independent 04|07|05
Last update: 04|07|05
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This is the full version of the article as originally submitted by Rhodri Marsden. It was edited for final publication in the paper. This text can also be found on his blog site: do you come here often? - intrepid explorers.

Some other pictures from the photoshoot, taken by Ben Stansall can be found here.

The last time I had to climb through a window was after locking myself out in 1992, and it’s no easier now than it was back then. As I haul myself up onto a window ledge, my companions for the day, Simon and Marlon, look up at me with interest bordering on amusement. Sweating profusely, I clamber through into a ward of a disused mental hospital, whose floor is covered with peeling paint and broken glass, and contains sizable holes where the planks have become rotten. I’m surrounded on all sides by danger and decay. “So, how do you feel?” asks Simon, with a gleam in his eye. “Slightly odd,” I reply. “Good,” he says, closing the window behind me. “Let’s go and find the padded cell.”

Urban exploration is driven by a fascination with places you’re not supposed to go. Around 40 websites in the UK alone are dedicated to the pursuit, and despite most of them carrying disclaimers advising other people not to join in, the movement continues to grow. Darkplaces, the internet messageboard devoted to UK-based activities, features daily discussion about the accessibility of various buildings, and last month Glasgow hosted Europex, an annual convention which drew people from across Europe, attracted by the relaxed Scottish trespass laws. While many of us regard “Keep Out” signs with a certain amount of trepidation, the average urban explorer sees them as a challenge, if not an open invitation. Their interest in derelict structures is divided into three categories: infiltration (getting into them), buildering (climbing up them) and tunnelling (crawling down them), but there are also two distinct approaches; on one hand, people give themselves aliases, pull on balaclavas, arrange themselves into groups with names like “Action Squad” and engage in “missions” to infiltrate a local monastery, while others are perfectly happy for their names to be known, and view their documentation of disappearing history as almost a service to the local community. Simon Cornwell belongs to the latter group. He is partly inspired by the activities of “proto urban explorer” John Harris, who spent many years snooping around old country houses without permission druing the 1950s and eventually became a member of staff at the Royal Institute of British Architects. This sheen of respectability has spurred Simon to spend hours spent clambering over fences and shinning up drainpipes, and as a result he has become something of an expert on Victorian asylums. “Did you ever imagine that you might actually see inside a mental hospital?” he said to me, enticingly. Indeed, I’d never considered this possibility, so I asked if I could tag along.

While motoring down a country lane early one Saturday, he fills me in on his hobby. “My initial interest was in Cane Hill, an incredible asylum near Couldson in Surrey. Then I discovered that in Victorian times there had been 114 of them around the UK, and it became my quest to see as many as possible.” Since the 1950s, which saw improvements in drug treatments and changes in society which meant that, for example, unmarried mothers were no longer incarcerated, the asylums have been closed, one by one. By the late 1990s barely any were still in use, and today, demolition is rampant. “Most of them are being redeveloped into housing,” laments Simon, “so I try and get a look at them while they’re still here, take a few photos and preserve the memory.” We park a short distance from our destination, and Simon introduces me to Marlon, our young, slightly nervy guide who has visited this particular asylum on a dozen previous occasions. Dressed in entirely in black, we walk purposefully along a footpath, toting rucksacks containing the urban explorer's toolkit: a torch, a camera, and a bottle of water. Simon glances back over his shoulder, and then ducks into some bushes. "The first time I came here," he says as he clambers through a hole in a fence, "I drove in past the security guards. But that's not likely to work more than once or twice." We walk through the long grass towards an imposing Victorian building, and stop for a moment. Looking at the majestic front elevation, the notion of such a beautiful place falling into neglect seems absurd. Simon agrees. "I can understand why a place might be surplus to requirements, but this place is protected for its architectural merit, and no-one's been inside for nearly 10 years. Except us."

Inside, the spectacle of a building in decay is fascinating enough, but it's the reminders of the patients who lived here that make you catch your breath. On one ward, the doors to each cell – "not cells, seclusions," corrects Simon – are painted a dirty pink, and have the surnames of their female inhabitants scrawled on in indelible blue marker pen. One door carries a notice: "No plastic sheets: Vera tends to eat them." A couple of stray wheelchairs sit in the middle of the ward, and in a small box room lie discarded coats, hats, suitcases and books. Simon picks up a day book which has been left on the stairs. On the 19th October 1984, in florid script, is written: "The patients appear comfortable and have slept well." Marlon beckons us upstairs, and leads us down a passageway to a door. Inside is the padded cell: it’s hot, dark, smelly and extremely grim. “This is why, for me, asylums are the most intriguing part of urban exploration,” says Simon. “You’d never get a ‘wow moment’ like this in, say, an old post office.”

