Inside Britain’s very middle-class squat

Last week the Mail Online revealed how one of Bristol’s most expensive homes – with a price tag of £2.25m – had been invaded by squatters.

Here Robert Hardman reveals what life is now like inside the grade II-listed building.

How very inconsiderate of the owners to empty the palatial indoor swimming pool before vacating the premises. Still, it has its uses.

‚Check this out,‘ says Zen and performs a couple of tricks and a turn on his skateboard as he clatters past me from the shallow end to the deep end. The pool may be devoid of water, but it does make a pretty good skateboard park.

Similarly, the drawing room may not have staged a ball or drinks party for a while, but it still serves as a spacious gym with a step machine by the fireplace. The whole place could do with a lick of paint and the wine cellar is disgracefully low on wine. In fact, there is none at all.
The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman with squatters Lucas and Connor on the grand staircase at Clifton Wood House, in Clifton, Bristol

The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman with squatters Lucas and Connor on the grand staircase at Clifton Wood House, in Clifton, Bristol

The heating does not work and there is a solitary bulb hanging in the elegant Georgian hall where, by rights, one would expect to find a crystal chandelier.

But these are minor points. There are no grumbles from the residents at Clifton Wood House, a delightful, double bow-fronted grade II-listed mini-stately home perched on the most expensive hill in Bristol. For, as of last week, it has become Britain’s grandest squat.

Actually, the residents do have one complaint thus far. They claim that a ‚rude man‘ from the estate agency turned up last week and attempted to force his way in. Several bolts have been installed to deter him from having another go.

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‚Don‘t call us squatters. We‘re caretakers. They‘re about to make squatting illegal,‘ says Zen, showing a grasp of politics and the law unusual in one who has yet to celebrate his 18th birthday.

‚Anyway, we‘re not like those anarchist squatters who smash places up. We respect this property.‘

Certainly, it is a respectable property. Drive through its substantial electric gates and you find a sizeable garden and a ten-bedroom house with four bathrooms, outhouses and garages, as well as that pool.
How very middle-class: Clifton Wood House, in Clifton, Bristol, where 15 squatters are now living

How very middle-class: Clifton Wood House, in Clifton, Bristol, where 15 squatters are now living

It’s a blend of old world grandeur and Noughties opulence, reportedly owned by a local businessman called Petros Birakos, who tried to sell it for £2.9 million. No joy.

Last autumn, say neighbours, he and his family moved out, disconnected the utilities and put it on the market with agents Knight Frank and a £2.25 million price tag.

As one of the most impressive houses in the area, it had been gathering a fair amount of interest, until just over a week ago, when someone spotted the lights were on.

The police went to investigate and found a new set of residents who had already placed a ‚Section 6′ notice in a window. Using Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, squatters can assert their right to be in a property and warn it is an offence for anyone else to enter the building without their permission (I‘ve never understood why burglars don‘t try this scam).
Robert Hardman in the mansion’s empty pool with a squatter using it to skateboard in

Robert Hardman in the mansion’s empty pool with a squatter using it to skateboard in

Zen, a squatter, chats to Robert Hardman in one of the many rooms left empty before the new residents moved in

Zen, a squatter, chats to Robert Hardman in one of the many rooms left empty before the new residents moved in

Ornate: The grand spiral staircase was something to behold

Ornate: The grand spiral staircase was something to behold

Satisfied that this was, therefore, a civil matter, the police departed. Despite the best efforts of the angry estate agent, that is the way things have remained ever since.

So, I have come to inspect Britain’s top squat. And once it is established that I am neither a bailiff nor an estate agent, but merely a journalist, the electric gates swing open and in I come.

It’s mid-afternoon and most of the 15 residents are out. But the house is never left unattended. If it were, a scheming owner might sneak back in and, heaven forbid, end up squatting there.

I meet Zen, who is wearing a black trilby and munching on a bit of French bread, and Svet, a smiley 23-year-old Bulgarian woman with pink hair and a degree in film and TV studies from Canterbury Christ Church University.

