The Game Of Cat And Mouse

It was a matter of coincidence that inaugurated Cane Hill as the first major target of the seminal urban exploration community. Its long disuse and sparse security tallied well with the rising popularity and adoption of the Internet by those interested in such locations. The open surroundings, rampant overgrown foliage and small metal linked fence made it an easy prospect for early urban explorers to hone their skills and develop ways of infiltrating and exploring large buildings without damage or injury.

Dog Patrol to Major Tom


The last straggling patients and staff vacated the old hospital site early in 1992. The keys to the buildings were handed over to a new security team, who based themselves in the Administration Block (taking advantage of the power still available in that part of the building). The rest of the complex was firmly shuttered down, with windows and doors closed and locked respectively. Internally various doors were nailed shut and the hospital’s endless internal corridors were periodically blocked with rough, plywood barricades; a series of amputations which started as the hospital began to wither and shrink in the late 1980s.

These barriers made movement around the complex difficult, both for early explorers and security. The blocks also stultified the movement of fresh air, creating a wet, humid and stilted atmosphere, exacerbated by overflowing blocked gutters and airbricks choked with Buddleia growth. It was a perfect culture for wood eating fungi, and Cane Hill began to slowly cook and rot.

Some tales from this decade did surface and revealed a relaxed, almost casual approach to the old buildings and their contents. One writer described a lost summer’s evening when they crept into a ward and found a piano abandoned in the corner. The darkening twilight was spent consuming whiskey, smoking splifs, idling tunes out of the forgotten instrument and coolly exploring the neighbouring wards.

A more ambitious, and eventful expedition was carried out by a group of explorers who simply slipped into the boiler house and took a service tunnel into the heart of the hospital, thereby circumnavigating its pitiful fence completely. Frustrated by the lack of progress they could make along the main corridor network, they took their anger out on one of the barricades, eventually kicking through the rough construction. The final punch burst open the flimsy door and the group found themselves staring down a lit corridor with a security guard calmly looking at them from the breached side. Their attempts to flee were frustrated by their slow progress back through the cramped and claustrophobic tunnels and they fully expected the police to be waiting for them when they re-emerged. However, in these somewhat more civilised times, the group were not apprehended and left the site without further incident.


It was during these halcyon days that Andrew Tierney commenced his explorations of the hospital and its grounds. His initial forays were not ambitious, but they painted a vivid picture of this immense, abandoned, scary, unknown entity which was ripe for exploration. Tales of dangerous climbs of the water tower to view the unscarred, complete central core of the hospital and night-time flits into the laundry and adjoining corridors were accompanied by narratives of being frightened out of his wits, seeing strange shapes and figures, and running from the darkened, bleak site on a couple of occasions. It was a perfect combination of discovery, dread and suspense written up on his website named “The One”; and like many, I avidly lapped it all up from the safety of my computer screen.

At the time, Tierney had little concept of what he was dealing with, or who he might meet in those cavernous corridors or what might be hiding in dilapidated day rooms. No other asylums had been tackled in such a way, and the only contemporary website was Owen Pellow and Damon Torsten’s “The Shrine” who’d forged a similar relationship with their local ruin, the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital. Both websites developed a fierce respect for their associated buildings, and both instilled a sense of utter dread and foreboding. Pellow and Torsten experienced a ghost they dubbed The Flincher; whilst Tierney encountered several spooky sights and coincidences within Cane Hill. Thus there was this early link of exploring old hospitals and a genuine sense of the unknown (and perhaps even the supernatural).


Inspired by both websites, I made several trips to Cane Hill myself. Whilst Tierney’s explorations were full of atmosphere and strange events, I was more interested in the methodical appraisal of the location, as was evident on Pellow and Torsten’s site (who had explored much more of the smaller CRCMH and offered histories, documentation, plans and maps). Therefore I spent a wretched April morning trudging through the mud and puddles walking around the derelict hospital in the pouring rain taking pictures of the vandalised, smashed exterior. I was completely alone, circling a building that once housed thousands, gazing into the smashed windows with shredded sodden curtains flapping in the wind, and hearing unnerving bangs and crashes from within the building’s themselves. It was straight out of a gothic horror, yet part of me was utterly fascinated by this ruin, and I longed to get inside.

