barely saves you money to live in one of these, and with another winter approaching the idea of heating in a real flat is definitely appealing.
I'll always remember the evenings of those first few months in Aldgate though. The area is entirely offices so at night it would clear of people, and it felt like we had the City of London to ourselves. Lena would arrive home with an armful of roses and Mahmoud with another bottle of Dom Perignon he'd swiped from work. We'd sit on the steps, looking out and talking about our hopes, dreams and fears of a sudden eviction.
Guardianship can go either way: it is what you make it. As a guardian you often have moments that leave you despairing, and the whole system hits squatters hard. It's been worth it for me, but it's certainly not for everyone. Ultimately, it's just one path — the path we took — to survive in a city that's pricing everyone out.
By Dan Faber