Digging is the most natural thing in the world. Put a child in the dirt and they’ll start digging for treasure. Put them on a beach and they’ll try to burrow down to the centre of the earth with nothing but a plastic spade from a seaside corner shop. There are many reasons why we dig — to find gold, lava, a space to crawl into and hide for a spell — but we’re all in agreement that it’s fun. That is, until we grow up.
By the time we’re adults, unless we’re lucky enough to be working on Crossrail, most of us have downed tools. The only time we’ll get soil under our fingernails now is when half-arsedly planting some chilli seeds we got from Wahaca. But there was one man London who, despite his years, decided to keep digging — to reach whatever it was he was looking for, if he was looking for anything at all. His name was William Lyttle, and because of his furious tunnelling exploits, he became known as the Mole Man of Hackney.
A 20-room property in De Beauvoir sounds like a London homeowners’ dream come true, even back in the early noughties. Not quite for retired engineer Lyttle, who lived at 121 Mortimer Road. He wanted a little more space below decks. “I thought I’d try for a bit of a wine cellar,” Lyttle says in Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, “and found a taste for the thing.” Ironically he filled up many of the rooms in his lodgings proper with the clay he’d excavated. It wasn’t extra space Lyttle was after, it was space of a special, dank kind.
It’s impressive what you can achieve with a Peter Pan-like naivety, something Lyttle had in spades. He would form little alcoves into the walls of his tunnels — tunnels which reached up to 60ft — in which he’d place aptly-titled books like At the Earth’s Core, a Tarzan adventure. You can imagine Lyttle — “flapping trenchcoat, trim beard and frosted shock of hair” — hunkered down late at night, reading by torch or paraffin lamp, gasping and giggling in the gloom, in his ultimate den.
Like any child with a spade, William Lyttle wasn’t aware of the consequences of his actions, or at least if he was, didn’t want to take responsibility. Holes appeared in the pavements below which he’d been digging. Water and electricity supplies conked out. Neighbours tossed and turned at night, afraid that if they slept, they’d wake up in one of Lyttle’s tunnels. It was all too much to bear; Lyttle was evicted once, managed to get back inside the property a few years later, but was evicted with finality in 2009. Placed in a nearby high-rise — a punishment surely worse than Wormwood Scrubs — he died within the year.
With such antisocial digging, why is the Mole Man of Hackney any kind of a character to celebrate? Lyttle represents the child in all of us — the ability to shun those telling us what not to do, what’s not impossible, and to just get on and do it, damn the consequences. But there’s more to the Mole Man legacy than that.
Many of London’s great places lie beneath tarmac and soil: the Churchill War Rooms; Chislehurst Caves; Gordon’s Wine Bar; The London Underground. The Mole Man’s network of tunnels was his very own subterranean masterpiece. What makes his even more seductive than the rest, is that hardly anyone got to see this subterranean masterpiece — Lyttle was loathe to share his soily little secret with anyone. And after Lyttle was bunged up in his high rise jail, many of his tunnels were bunged up by Hackney council. Lyttle had created perhaps the ultimate London tourist attraction that was not, and would never, be open to the public.
Or perhaps not quite. Lyttle’s dilapidated house was sold in 2012 for £1.1m, and was then last year bought up by contemporary artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble. And although the house is, understandably, undergoing some serious renovation presently, the pair have aired their intentions to preserve some of Lyttle’s tunnels, converting them into studios. There are also plans for a sunken garden, using some of Lyttle’s pre-existing excavations. The Mole Man’s tangible legacy lives on yet, and who knows, this time we may even get an invitation.
“Curiosity is my curse. If I make a start, I must know where it ends,” said Lyttle once. For now though, the story of 121 Mortimer Road continues.