The opportunity arose later that year, and on a glorious July day, I found myself inside the hospital with two other urban explorers. The result of that extensive exploration was published as “Grand Tour” and it revolutionised the exploration of Cane Hill, pushing the boundaries of the exploration of the hospital still further. For the first time, the interiors of wards, the central service areas, the fire damage, the ruined main hall, and the magnificent chapel were published on the Internet. As Tierney’s website had inspired me, I’d inspired others and I found myself fielding requests about the hospital, and gratefully receiving historical information and documentation from other interested parties. The number of visitors to the site (both my virtual website and the physical Cane Hill) gradually started to grow.

The first generation of urban explorers in the UK were all known to each other through their websites (which probably numbered no more than ten) and we all swapped location details. As the number of known derelict sites was small, then the early scene was dominated by the same locations appearing repeatedly on this embryonic clutch of seminal websites. But, this only amplified the impact of these locations, increasing their prominence on the Internet, and resulted in yet another increase in the numbers of explorers and their desire to visit a limited number of locations.

Yet, Cane Hill had become slightly more difficult. An enormous fence was built around the former hospital, firmly demarking the public thoroughfares and access with the forbidden, mysterious, overgrown interior. The appearance of the fence dampened the spirits of this early community, but it was soon learnt that this barrier could be overcome – even within the “do no damage” mantra adopted by the urban explorers.

A compromised fence slat was a matter of feverish discussion amongst the trusted of the scene, but security was wise to any metal slats not hanging perfectly vertically, and quickly welded on replacements. Access to the hospital was partly governed by the narrow slice of time between the discovery of a busted section of fence and its prompt repair. However, there were always weak points, and scrambling over the boiler house roof was always an option, or (in better weather) wiggling under the fence by the undulating ground near the south-eastern wards.

One enterprising explorer fixed the base of one loose slat with a wing bolt. This anchored the slat firmly in place giving the impression of an unbroken barrier. The bolt, its twistable head hidden on the airing court side, could be quickly unscrewed and replaced, allowing quick accesses to the hospital beyond. The location of the bolt resembled the instructions to hidden pirate treasure: “Find the gate at the back of the fence, count seven main pillars to the right, and the slat is the second from the left.” This unauthorised route was only discovered in the height of summer, where a distinct trampled trail through the unkempt undergrowth beyond the fence, pointed clearly back to the weak point. It was diligently welded back.

Ingenious and elegant ways into the hospital were however rare and I was only aware of another. One enterprising explorer managed to remove the boarding from one of the windows of the nurses’ accommodation. Whilst this was easily to do in itself, he then carefully reinstalled the board with hinges and a primitive latch. Again, those in the know, simply made their way to the hospital’s Achilles’ heel, undid the latch when the footpath was clear, and then climbed nimbly through the open window. This elegant and civilised access was only discovered when a vandal tore the board from its temporary hinges leaving a gaping hole for security to discover on their next round.

Security’s response was initially measured, upping the number of circular patrols around the perimeter and repairing breaches promptly. As the number of infiltrations increased, the patrols moved back into the crumbling buildings. Explorers were easier to corner within the confines of the construction, ambushed in the larger impressive rooms or trapped by locked doors or unstable floors. Those caught inside the buildings often faced harsher punishments, either a long shouted lecture before being led outside, or handed over triumphantly to the police.

But security soon realised something was amiss as more and more were caught within the decrepit ruin. The websites were rightfully given the blame, especially as most of these transgressing tourists were found with pictures and maps downloaded from “that Simon Cornwell website.” Those dressed roughly, with rucksacks and, most importantly, armed with cameras were not welcome, and security soon started harassing the curious who accumulated on the footpath. The civil era of the exploration of Cane Hill was over.


The next generation of Internet based technologies ushered in a new urban exploration revolution at Cane Hill. The rise of the forums yielded a new breed of urban explorer: young, arrogant, uncompromising, brash and adventurous. These traits, when combined with the increasing annoyance of the security teams, led to an atmosphere of tension and borderline violence. Cane Hill was seen as an urban exploration rite of passage, and pictures of the key internal area of the hospital soon became ways to earn the respect of the new ‘elders’ who held sway over the forums.

