You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

What is a property guardian?

I doubt anybody becomes a property guardian with purely noble motivations. The property guardians I know are a byproduct of the unaffordable rents in London often coupled with the centrality of vacant buildings. If anybody were to become a property guardian for noble reasons they would undoubtedly be on the scheme run by Dot Dot Dot
They were my first port of call though more out of interest than magnanimity. The money I owned was less than zero and my provisional abode was romantically toxic. I was at a party in an old mental hospital that was under the protection of a guardian scheme when friend told me about Dot Dot Dot.

One of the patients of the hospital had constructed a shrine at the back of the garden that mainly consisted of a clay cranium that faced away from you.  For the first time in my life I prayed for money rather than health or love.

Dot Dot Dot soon called me in for a workshop. This particular company differs from other guardian schemes as they are a social enterprise and make sure all of their guardians volunteer for 4 hours a week.

It is a nice business model: if you wish to benefit from the cheap rents offered, then you have to give up a bit of your time to deliver useful services to the needy. A journalist, who had written a book called ‘FREE: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Societyfounded the Dot Dot Dot company.

The workshop explained that a property guardian has less rights than a tenant. Instead of renting the place you have permission to be there. Property Guardians are similar to cleaners; they have the keys to the property and permission to be there but that is about the extent of the legal rights.

The potential guardians were given the chance to ask questions. I asked where the concept of property guardian schemes had originated. Surprise, surprise it had apparently started in Holland in the 1990s. This struck me as being recent.

Squatting grew in popularity since the 60’s and property guardian schemes are a happy compromise, a midway point, between both squatters and landlords. Funny then how it took at a couple of decades before the concept came about. Makes you think: what other great ideas could come about if more consideration went into appeasing all parties involved in a problem?

After the workshop all I could do was be patient because, even with the added clause of having to be a volunteer to get on their books, Dot Dot Dot still a waiting list.

part 2: how to become a property guardian
part 3: what does a property guardian do

How to become a property guardian

I was had only applied to be a guardian with one company (Dot Dot Dot) because I was attracted to their ethos of only housing volunteers. My thinking was that if I live with people that are willing to donate their time to ‘do something good’ I would meet some kind people. Good people. But then my friend, who had been a guardian for over a year, forwarded me an e-mail from the company he was with (Live-in Guardians).

‘Dear Guardians,

We have just taken on a new building in Borehamwood.

It is a 12 bedroom house but we are looking for 6-8 people, a couple of the rooms have a sink in them.

There is a communal lounge, big garden, off street parking, and 2 separate bathrooms. The Property is only 5 minutes’ walk from Elstree and Borehamwood station and then only 20mins on the Thames link into Kings Cross. 

If you have any friends who are interested in moving into this Property then please email me the details.

We believe we will have this Property for around 6 months.  

The room price will be £75 p/w.’

I needed to get a place of my own because I was developing unwanted feelings for the girl whose spare room I was living in, and she had a stable boyfriend. I went to view the Borehamwood property. From the outside the building looked like it had been designed by the Brothers Grimm. It was curiously bulbous as though it had been inflated within a frame of faux Tudor beams. The house used to be a care home owned by Peaceknoll Ltd known, when operational, as Theobald House.

It was huge, decorated in pastel tones, fully furnished, and the kitchen cupboards were stocked with tins of soup and Angel Delight. 

I was shown the many rooms and picked the one that was the warmest and smelt the least. The baths had mechanical chairs that would lower you slowly into hot water.

I would even be able to use all the freshly washed towels and bed linen.


Living here with five or six other people would be fun I thought. I signed the paperwork, was given the keys and told to transfer the deposit and monthly license fee (rent) over the weekend. Quick and easy, you would never get that level of simplicity from an estate agent.

part 1: what is a property guardian
part 3: what does a property guardian do

What does a property guardian do?

I’d never been a property guardian before and neither had Steve. He had moved into the vacant care-home a few days before me and had been there on his own, in the cold, for a few nights but managed to get the heating working just before I moved in. He was practical; in the rooms that smelt the worst he had left bowls of pear solution.

He worked for G4S and was in charge of the computers across their prisons network. He said that a large part of his job was to attempt to hack into the systems, and then make sure nobody else could do it the same way if he found a way in. Steve embodied two contrasting stereotypes. He looked and spoke like a regular bloke you’d find in a pub watching footy, while at the same time was a geek through and through. He could complete a 3x3 Rubix Cube in less than two minutes and the txt message tone on his phone was Master Yoda.

When Steve had first moved in, there had been a mysterious delivery that nobody could explain: a large box of bananas left on the doorstep.

There was no Internet in Theobald House but Steve said he would crack the neighbour’s password soon enough. The only other things our home lacked were a washing machine and a TV, which had both been repossessed. This meant for entertainment I read Sherlock Holmes and wandered around Elstree and Borehamwood, which are ironically branded as the home of film and television. 


The joint towns form a lonely commuter suburb in the Zone 6 outskirts of London. The film studios are the only notable institution except perhaps the Chinese takeaway ‘Lots of Rice’ or the Whimpy – a chain burger bar that you’d think was defunct.

At the start of my first weekend I got beaten up. Once I had made it out of central London a sweetheart of mine insisted on coming over to nurse me better with bacon sandwiches. We fell asleep uncomfortably on the single bed. She was woken in the night by what she thought were footsteps going form one end of the room to the other. I reassured her it was just the heating. The pipes were loud in this place and the floorboards were creaky.

