construction history society newsletter august 2006
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There has recently been an academic interest in urban exploration. This has piqued my interested in turn, as it's caused me to rationalise and question my reasons for exploring these old forgotten places.

Pyestock was foremost in my thoughts when these papers were written which that has clearly come over. Therefore whilst the Pyestock Diaries (which can be found on my Pyestock website) give a gritty, reactionary feel to my urban exploration (both as an undertaking and my thoughts on the UK movement itself), the academic papers are far more introspective, questioning the underpinning reasons and desires beneath it all.

Urban Explorers At The National Gas Turbine Establishment
No. 74 August 2006

It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon and I was lying in an old, empty sump pit wondering if the weird metallic noises erratically tapping and clicking were caused by approaching security, demolition teams, unauthorized scavengers or the expansion of the metal pipes all around us. We remained motionless for five minutes, listening intently, before deciding to continue cautiously.

We were creeping around the partially derelict National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE)1, a formerly secret industrial facility used for the development and testing of jet engines. Founded on the back of Whittle's pioneering work in the 1940s, the research establishment's biggest public clam-to-fame was the development of Concorde's propulsion. It largely closed last year and the entire site is due for demolition. Its proposed replacement is the largest supermarket depot in the UK - hardly a deserving epitaph.

Aerial photography showed a huge site with dozens of large buildings, all interconnected with a network of enormous pipes and ducts. Rumours abounded, even suggesting an entire aircraft preserved in a cavernous tunnel (very likely untrue and probably misappropriation from the wind testing tunnels at nearby Farnborough).

With such (dubious) provenance, we had to take look. Our intentions were utterly honourable, namely to explore, photograph, document and record before redevelopment. Research (at this point limited to the Internet) yielded virtually nothing: a site of this importance deserved something more fitting.

However, our modus operandi was on extremely shaky ground, which is why we were creeping around and keeping to the shadows. We had no permission to be there. We were trespassing. We are urban explorers.

We were not alone that Saturday afternoon. All around the world, other small groups armed with torches, mobile phones and cameras were sneaking into unused buildings, empty drains, forgotten bunkers, industrial ruins and the battered remains of leisure sites. In full daylight or under moonlight, under or over fences, through open doors and broken windows, urban explorers were quietly and unobtrusively sneaking, climbing and tunnelling around the world's forgotten sites.

The term "urban exploration" has a loose definition, encompassing a wide range of disparate actives, all of which include the unauthorized exploration of "man-made" structures. As the Internet grew, regional variants such as "infiltration", "draining" "urban spelunking" and "urban caving" all collected under the umbrella term "urban exploration". It looks set to settle on that moniker, although many security guards, perhaps due to Chinese whispers and/or misinformation, refer to us as "Urban Warriors" or "Post-modern Ramblers".

With such broad foundations, "urban exploration" encompasses a huge number of activities, but I only participate in a subset, namely the exploration of derelict structures, the most popular part of the genre.

For a small hardcore of purist urban explorers, the thrill of discovery and the actual infiltration itself are its raison d'etre. But the vast majority of those who dub themselves urban explorers use it for other purposes: the curious who explore just to satisfy themselves; the thrill-seekers who love the adrenalin rush of being where you shouldn't; the trophy hunters who simply want to notch up as many locations as possible; the artists and photographers who are drawn to derelict splendour and the beauty of decay; and the historians and preservationists who want to grab a final set of pictures and learn more about the locations before it's too late. I am firmly in the latter camp, using urban exploration to document locations before they disappear forever.

Figure 1. National Gas Turbine Establishment. The huge array of pipes which snake across from the north west of the site, disappearing into various buildings. The small building to the left is similar to a BT Repeater building - so should give and indication of scale.(Air House exhaust pipe array from the edge of Cell 3 looking north west) - 24|06|06 © Simon Cornwell 2006

The reasons for exploring the NGTE were primarily due to its secretive nature and secondly due to its impending destruction. As we made our slow, cautious way around the huge pipes, concrete sumps, cable runs and debris, observing the huge storage tanks, laboratories and glass fronted concrete buildings, we felt we were onto something big.

With ears peeled for the slightest noise, tipped off that security patrolled the site on some form of silent modified golf cart, we approached a high steel door. Gingerly, crouching to avoid observation, we tried the door. It opened but the hinges were rusty and it required more force. Suddenly it gave, creaking open by an inch, the shrill noise of the grinding metal echoing around the site, which pinpointed us immediately. We hurried inside, confronted by an enormous hall with a huge subterranean chamber stretching its entire length.

Wow! For a moment, we forgot about security.

We started photographing.