The increasing vigilance and muted aggression now expected from security only increased the allure and impressiveness of gaining access to the Hill. Some of the older, respected methodologies of the first wave of urban explorers were swept aside: the concept of sneaking in and out unseen was no longer seen as a noble, and least troublesome, way of gaining photographs. The forum would only be impressed by a “comedy entrance”, beautiful pictures of mocked up scenes from the interior of the hospital (in particular of one ward where beds had been made up and pushed together to form a fully furnished ward scene) and a chase through the dangerous corridors with security in hot pursuit. Capture by the police and a night in the cells exponentially increased the individual’s standing.

The hospital was now under siege. In return, the guards upped the ante and tales circulated of people barricading themselves in offices and small rooms to avoid the unleashed, violent guard dogs. Those on the public footpath with cameras were met with threats of violence if they didn’t move on; a plan which escalated to the also illegal measures of closing the footpath at a whim and denying everyone access. The game of cat and mouse was on, and body sized holes started appearing the floors of wards where individuals had crashed through to the floor below after being chased across an unstable floor.

It was in this thuggish climate that English Partnerships finally took control of the hospital buildings and security measures. A huge fire had also taken out much of the Vincent ward, creating chaos and tying up much of London’s fire appliances. English Partnerships doubled the security presence and made it perfectly clear that any interlopers would be firmly dealt with by the police; the new draconian measures worked and interest in Cane Hill waxed and waned.


Cane Hill lost its star role, and the limelight was cast onto a host of new locations. The size of the new, bloated forums allowed hundreds of potential locations to be accessed, and explorers were now spoilt for choice and not limited to a handful of sites. There was also an oft expressed notion that Cane Hill was “done”, nothing more could be learned or photographed, and the building’s security was far too good (and rabid) for anyone to make the effort. For a while, the urban exploration community was quiet on the subject.

It was only a lull before an even bigger storm. The community continued to snowball, gaining more and more new members, and they were bitten by the Cane Hill bug when new postings emerged from explorers who’d decided to quietly sneak back inside. These new reports outlined the accelerating decay of the interiors, cataloguing the quiet collapse of parts of the fragile superstructure. But, more importantly, they highlighted the amount of equipment, furniture, records and patient belongings which still lay, rotting, inside the mildewed rooms and corridors. Experience of other asylums and hospitals gained in the interim showed this cache of paraphernalia to be extremely rare, and it engaged and inspired another round of visitors.

This ushered in the age of the guerrilla artists and photographers. Explorers waited at night to dart between the ever-frequent security guards to scale the fences and quietly creep around the hospital during the day. Moody, grainy black and white shots epitomised this age, the subject matter focused almost entirely on flaking paint, peeling 1970s wallpaper, desks being overtaken by foliage, discarded clothing and detritus of decay and the dispossessed. It was beautiful, it was amazing, but lost the context of the rotten institution around it. They were simply objects in isolation. But it was enough to finally smash the final nail into Cane Hill’s long awaited coffin.

In the end, it wasn’t English Partnerships vague redevelopment plans, nor any specific danger within the buildings which announced the arrival of the demolition plant. Another link with the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital was forged in the eventual destruction of both buildings: they had both become too popular, and the building’s owner, security, police and those living in the vicinity had tired of it. When I visited the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital I had to wait for some explorers to scramble out of the narrow gap in the fence before entering; and likewise others had to wait whilst I exited the site sometime later. English Partnerships claimed that over nine hundred trespassers had been ejected from Cane Hill in 2008 alone. The final course of action was obvious.

The demolition ushered in a final wave of interest, as those familiar with Cane Hill made their goodbyes and showed their respect; whilst another generation of explorers rushed to Coulsdon to see the legend for the first and last time. The urban exploration movement had now lost its most potent and iconic physical figurehead; and had, at last, gained one of legend and mythology. For Cane Hill not only epitomised the scale and size of buildings that could be discovered and explored, it became the first rite of passage. You won your “Asylum Badge” with distinction if Cane Hill was on your itinerary, and the buildings were always spoken of with awe and respect.

But, the movement which became infatuated with Cane Hill was big enough and broad enough in its scope and interests to survive its passing; but it could always be argued that the urban exploration scene in the UK started with a forgotten, derelict and broken labyrinth of buildings once perched on a leafy Surrey hill.

Simon Cornwell
28th April 2010

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