A challenge for urban explorers

Most of us see 'Keep Out' signs as a warning. To urban explorers they're a challenge. Rhodri Marsden goes where others fear to tread
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The Independent Online

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, an internet messageboard devoted to the activity, features discussion about the accessibility of various buildings, and last month Glasgow hosted the annual Europex convention, which drew people from across Europe, attracted by Scotland's relaxed trespass laws.

While most of us obey "Keep Out" signs, the 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, who belongs to the latter group, has spent hours clambering over fences and shinning up drainpipes, and has become something of an expert on Victorian asylums. 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 in Surrey. Then I discovered that in Victorian times there had been 114 of them around the UK. It became my quest to see as many as possible." Since changes in the 1950s which saw, for example, unmarried mothers no longer incarcerated, the asylums have closed, one by one. By the late 1990s barely any were still in use. Today, demolition is rampant. "Most of them are being redeveloped into housing," laments Simon, "so I try to get a look at them while they're still here, take photos, 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 asylum before. Dressed entirely in black, we walk along a footpath, toting rucksacks containing the urban explorer's toolkit: a torch, a camera, a bottle of water. Simon glances 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 won't 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 in there 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 that make you catch your breath. The doors to each cell - "not cells, seclusions", corrects Simon - bear the names of their female inhabitants. One carries a notice: "No plastic sheets: Vera tends to eat them." Marlon beckons us to 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."

In a chilly room, Marlon sits on the edge of a large hole in the floor, his legs dangling down. "To get to the other buildings, we have to use the service tunnels," he explains. Simon hands me a torch, and straps a light to his own head 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, "there's still power down here."

This feels like intrepid exploration, and after walking for five minutes, a shaft of light appears. We clamber up past a rusting air-conditioning system and into the main hall - it's completely burnt-out, with the metal girders of the roof arching in. Marlon and Simon look disconsolate. "This used to be one of the best," says Simon, picking his way through bricks and charred planks. A number of times during the day, he refers angrily to the "little arsonists" who prevent these places from decaying at their own pace.

Urban explorers are bound together by a 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. "I've walked away from buildings I couldn't get into," he says. "We damage nothing, and we leave everything as we found it." This, though, won't wash with security guards who are employed to prevent trespass, which is after all a civil offence.

The thrill of avoiding detection and of being somewhere without permission, though, is a motivation for many explorers. Jondoe and Stoop's obsession is with the drains that run beneath London that are only possible to access through manhole covers. Their strategy is to wear a fluorescent jacket and hard hat. "People ignore you. You almost become invisible," explains Jondoe. "They're the most astonishing places that no one gets to see," enthuses Stoop. "Waterfalls, plugholes, cavities, sluice gates. There's one guy who 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. Simon's website is developing into a huge historical document as places he's visited vanish and reminiscences 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? "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.

For further information visit www.simoncornwell.com/urbex; www.infiltration.org; www.darkplaces.co.uk