Simon Marks, a 37-year-old computer support worker from Luton, England, was reversing out of his house when he heard a crumbling sound under one of the wheels of his Vauxhall Zafira. He carried on reversing, and the car abruptly jolted. Then the wheel got stuck. At first he thought he’d driven onto a flowerbed, but then he saw the damage…
“This hole had just opened up in the front garden,” Marks told SWNS TV in October 2016. After safely moving his car, he turned off the engine and examined the newly opened crater of broken paving stones. What he saw made him nervous. “I was just terrified the whole house was going to vanish,” he told the BBC.
“I thought it might be a sinkhole,” he said, referring to a “cover-collapse” sinkhole which appears suddenly when the roof of a cave collapses. Indeed, sinkholes can span anything from a few feet to hundreds of yards in diameter. And the largest ones, as Marks certainly understood, can swallow entire buildings.
In fact, the largest ever recorded sinkhole – the Qattara Depression in Egypt, which measures 50 miles by 75 miles – is big enough to swallow an entire city – or two. The hole in Marks’ driveway was probably not going to eat Luton, however. In theory, it could reduce his four-bedroom house, last valued at the equivalent of $515,000, to worthless rubble, though.
Marks tentatively moved some of the broken slabs to assess the risk to his property. But upon clearing the opening of the crater, he discovered that the hole was not a sinkhole after all – at least not a natural one. In fact, he was staring into an entirely man-made opening in the ground. And there was a ladder.
Obviously, Marks had to investigate. But instead of climbing down into the hole, he wisely lowered a camera on a selfie stick, took several pictures and sent them over to his dad. There were apparently two rooms down there. And when Marks’ father saw them, he immediately understood.
“We could see all the structure inside, so we set about digging out all the mud,” Marks told Live Leak. “It was so well structured with the concrete roof and the walls, it was quite clear what it was going to be.” Indeed, his dad had it spot on. And Google quickly verified it.
Built during World War Two, the structure in Marks’ front garden was, in fact, a bomb shelter. “We Googled it and found there are quite a few in this area,” Marks told The Sun on 26 October. “It is made from concrete lintels and is in immaculate condition.”
In fact, bomb shelters were once widespread across the United Kingdom. During World War Two, Nazi Germany launched a sustained bombing campaign across the country and tried to disable the British Royal Air Force. The so-called “Battle of Britain” was intended to be a prelude to a ground invasion, but the plan never came to fruition.
As protection against blasts and falling rubble, larger houses had basements and cellars. But for those living in more modest accommodations, there were communal shelters, railway arches, subways and other ad hoc arrangements. Luton was then a formidable industrial town. But on August 30, 1940 bombs set it ablaze in the most destructive raid that the town would see in the entire war.
No air raid siren sounded on that warm summer afternoon, as 194 bombs fell on Luton. Most were dispatched within a matter of seconds, forming a line across the town. Some 59 individuals were killed, while 140 were injured, and hundreds lost their homes. The main target of the raid, however, had been a factory manufacturing airplane parts.
Luton, like other industrial centers, was bombed several times more during the war, particularly in the fall of 1940. Then in 1944, the area would be hit by Hitler’s “vengeance weapon” – the dreaded V2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It hit a vicarage in Biscot Road. The vicar, however, was said to be unharmed and continued his duties shortly after.
Some 3.5 million “Anderson shelters” were built in the U.K. during the war and the months preceding it. The exact year that the shelter in Marks’ driveway was built is unknown, however. Interestingly, though, Marks’ shelter actually pre-dates his house by a generation.
Marks acquired the house from a couple who had built it in the 1970s. “The previous owner must have known it was there,” he told The Sun. “And when he built the house and put a garden in he must have filled it in.” What then, if anything, stood before the house? And who built the shelter? Was it public or private?
As yet, these questions remain unanswered. But we do know that the previous owner seemingly had a very casual attitude to the bomb shelter, as witnessed by the trash and the earth that fills it. “He clearly wasn’t very worried about it, and it just sat there until the hatch fell through,” Marks told The Sun.
As such, Marks and his father, Gerald, 67, had a lot of digging to do. “Since Saturday it’s been a case of dig, dig dig,” Marks told The Sun. “We’re about five feet down at the moment so it’s just another five feet to go until it’s finished… I think we’re going to have to get a skip in because there’s so much rubbish to get rid of.”
But as Marks cleared out the shelter with buckets, he started recovering artifacts, such as fragments of old newspapers and glass bottles. And now he could finally climb inside, he found that one of the walls had been bricked up. However, Marks didn’t seem to have much appetite for knocking it down.
“One of the walls has been bricked up,” he told The Sun. “I’m 90 percent sure we won’t find out any more rooms, but we don’t know. They might have bricked up one of the walls when the house was built to make way for the foundations. If that’s the case we’ll just have to leave it.”
However, Marks has also said he wants to preserve the shelter – if its structure allows. “It’s incredible to think it has all been made by hand,” he told The Sun. “It’s part of our history so it should be kept.”
Indeed, history is not only the study of geopolitics but of everyday life. When the lights went out in Luton, its population had to carry on. And bomb shelters – as common as they were vital to survival – were an essential part of their wartime experience.