Such subterfuge would've been familiar to John Harris, self-styled "Country House Snooper". In the immediate post-war years, he explored and documented the damaged and deserted country houses scattered around war-torn Britain. This lead to a career in historical architecture, co-authoring Pevsner's Lincolnshire and becoming the librarian at the RIBA. He also spearheaded a change in the attitudes towards the demolition of old country houses by co-partnering Marcus Binney (who founded SAVE) with the Country House Exhibition of 1974.

Whilst Harris' activities and campaigning lead to a career and positive change in the attitudes towards forgotten and unwanted buildings, in the four years of my website, interest has snowballed, leading to enquiries from many diverse organisations such as TV production companies, artists, musicians, preservationists, journalists, historians and archivists.

Of particular interest are the employees, trainees, apprentices and custodians of the buildings I've explored. Former employees, or those associated with the buildings, often write in and their comments become part of the descriptions I give the photographs. In this manner, the empty, desolate shells I photograph become much more poignant, as the human history behind them gradually emerges.

One of the most popular locations on my website is the top-secret MOD testing establishment Aquila. Although largely stripped, we still found much evidence of the work performed there, including X-ray machines and the bizarre and unnerving anechoic chambers. One of the founders of Aquila, now in his nineties and in retirement in Australia, took great joy from my pictures and his granddaughter supplied me with pictures of him there in the 1950s. Aquila was demolished shortly after our visit and a housing estate now occupies the site. With photography banned when the site was active, my pictures are probably the biggest collection in existence.

I've also followed Harris' preservationist footprints more closely. I've yet to campaign for a building myself2, but my photos have compelled others to do so. For instance, when I published images of the decrepit Beedingwood House, SAVE contacted me with the intent of saving it. This former Victorian rectory, an asymmetrical sprawling building, complete with large circular rooms and corner towers, was now literally falling to pieces and scheduled for demolition. I'm not sure if they were successful, but Beedingwood still stands, and has yet to succumb to the bulldozers3.

In another example, a local preservation group prompted my trips to an abandoned mental asylum in Colchester. The ballroom was a matter of concern, because they didn't believe assurances from the building's owners that adequate protection was in place. They asked me to take a discrete look. After creeping in, I found the ballroom the subject of vandalism, with several attempts made to set fire to it. I took copious pictures, subsequently used by the preservation group to drum up pressure, but alas, security was not improved. The inevitable happened with the ballroom burnt to the ground two years later. My pictures, taken over those years, presented a poignant history of what happens to buildings when the local vandals and arsonists take hold.

Figure 2. Colchester mental asylum's main ballroom. Situated in the centre of the asylum complex, the ballroom was for the benefit of staff and patients: dances, concerts, theatricals, Chrismas and New Year celebrations took place in this majestic Edwardian hall. - 16|04|05 © Simon Cornwell 2005

The BBC used my growing asylum knowledge for Restoration Nation, a BBC4 regional tie-in to the popular Restoration programme. I selected the location (Rauceby, near Sleaford), and was able to find former staff for the show, as they'd been in touch after seeing pictures of the hospital on my website. I ended up presenting part of the piece, being captioned as an "Asylum Historian" and spoke about the hospital's history and design. The background to the piece was the difficult decisions concerning the reuse of former Victorian mental asylums.

We were lucky at the NGTE. The site had only recently closed and vandalism was entirely absent. I took a gantry to the roof of the building, and photographed a crane used for lowering turbines into the testing rig 90 feet below. (A handwritten note on the open doors of the rig mentioned a Rolls Royce turbine, the last test). We descended into the darkness below, working through dark chamber after chamber, discovering myriads of controls, feedback equipment, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics and the underbelly of the testing chamber itself.

We emerged, blinking in the sunlight, in a completely different place, about fifty yards from the original building we entered. This allowed us to get some exterior photographs without the risk of being seen by security.

Many of the sites we visit have a security presence. The guards are simply doing their jobs, and we try not to waste their time or cause them difficulties: therefore they're avoided at all times. If apprehended, we fully co-operate and immediately leave if asked to do so. The rules change if you don't comply with security's wishes, and the situation could escalate becoming more serious than a civil trespass.

This is one of the few rules governing urban exploration. Another rule, a motto originally taken from caving organisations, states "Take only photographs, leave only footprints". Implicit in this statement are that nothing should be taken (theft) and nothing should be damaged (criminal damage).If a site is well secured and protected it will remain that way. No urban explorer would resort to damaging anywhere to gain access, although ingenious methods are employed to get around fences or into buildings.

We actively discourage exploring alone. Often the buildings we explore are severely dilapidated, weakened by years of water penetration or wet-and-dry rot. Relying on a mobile phone alone would not suffice, as a signal is unavailable in some of the larger locations. Exploring with one or two others is recommended so help is at hand if difficulties or injury occurs. A third party is always informed of where an exploration is taking place, and what time you're expected back.