With the front door now barricaded, we go in through the kitchen entrance.

I find a modern pine kitchen with a big central island and a few bags of Tesco potatoes on top. Most of the cooking seems to be done on a toasted sandwich machine.

Every resident has his own room (with the exception of Svet, they are all men) and there is one spare ‚traveller’s room‘ where anyone who is deemed genuinely in need of a room for the night can sleep.
Robert Hardman and Svet, the smiley Bulgarian woman, in the kitchen talking over the rights and wrongs of squatting

Robert Hardman and Svet, the smiley Bulgarian woman, in the kitchen talking over the rights and wrongs of squatting

A new admission, like everything else, is done by a democratic vote among the house-mates. One door opens up to reveal a mattress on the floor along with a TV, DVD player and a mixing deck for recording music.

While the squatters have managed to reconnect the house to the electricity and water mains, there is no gas supply (they say they are planning to reconnect that, too — a feat of DIY that sounds worth avoiding).

‚We‘ve checked the chimneys and they‘re all open,‘ says Luke, a personable 23-year-old in a regulation woolly hat, who has returned from a day’s busking.

Not so long ago he was reading business studies at Birmingham University. So what is the plan now?

‚I‘d love a piece of land where I could grow my food and live independently,‘ he says.

Certainly, there is no deep-seated political agenda here, beyond a general criticism of Britain’s lack of housing.
The new residents placed a ‚Section 6′ notice in a window to assert their right to be in the property and warn it is an offence for anyone else to enter the building without their permission

The new residents placed a ‚Section 6′ notice in a window to assert their right to be in the property and warn it is an offence for anyone else to enter the building without their permission

Surprisingly, they take a rather dim view of the benefits culture. ‚The problem with benefits is that some people who got them shouldn‘t have and that’s made it impossible for everyone else,‘ says Matt, an occasional window fitter.

‚But I don‘t need them. I can work when I need money.‘

All insist they do not receive any State handouts. Svet used to claim Jobseekers‘ Allowance until it was cut off after she went back to Bulgaria for four months. She now does agency jobs as a care worker.
The property was put on the market with estate agents Knight Frank with a price tag of £2.25m

The property was put on the market with estate agents Knight Frank with a price tag of £2.25m

‚You don‘t need benefits. You can live for free,‘ says Zen, explaining that a combination of busking, scavenging and free shops — which distribute surplus supermarket produce — does the trick. The most prized commodity around here seems to be tobacco.

As dusk settles, most of the house-mates are back, showing off the results of a day’s foraging. A young woman from the squatters‘ action group, SQUASH, arrives with briefing notes on the new Legal Aid, Sentencing And Punishment Of Offenders Bill (now in the Lords), which aims to criminalise residential squatting.

If it is passed, these squatters could soon be committing an offence. They are an articulate, affable lot, resourceful characters rather than brain-addled losers. I sense that if they applied themselves, most could prosper in the real world.

A couple of policemen buzz the intercom. It turns out they are handing out leaflets following a burglary in the area.

I am watching the cops, and they are watching me, through a broken window pane, but they ask no further questions and leave. There is, after all, little they can do. ‚It’s a civil matter between the owner and the courts,‘ says a spokesman for Avon & Somerset Police when I call.

The squatters all point out that this is an empty building and that their ‚caretaking‘ is, thus, legitimate. They admit, though, that they do not know the background to this home. And because it is worth £2.25million, this does not make their behaviour any more excusable.

It is true that thousands of homes all over Britain are empty because of incompetent councils. And it is true that buying a house is increasingly beyond the means of most young people.

But that is no reason why anyone should have to see their property requisitioned by strangers and then go through a costly legal process to reclaim it. The new Bill is long overdue.

In the meantime, another question arises: if squatters can hook up to the electricity and water supplies with- out paying a bill and watch TV without buying a licence, do the rest of us still need to bother?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2103598/Inside-Britains-middle-class-squat-The-graduates-whove-taken-3m-stately-home.html