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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.