Some people travel to see the world, some revel in the history of the ancients, and others explore the urban landscapes and environments of the last century. The urban world of yesterday has a distinct fascination that appeals to a new breed of explorer – those who seek to uncover its lost and forgotten past.
Whilst notable decades of the more distant past become preserved in museums, the near past gets eroded from our memories and is sometimes largely forgotten as it transforms into an urban wasteland, eventually falling into a complete state of disrepair; urban decay and abandonment eventually making way for new development projects. Often the sites on which these factories, industrial facilities and other institutions lie are destined to become home to modern flats and housing estates.
So what is Urban Exploration?
When asked, we describe it as a sort of modern-day tomb raiding. Urban exploration (UE or Urbex, for short) is about exploring and documenting the often abandoned and derelict urban landscapes that lie all around us in our cities, towns and once populated villages and settlements. In fact, you probably know of somewhere that fits into this category in your own town or neighborhood.
Places include World War Two bases and their abandoned infrastructures, closed and disused factory buildings, hospitals, mental asylums, theme parks (The American Adventure), cinemas, and a whole load of other of more or less conventional sites – all waiting to be explored.
You generally can’t see this sort of stuff in exhibitions or museums, much less in situ while a place is still in use (though there are exceptions). The closest you might get would be somewhere like Demeure du Chaos in Lyon, France, a onetime coach house and now a contemporary art space.
The photograph above shows the old metal box factory that once stood in Mansfield, UK, taken during an exploration in 2011. At its peak the factory employed more than 1,000 people. The main structure has now been demolished, and all that remains is the listed clock tower seen on the right.
Is UE family friendly? Do women get involved?
No, it’s definitely not something for the family, and yes, girls and women do get involved – though in this author’s view it seems to be a pursuit that’s more appealing to men. In order to acquire access to places, individuals are often required to bend or break laws – but of course it’s all in the pursuit of exploring.
In the United Kingdom, trespassing is a civil offence typically met with a hearty, derogative talking down from the police authorities, or privately contracted security. Their disposition often depends on their mood. And while some understand, the behavior of others suggests that they enjoy power and authority in whatever form. Some are even good-natured and even happy to tell you about the history of the place, depending on how long they’ve been there.
This is not to say that urban explorers are disruptive or out to cause damage in any way. You will often read or hear the expression ‘leave only footprints’, which has become an unofficial code of conduct governing the behavior of urban explorers. We certainly do not advocate breaking down doors or smashing in windows in order to gain entry. Such ruin can, however, occur due to existing neglect, disrepair, or because of damage caused by non-explorers – such as teenagers with a desire to vandalize, or looters looking to strip away materials.
Some individuals have more balls than others – or not in the case of Lana Sator, a Russian female urban explorer who managed to access, explore and thoroughly document an active Russian rocket production facility.
These are the sorts of heavily industrialized locations some urban explorers can only dream of, making the exploration experiences of this author, for example, somewhat tame by comparison. Whilst Sator’s intentions were not to cause harm, the Russian government was clearly not happy about their lightly secured facility making mainstream news. Whilst this place is not disused, its history and nature made it a very appealing prospect for an urban explorer.
Is it safe?
These places aren’t generally known for their safety. Many locations are clearly not safe and aren't intended to be. The homeless or drug addicted have a tendency to make abandoned sites their home, and it’s not unusual to see needles scattered on the ground. You have to be prepared to make a call on whether somewhere is too risky to venture into. Even a seasoned urban explorer will give some places a miss.
Other risks include dated construction methods, including the use of asbestos building materials; walls that have collapsed or caved in; protruding objects; broken glass; hidden holes in the ground; unstable walkways; harmful chemicals; and dangerous drops (50 foot high enough for you?). Take your pick.
Exploring in pairs or small groups is definitely encouraged as help is then never far away when you need it – should you misjudge a distance, put a foot wrong, or otherwise make a mistake. Exploring alone can be particularly dangerous, and one would certainly not want to go forgotten. And whilst you might have the cunning to access a place, emergency services may not be so hasty in advocating that their own staff do the same, as they have procedures and health and safety to think about.
Whilst this author has been relatively lucky, a friend and exploring buddy has had a nail through his foot, which promptly led them to buying a pair of hardened safety boots from an army surplus store.
What do you document and why?
People often document the building, location and surrounding environment, along with any successful entry points or useful information that can be used to help others. Some places are more interesting than others; it depends on their former purpose. Out of the explorations this author has been involved with, the most interesting was a WWII air force base, and the least appealing an old girls’ college – though this may have just been because we were freezing cold at the time! It also often depends on how recently a place has been abandoned.
Urban exploration is a pretty fun and addictive activity to undertake, and at the end we get to share all the cool stuff we find. Many of these sites are disappearing as they become demolished and make way for new development. It's the state of disrepair, decay and isolation that adds appeal to these places, some of which remind you of scenes in post-apocalyptic movies like 28 Days Later – which has subsequently become the name of a website devoted to urban exploration.
If you want to see a typical report, then check out the GE/Thorn Lighting example.
David Beastall is an Urban Explorer from Nottingham, UK who writes on behalf of Acre Resources. Acre specialize in health and safety jobs and vacancies for the world’s environmental and green professionals.