Urban explorer Matthew Adams on why broken bones and police attention will not stop him 'rooftopping'

A secretive but slowly growing community are finding their way into derelict buildings, or up tall structures

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The Independent Online

As holiday snaps go, Matthew Adams’s are more hair-raising than most.

Here he is at the theme park, climbing up the roller coaster, without safety equipment, to enjoy the view from 115ft up.

And here he is in Sweden, 800ft up a television mast, leaning over the edge with nothing but a friend’s grip on his arm to stop him plummeting to almost certain death. 

“The same as walking along the edge of a kerb,” he says. “You don’t fear toppling off the kerb, do you? 10ft, 100ft, the only difference is mental.”

Oh, and here’s another photo, of Mr Adams before he got good at climbing, in hospital, having broken his pelvis, his wrist and two vertebrae in his lower back, after falling from a viaduct.

“I was screaming until the ambulance came,” he says, chuckling. “In a viaduct. Think how much that screaming echoed… We laugh about it now.”

Such are the joys and perils of joining the “urban explorer”, “rooftopping” and “skywalking” community, a secretive but slowly growing bunch who find their way into derelict buildings, or up tall structures – rooftoppers just taking photos, skywalkers doing stunts, too.

For the most part, they are determined to stay underground, in every sense – they also like exploring disused tunnels. Mr Adams, though, has been thrust into the limelight by another peril faced by urban explorers: the police. 

A Sunday afternoon stroll up a 100ft crane in his home town of Lowestoft, Suffolk, has just resulted in Mr Adams and three friends being fined £100 for a public order offence of threatening behaviour. Suffolk Police said had they fallen, they could have killed “innocent passers-by on the ground”.

Mr Adams and his friends received a two-year ban on climbing any structure in England and Wales over metre 9ft 10in high. That won’t stop him. “This is my passion, my life,” he says. He’ll just go abroad. He’s already enjoyed another trip to Sweden: “Great place: fewer police.”

A former Catholic schoolboy, he was a 17-year-old photography student when he saw an online video of urban explorers in New York. “From then on,” he says, “I was obsessed. It was secret, fun, exciting – you had to sneak around, duck and dive. I could find my niche as a photographer instead of shooting the same boring old stuff as everyone else.”

His first mission was to a disused mental asylum in Essex. “The security guard chucked us out within 20 minutes.”

He persevered, found internet forums, made friends. “I’m on first-name terms with the asylum security guard now. He’s an absolutely lovely bloke, but very good at his job. So he chucks us out, but has a chat first.”

UK urban explorers, now numbering well over 10,000, are, he says: “A right mix. You get punk guys, artistic types who are in it for the photography. There’s even a lawyer.”

And talking of the law, Mr Adams insists they are not criminals. They get into derelict buildings, but they never break in. 

“Our motto is ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’. We leave everything as we found it. We share information only with people we trust, who won’t trash buildings or steal. We enter buildings to document the history. We show things people wouldn’t otherwise experience.”

Anyway, trespass: “That’s a civil offence isn’t it? If it’s only a civil offence I don’t think anyone can be too concerned.”

It might have taken him three years and 10 visits to crack one empty stately home, but, he says: “There’s always a way in.” 

He just won’t tell you what it is. This is a world that jealously guards it secrets – jealousy, according to Mr Adams, being the operative word.

“There are lots of rivalries, fallings out. One group might not share a way in with another group. Someone might tell the wrong person about a building.”

And the biggest sin of all is to go to the mainstream public with your exploits – as Mr Adams does with newspaper interviews and his “Unexposed Exploration” Facebook page.“There are people who hate me,” he says. “I’ve had to block 400 people on social media.”

But then, he has had harder knocks. Three years ago, he added climbing to exploring derelict buildings. Which might seem a strange move for a man who merrily acknowledges “as a kid, I was a terrible climber” and admits that he had no training.

In February 2014 he went up that 30ft viaduct in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and down again “at what felt like a million miles an hour” after slipping from scaffolding near the top.

He did consider quitting as he lay in hospital being told he might not walk again. Then he decided just to tattoo the date of his fall on to his arm, as a more visible souvenir than the two metal rods helping hold his pelvis together. “Why should something you love be ruined by an accident?”

He did make one change. “We practise all the time now,” he says. “People don’t understand that whatever we do at height has been practised at low level hundreds of times.”

So he will carry on, abroad. He’s planning a lovely romantic holiday in Dubai with his girlfriend. “It will be our first holiday together,” he says. “But I might sneak away occasionally. Dubai’s skyscrapers look amazing.”

And which skyscrapers might he be intending to “visit”? Mr Adams paused.

“Perhaps it’s best I don’t tell you.”