We move back downstairs, and into a chilly room with a large hole in the floor. Marlon sits on the edge, his legs dangling down. “To get to the other buildings, we’re going to have to use the service tunnels,” he explains. Simon hands me a torch, and straps a light to his own forehead before lowering himself through the gap. Bent double, we manoeuvre our way forward. “Don’t be freaked out if you see lights in the distance,” says Marlon. “For some reason there’s still power down here.” This feels like real, intrepid exploration, and after walking for 5 minutes underneath the extensive grounds, a shaft of light suddenly appears. We clamber up past a rusting air conditioning system and into the burnt out shell of the main hall, with the metal girders of the roof arching in a black, skeletal pattern across the blue sky. Both Marlon and Simon look slightly disconsolate. “This used to be one of the best,” says Simon, picking his way through bricks and charred planks. On a number of occasions during the day, he refers angrily to the “little arsonists” who prevent these places from decaying slowly, at their own pace.

Urban explorers are bound together by a number of things, but one of them is this deep respect for the properties they visit. If the movement had a motto, it would be the phrase that appears on many of the websites – “take only photos, leave only footprints” – and Simon’s curious streak doesn’t extend to breaking and entering. “On many occasions I’ve walked away from buildings I couldn’t get into,” he says. “But there’s usually a way in, we damage nothing, and we leave everything exactly as we found it.” Unfortunately for them, this isn’t an excuse which will wash with security guards who are employed to prevent trespass, which is after all a civil offence. Veteran urban explorer “Jondoe” gives a few hints on avoiding their wrath. “Obviously, never carry a crowbar. That’s not trespass, that’s intent. Ditto matches, or lighters. And leave things alone; even if you pick up a piece of headed notepaper, that’s burglary, and you may well be arrested.” But generally, Jondoe’s encouters with security have been polite. “Once we were disturbed by a guy with a huge sniffer dog, asking us what we were doing,” he recalls. “I was just taking photos of these amazing floor tiles, and my colleague, Stoop, was eating a sandwich,” he laughs. “We’re not misbehaving, but we’re not going to put up a fight if we’re asked to leave.”

Despite their supposed obedience, the thrill of avoiding detection and the act of being somewhere without permission is a motivation for many explorers. Jondoe and Stoop have an obsession with the Victorian drains that run beneath London, spending hours doing extensive research as to their exact location. But it’s only possible to access them by lifting manhole covers at street level – an activity that police would be very interested in if they saw it attempted by a member of the public. Their strategy is to wear a fluorescent jacket and hard hat. “You seem to be able to get away with doing anything once you’re wearing them,” explains Jondoe. “People ignore you. You almost become invisible.” Once they’re in the drain, the primal instinct of the urban explorer kicks in: take lots of photos. “They’re the most astonishing places that no-one gets to see,” enthuses Stoop. “Waterfalls, plugholes, cavities, sluice gates. And they were built with such precision.” In the UK there are only 4 or 5 people with a specific interest in draining (“it’s certainly not busy down there,” laughs Jondoe) but it’s an activity that’s gaining interest abroad. “There’s one guy who has an ambition to explore as many drains in the world as he can,” says Stoop, “and he moves from country to country, getting new jobs, for no other reason than to access new drains. It’s like an infinite adventure.”

Not so for explorers above ground, who are always on the lookout for new places to visit as existing places are demolished. “This decade is perfect for exploring asylums,” says Simon, “and next decade it might be power stations. But in the meantime, asylums certainly bear repeated visiting.” He’s not wrong; after two hours exploring, we’ve only covered a tiny fraction of the site. Each room contains objects which would be mundane in any normal location, but their forgotten status gives them a whole new aura. One fireplace contains dusty decorations from a Christmas past. In the refectory, a crumpled tabloid newspaper features the headline “Bruno Bashed”, with a picture of Frank sprawled on the ropes. In a staff locker room an NHS pension scheme leaflet sits half read on a chair, fluttering gently in the breeze. As the wind picks up, it causes a nearby door to bang shut. Simon’s eyebrows shoot up. “I’m not superstitous,” says Simon, “but I have seen groups of ghost hunters with monitoring equipment in places like this. We’re not really interested in that kind of thing, though.” Marlon certainly seem more concerned about security than ghosts, and as we skirt around the perimeter of the site towards the mortuary and see a car reversing towards us, he pushes past me and dives through a hole in the fence. “After you, Marlon,” I call after him. “Sorry,” he replies, sheepishly. “Force of habit.”

Simon’s website is developing into a huge living historical document, as remeniscenses and titbits of information come in from people who worked in and around the various buildings. While reading, it’s difficult not to become bitten by the urban exploration bug; does it bother him that the pursuit might be damaged as more people become involved? “Clearly there’s nothing stealthy about 20 explorers standing in a queue to climb through a window. At that point, security will arrive, and the window will be boarded up. But if people want to explore, fine – as long as they obey the rules.” Jondoe echoes Simon’s view. “As long as people don’t start viewing it as some kind of extreme sport, I’ve got no problem with it. All it’s about, really, is curiosity.” “And never properly growing up,” adds Stoop, grinning.

pix by Ben Stansall