The Pavement Robbers.

Theft is a word associated with things like bank robberies, burglary, muggings and even fraud, but what would you think if you woke up one day, looked out of the window and found that someone had stolen the entire pavement of your street? That' s what residents of London and other large cities across Britain wake up to with increasing frequency and the reason, believe it or not, is the ever-growing popularity of gardening. See the connection? Or are you completely confused? Let me explain.

During the Victorian period, towards the end of the nineteenth century, as towns were expanding and money from the empire permitted building on a grand scale, rather than using cobblestones as paving, city planners used flagstones: big, solid pieces of stone measuring about half a metre by a quarter of a metre and four centimetres thick. Made of a durable type of rock known as Yorkstone they were expected to be walked on for generations, and so they were until recently when people really started to get interested in gardening again and wanted to have beautifully coloured and textured flagstones to make garden paths and patios. One piece of Yorkstone today, in a garden centre, can sell for around £200. That makes a whole street of the stuff worth... well, quite a bit more than just a pile of rocks.

Okay, so now you know why that clever breed, the British criminal class, go around depriving the honest citizens of our sceptred isle of the very ground beneath their feet, but the next question has to be how on earth do they do it? You can' t very well just slip a rather big bit of municipal property into your pocket and stroll off whistling nonchalantly, especially when it weighs quite a few kilos. But as the old saying goes, anything that isn' t nailed down is quite capable of vanishing.

Like any vanishing act, stealing pavements requires a bit of deception, and here' s how it' s done, but remember, don' t try this at home! Once a suitable street, with enough flagstones to make the enterprise worthwhile has been located, the workmen move in. Well, they' re not actually workmen, but that' s what they look like to the general public, who are all too familiar with seeing their streets being ripped up by the local council, the water board, the gas board, telephone companies and pretty well anyone else who feels like it. Once they' ve put up their plastic security tape and caution signs, one set of men with tools and day-glo green jackets looks much like any other to the untrained eye - and these thieves work away in broad daylight without raising more than the usual questions about how long the job will take.

What makes pavement thieves distinct from any legitimate workers is the speed at which they work. Usually they will have a whole street of Yorkstone stacked in neat piles by the end of a working day, ready for stage two of the operation. Later, much later, in the dead of night the lorries arrive to remove the piles to their new destination: rich people' s gardens.

The next day local people take no notice of the fact that there is no pavement and no workmen, as it' s not unusual for those who rip up roads for honest reasons to take weeks to complete the job. After a time, often quite a long time, the more community-minded locals start to phone up the council or the water board, or whoever our intrepid thieves alleged to be working for, to demand to know when their street will be returned to normal. You can imagine the denials that work has been done or is even planned and the disbelief in them, the further denials and the slow recognition that the pavement is actually gone forever! Meanwhile someone, somewhere, is proudly laying out the latest feature in their garden and a few others are laughing... all the way to the bank!