Taking Cover: Highgate’s Second World War air raid shelters

Images of families huddled together in an air raid shelter, a wary expression etched on their faces, remains some of the most arresting of the Second World War.

Images of families huddled together in an air raid shelter, a wary expression etched on their faces, remains some of the most arresting of the Second World War.

Whether seeking refuge inside a small prefab Anderson shelter erected in a back garden, or many metres underground in the sprawling tube network, these often do-it-yourself shelters came to define life on the Home Front.

The discovery of what appears to be a large underground tunnel buried several feet beneath the garden offers a rare glimpse into this “people’s history”.

Enveloped in several feet of thick brambles behind a large, Victorian villa in Archway Road, the shelter has been hidden from public view for many years, like a secret garden into the past.

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Three concrete steps separate you from this fortification, which at 7ft tall and ten metres long would have been a particularly sturdy and sophisticated example of a home shelter, or could have offered refuge to many nearby households.

Stepping inside this winding concrete tunnel it is clear it has been used more recently than the 1940s, however.

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Old tables, chairs and other furniture lie piled in a corner next to ominous looking painted signs which spells out the word “beware”.

Yet as you walk through the otherwise bare shelter you can imagine people sitting tight within these relative safe confounds, waiting with bated breath for the hum of Doodlebugs to pass and for the all clear siren to ring out.

Ken Gay, president of the Hornsey Historical Society, lived in East London during The Blitz, and twice had to take cover in the nearest shelter to protect him from bombing.

Mr Gay said: “I remember once, it was technically the second night of The Blitz and bombs were landing all over the road bringing down parts of our house. Debris was falling everywhere and if it had fallen an inch the other way it would have hit me in an instance.

“You never knew where the bomb would fall. I remember walking through a park and rushing into this surface shelter to hide from the bombs.

“We would stretch ourselves out on a long wooden bench and go to sleep. But the earth would shatter “boom, boom”.

“I never felt frightened. That was it, you just took it as it came.

“But what I still don’t like to this day is the sound of the air raid siren. Whenever it comes own, on the TV or in a film, my hands tremble.”

Heavy bombing pummelled much of North London, but many speculated that Highgate was particularly targeted because of the large radio mast in Bisham Gardens, which some thought the Germans used to help them navigate during air raids.

Frightened residents either took refuge in homemade defences such as the Anderson or Morrison shelter, public shelters, or in underground basements.

Whether the newly discovered Highgate shelter is a sophisticated example of a homemade fortification, or would have been used by several households in the area remains to be seen.

But its social and historical interest is without doubt.

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