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The history of Jacqueline Close in Bury St Edmunds and the sinkhole which brought families' futures crashing down

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In 1964, two rows of terraced houses were built in Bury St Edmunds.

There was no number 13 - a precaution probably taken by a superstitious contractor - but nothing about Jacqueline Close was destined to be lucky.

Just a few years after couples and families bought and moved into the houses intent on making them homes, a sinkhole brought their future plans crashing down.

Inspectors carried out investigations to find out how deep the tunnels were
Inspectors carried out investigations to find out how deep the tunnels were

The 30ft deep crater appeared following a storm in the late evening of July 24, 1967, after a couple returned home to find much of the driveway, pavement and road outside their house swallowed up by the dusty pit.

Police hurried people out of their beds and told them to gather at the entrance to the close while officers tried to work out what had happened. But residents, who for years had heard rumours and warnings of chalk tunnels running underneath their homes, knew exactly what was afoot.

Speaking just a year before his death in 2019, Brian Cross, who bought number one with his wife Anne in 1966 as a place to bring up their two young children, Jane and Michael, said: “There were always rumours passing between the builders and local people saying that the area shouldn’t be built on but you just assume it’s hearsay and go about your business. It certainly didn’t seem like enough to stop us buying the house or anything.

Brian Cross in the chalk mines
Brian Cross in the chalk mines

“It wasn’t long before everyone got talking and we all put two and two together and worked it out. But even then, we couldn’t have foreseen what would happen.”

That sinkhole was to be the first of several incidents to hit the 30 houses over the next year.

In September 1968, Bury St Edmunds found itself flooded after more than three inches of rain fell within 24 hours and Jacqueline Close, like many other streets in and around the town centre, was left to deal with the aftermath.

Residents took to the street to sweep water away from their houses for fear of a repeat of the 1967 events but unbeknown to them, lasting damage had already been done.

Jacqueline Close was evacuated after massive chalk tunnels were found under the homes
Jacqueline Close was evacuated after massive chalk tunnels were found under the homes

The water had started to work its way into the chalk mine and soak-away below, creating a soggy mess that would inevitably lead to collapse.

And it did, on December 21, 1968, with residents being evacuated a few days later on Christmas Eve.

Brian remembered how he stood on his front doorstep on that day, while so many others elsewhere would be singing and celebrating, watching his panicked neighbours leave their homes with presents and Christmas trees under their arms, unaware of where they were going or if and when they’d be back.

The coming days saw officers visit the houses to assess the situation and, after finding even more cracks and walls pulling to the side, they decided that it wouldn’t be safe for the young families to return.

Over time, Jacqueline Close became consigned to the past. The empty houses and secret passages in the tunnels were left abandoned, providing only an alternative playground for Brian and Anne’s third child Frances, who had been born in the upstairs bedroom of number one in 1970, and her friends.

Frances (left) in the chalk mines with her friends
Frances (left) in the chalk mines with her friends

In 1979, the houses were demolished and the land fenced off, leaving just numbers one and two, the latter of which Brian had bought from his defeated neighbour for a discounted price.

“It was just us after that, just us on this one street which had once been so full of people and life,” said Brian.

“I remember people from the town used to come up to the fences and peer in and you’d hear them shout things like ‘I wouldn’t live there’. It was like we were in a completely other world.”

The years to follow would be an uphill battle for residents and former residents alike. Only two had taken out insurance, while others were forced to accept a mere £400 in compensation - a tenth of what they had paid during happier times.

Brian and Anne, whose houses were not directly affected by the tunnels, stayed put, convinced that there must be a better solution than to accept the money and go. But that decision soon came back to haunt them.

Demolition of the houses began around 1980
Demolition of the houses began around 1980

The question of ‘who knew what?’ washed through the town, as many concluded that the residents had bought properties that others just simply knew wouldn’t last.

And for the two that did, the future looked bleak.

Despite the property boom in 1979 which saw house prices rocket, the two in Jacqueline Close were deemed unsellable.

Sitting on the edge of an overgrown wasteland with ominous tunnels running underneath, they no longer painted the picture of a perfect family home.

“We didn’t really know what our next step could be. We had approached the council and held meetings and things but nothing came to much. Eventually I just felt that we had three children and had to get on with our lives as they were,” said Brian.

The Jacqueline Close demolition site
The Jacqueline Close demolition site

But the question of whether the couple made the right decision by holding on still played on their minds decades later.

“I always wondered if we should we have taken the money and started again,” said Anne.

“All I know is that by hanging on, we’ve been stuck with the properties and the worry and stress that go along with them. And we’ll be passing that on to our children which is the worst part of it all.”

Brian and Anne eventually managed to save up and buy another house in Barrow - a place the couple called home for many years.

The two homes owned by the Cross family remained while others were torn down in about 1980
The two homes owned by the Cross family remained while others were torn down in about 1980

Their daughters Jane and Frances have took over the two Jacqueline Close properties, though Brian always avoided going back to visit.

“I don’t like going back. It’s a sore subject for me now. As a husband and father, it was my responsibility to fix the situation," said Brian.

"Now my children are stuck with it and they’re never going to be sold at market value.

“I would have liked to see the back of the worry but we know now that that’s not an easy thing to do.”

The two remaining homes on Jacqueline Close
The two remaining homes on Jacqueline Close

The tale of 'Heartbreak Close' is one of hidden truths and tunnels, and shattered hopes and dreams.

It is a part of Bury’s history that many would like to see left hidden away in the past, along with all feelings of shame and guilt surrounding it and the families it failed.

For the Cross family, the sinkhole started them on a path which saw them fall deeper and deeper into a problem they couldn’t get out of and Jacqueline Close became the site upon which the life that they had planned for came crumbling down around them.

But, with planning permission for a new three-bedroom house in the close having been granted to Brian and Anne's daughter Jane, happier times and family memories which were left behind in 1967 may have the chance to rise again and be rebuilt.

Despite its dark past, the future now looks a little brighter for Jacqueline Close.

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