After living in the Borehamwood care-home just over a week the fire alarm went off on the stroke of midnight. Steve and I turned it off at the control panel, which told us it had come Zone 4. Most of the light bulbs weren’t working in this part of the house. We investigated and there was no fire, but a small red LED was flashing on the smoke detector in one of the rooms. I went back to sleep. An hour later it happened again. This time a spider crawled out of the smoke detector. We turned the fire alarm power off.

Steve had a company car and was regularly away on business. He must have turned the switched the alarm system back on before he leaving the following Friday because just as I was going to bed the unbearable clanging rang out and I had to rush downstairs cut the power again. I didn’t check Zone 4. On Saturday morning a young lady pulled into the driveway in a shiny black Audi A4 and when I opened the door she asked if the old people still lived here.

“No.  It is just me and one other guy living here now, we are looking after the place until it is sold to developers.”

“Oh. Well I brought this cake around to give to them. Would you like it?”

She insisted I take the whole platter of chocolate cake even though I just wanted one piece. Later that day I went to Brighton and stayed the night in the bed of a girl I had met on a dating website, when I returned the following day I was locked out. The owner had been around and had locked both locks; I only had the key to one. The snow fell as I waited for a man from the property guardian company to come and let me in. Steve was still away.

Instead of washing in the baths, I preferred to use the stand-up shower cubicle that was en-suite in the room next door to mine. This luxury was soon taken away from me when it started dripping through the roof into the dining room. 

It had been almost three weeks now and, although a few more people had been shown around, nobody else had moved in. I realised it was unlikely that anybody else would.

The Dot Dot Dot guardian scheme got in contact with me and I viewed a property that they managed. It was a two bedroom ex-council flat. One room was painted dark purple, the other had landscapes and Dali Lama quotes drawn in white pencil on the light blue walls. There was no furniture. No oven. No fridge. No carpets. Just cracked walls and floorboards. It was not for me. I returned to Borehamwood. It was a Wednesday night and Steve was away yet again. I went to bed around midnight and fell asleep easily, as usual, after a long day at the office. I woke up in the navy-blue hours of the early morning. 

I was lying on my back staring at the ceiling and wondering why I had awoken. Then I felt an impression on one side of my pillow followed shortly after by an impression on the other side. It was as if a cat had jumped silently from one side to the other then disappeared into the night or as though a person had leaned over me, invisible hands either side of my head. My back tingled as a cold electric jolt raised my skin and dread washed over me. I rolled over onto my front and tried to return to sleep. I attempted to explain it rationally. A cat couldn't be in my room but a rat it could. This didn’t help. The image of a rat near jumping over your face is not a soothing thought. Each time I replayed the incident in my mind another shiver would run down my spine. It is no coincidence that our bodies feel most alive when our brain tells us we are in the presence of the restless dead. The only consolation I could muster was that I was now a little more akin to Juan Preciado one of my favourite literary characters.

I eventually got back to sleep and in the morning I packed an overnight bag and headed to work. My boss said I looked disheveled.
The longer I stayed away from the house the more the fear swelled up within me. When combined, all the little anomalies that I had previously ignored amounted to a portrait of a sickeningly creepy abode:

  • The single toy shoe I found under my bed.
  • The serviette with four names written on it in one of the drawers.
  • The pink hairband in the wardrobe.
  • The fire alarms.
  • The novel with the first ten pages ripped out.
  • The bottle of holy water in the kitchen.
  • The girl who brought the cake over telling me she used to visit when her grandparents were still alive.
  • The repressive fridge magnets.

  • The clanging of the pipes so intense every night that I had to drown them out with relaxing music in order to sleep.
  • The cup full of white slugs in the garden.

  • The squeaking floorboards.
  • The paintings.

  • The china ornaments.  

  • The flickering light in the hallway.
  • The circus sized bottles of bleach under my sink.

  • The dense ball of black hair that was on the sideboard in the bathroom &
  • The one just like it that had been under my sheets the morning after the pillow experience.

  • The bench in the garden with the plaque that commemorated the life of a woman 1899 – 1992.

  • The reason for the property being sold being that the lady that had run it had died herself.
  • The black marks worn into the floor at the foot of the chairs in the living room. 
  • The pictures from the photo album corresponding with the rooms, now empty.



The scene so clear in my imagination, yet in reality, all life had vanished. What force was really guarding this place, and was I ever any more than an unwelcome guest?

I made my mind up never to sleep in the house ever again. I returned a few times to pick up essentials and each time I got nervous sweats. My friend Bill helped me move out and take the photos for this blog. Here he is sat in the dining room.

This is what he says about the place. 

"From the minute you walk into the building you could feel the place contained a dark and repressive energy. I was there for just over an hour, by the time I left I had a splitting headache" - Bill Jefferson

We also made this video re-enactment of The Borehamwood Pillow Haunting.

Within a few days I found somewhere wholesome that promised to extinguish my psychosis. I moved into an absent Mexican man’s room in a normal house. Full of life. Full of girls. Angels that I play badminton with and who bake me cookies. 

Once I'd left I got a message from Steve who was also planning on leaving the house because of the "trains"

Here is some final advice.

If you think you might have seen a ghost do not tell anybody. Immediately after my visit from the pillow presser, at work and at parties, I confided my tale to people. On hearing it each person would proceed to tell me a spooky experience they’d had, or heard about. By the end of the weekend my head was full of anecdotes of hauntings and I was becoming convinced spirits existed.