Figure 3. Aldington Prison, Kent. In the art rooms of the prison, a prisoner has recreated Da Vinci's Last Supper on the wall of a cooridor, substituting Jesus and his disciples for (presumably) the prison staff. Someone, probably another prisoner or bored vandal, had taken offence to the governor, and punched his mouth out. The rest of the picture remains undamaged. - 23|10|05 © Simon Cornwell 2005

It was now late at the NGTE. We found an open window in another huge glass fronted building and nimbly jumped in. It wasn't long before we found ourselves in another cavernous space; a huge pipe fitted with pressure doors, sensors, more test equipment and overhead gantries and cranes. The sheer scale of this oversized Meccano set was truly inspiring.

Again, we set about exploring, taking pictures, and trying to capture the vastness of the space. A huge pile of scrap metal in one corner of the room suggested demolition, or systematic stripping, had started, although we were unable to identify the source.

Suddenly there was a loud noise from one corner of the room. It sounded like a hammer on metal. My first thoughts were that someone else was trying to get it. The blow sounded again. And again. Randomly. Our hurried whispered conversation confirmed we were both utterly spooked by now, and it was time to leave. Neither of us wanted to investigate, or be investigated, by what had made that noise. Quietly we rushed out of the hall, back to the office, through the open window, and away across the site.4

My first exploration was purely exteriors. Drawn to some random pictures of a derelict mental asylum in South London, I visited the site, walking around its perimeter, documenting each ward as I trudged through the overgrown foliage. Months later, I was inside and this derelict asylum in Coulsdon, South London, became my favourite urban exploration location.

Named Cane Hill, the Second Surrey County Lunatic Asylum was a state-of-the-art design when first conceived. Architect Charles Howell was trying to scale the unwieldy 'corridor plan' of the mid-to-late nineteen century, prompted by the increased size of the institutions from hundreds of patients to thousands. His solution was a unique design, a radial placement of the pavilion style wards around a horseshoe shaped central corridor. Its design, although in retrospect flawed, was the bridge between the 'corridor' and 'echelon' style of the late nineteen century. Cane Hill is a unique building.

I still remember the awe of entering the hospital's chapel, and finding a fully equipped Victorian church, furnished with pews, organ and pulpit. The polychromatic brickwork, and a marble alter, confirmed the Victorian's fascination with detail. It was astonishing to find this chapel in the middle of a derelict, damaged, arson-attacked and rapidly decaying complex of buildings.

My ambitions with Cane Hill revealed the limitations of urban exploration. As a computer programmer, specializing in 3D CAD Systems, I wanted the opportunity to 3D model an asylum, to allow people to walk through it virtually in real time (the technology utilized by First Person Shooters was now sufficiently advanced). Such an endeavour pushed urban exploration to its limits. I needed pictures, from all orientations, of all the rooms, corridors, main areas and exteriors. Such a rigorous and formal photography shoot would be impossible under the conditions of urban exploration, where fences, locked doors, alarms and security dictate routes and opportunities. Therefore, without formal permission, my plans for this site were quashed.5

So, for those interested in preservation, documentation and history, urban exploration is sometimes a useful tool, where a building is clearly unwanted and neglected and where the owners are faceless bureaucracies or government agencies. But it should always be remembered that other methods of gaining access would work just as easily, including asking the owners nicely. Some urban explorers are members of respected, reputable organisations and join club trips instead of resorting to clock and dagger techniques. But for those like myself with no formal architectural qualifications, and interests in old buildings for which no exploration societies exist, and faced with uninterested owners, then urban exploration is the only resort.

After returning home, we viewed our pictures and further studied the site using the incredibly useful Google Earth. Working out our path, we'd covered about 10% of the NGTE. Despite being unnerved by our weird experience, we'll be returning. It's now a race against the demolition crews to grab, document and preserve something of this site before we're left with yet another dull superstore and associated distribution centre. And I really hope a former employee will find me through a search engine one day and e-mail me: "Yes, that's the place where we designed and tested the engines of Concorde."

© Simon Cornwell 2006

1: At the time of writing, I was referring to the site as the NGTE. However for the people who worked there, it was always called Pyestock. It was NGTE:Pyestock from 1946 through to 1983, at which point it became RAE:Pyestock and so on.

2: I have since written a listing application for Cane Hill Hospital. It's currently being reviewed by English Heritage.

3: After an arson attack in 2007, Beedingwood House was declared unsafe and completely demolished.

4: This exploration has been written as The Recce in the Pyestock Diaries.

5: Instead, I systematically photographed Rauceby Mental Hospital and intend to recreate it virtually.