Building a kitchen extension is, as anyone who has ever done it knows, costly, tedious and a favoured topic of conversation at the school gates. But when I began my own modest build recently, I had no idea that it could also be deadly.
As I stood beyond a police cordon, holding my two-year-old daughter in my arms, I remembered how in previous years I had tended to carrots and chard in the raised vegetable bed beyond the kitchen window. I had turned the soil, blissfully unaware that what lay beneath could have not only blown up my house but also killed people.
Thirty minutes earlier, our builder Vinnie had uncovered a sizeable, corroded capsule in the earth beneath the vegetable plot. He picked it up, had his workmate Louis take a picture of him holding it on an iPhone, then popped it at the end of the garden before carrying on digging for the new kitchen footings.
What Vinnie didn’t know was that he was holding an unexploded artillery fuse from the second world war. It was serendipitous that my father happened to be at home with my daughter while I was at the gym. He took one look at it, saw the intact trigger mechanism and pin, and called the police.
I was ambling home through Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington when I received a text: “Everything OK, but we have dug up a shell in the new footings!!” wrote my dad. How quaint, I thought, a relic from the second world war that I can clean up and put on the mantelpiece. I carried on walking. Two minutes later, my phone pinged again: “Police here so don’t be surprised”. I began to run.
Police cars with flashing blue lights and blaring sirens were blocking the road. There was a swarm of police officers in the front garden. My daughter stood smiling and shoeless on the pavement with my father.
“You can’t come in, madam,” said a police officer as I attempted to duck under the cordon to collect Edith’s shoes, pram and nappy bag from the porch. “You have to leave the evacuation zone.”
Vinnie, who was smoking a cigarette by the sod-filled skip, rolled his eyes. The policeman retrieved my daughter’s pram and ordered us to clear off.
Then the bomb disposal team drove through the police line in a blacked-out Range Rover. Neighbours, asked to leave their homes, began to congregate on the street. A number of stationary buses and cars formed a mournful queue beyond the police line.
A man from the bus company asked the policeman how long the situation might last. “Plan for three hours but it could be all day if we have to call in a military team from Colchester.” The bus man huffed a bit, and so did I as I looked at my shoeless toddler struggling to get out of her buggy. I had no milk, no toys, no cash and no food. I gave her the only thing I had: a lip gloss in my pocket. “Paint!” she cried and started smearing it over her face.
Still, there was camaraderie between evacuees. The extraordinary nature of the situation coaxed some of my Hasidic Jewish neighbours into chatting with me – something that has never happened in the many years I have lived in the area.
After about an hour we were told it was safe to go home. I asked a police officer where the offending item had gone. “It’s being taken to a big grassy area not too far from here. They’ll dig a crater and blow it up. You’ll probably hear a big explosion in a few hours.”
I never did hear the explosion but I did find news of it on the Hackney Gazette website. The fuse had been detonated somewhere in the Hackney Downs parkland. I sent the link to Vinnie, who was, understandably, a bit shaken by the entire affair.
A few days later, I went back to Abney Park cemetery. A teacher at my son’s school had told me there was a memorial to all the civilians in Stoke Newington who had lost their lives in the Blitz, and I wanted to see if anyone from my road was listed.
It took me a while to find the memorial, as it was up a narrow overgrown path beyond the grander “Cross of Sacrifice” monument to honour fallen servicemen. I scanned the headstones but my road was not on the list. I did, however, learn that dozens of local people died when a crowded air-raid shelter on Coronation Avenue, five minutes’ walk away, suffered a direct hit in 1940. It was only then that I truly realised how lucky we had been.
Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s deputy political editor
Susie Boyt is away