WHEN THE LANCASHIRE TELEGRAPH ran a story in 2012 about a ‘tasteless prank’ in a derelict Victorian hospital, a loose collective of Urban Explorers, photographic artists, and other assorted whackjobs were less than amused. Writing for the Big Issue in the North journalist and general layabout, Ian O’Brien, tracked down these crazed Gonzo togs and hung about with them. What follows is their story. A bit of it anyway.
OVER the last few years a new type of ‘criminal activity’ has quietly evolved in the UK; it’s influence spreading from US cities like Chicago and Detroit all the way to rural East Lancashire.
In towns across the country groups have been silently, methodically and professionally breaking and entering right under our noses, though it almost never makes the front page and public backlash is minimal. Why? Because nothing is stolen and there is rarely ever any damage.
Just north of Manchester the Rossendale group are close knit and suspicious. They have to be; during the day most of them have respectable jobs, and their chosen pastime carries a potential prison sentence. However, that is not the only hazard they face; on every outing they take their lives in their hands.
Decked out in camouflage clothing, high end walking boots and full face masks, they look more like armed robbers than ‘urban archaeologists’. On closer inspection however, one essential item sets them apart. It is one thing they never leave home without: A camera, and often it is their pride and joy.
Known variously as Urban Exers, Urban Rock Climbers, Drainers or Building Hackers, these pioneers of the near environment have a saying – Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
Founding members Mr Urban-X and Crazy Grey-Z agreed to speak with us to, hopefully, dispel some myths surrounding urban exploration. Both are at pains to point out that while they may be guilty of trespass, breaking and entering is not something they do: “I think there has only been one time” Grey says “when we’ve actually removed a padlock, and we replaced it with a new one on the way out. We’ve never even broken a window.”
But not every group is so principled and it is these rogue elements which give the entire movement a bad name. “We’re not vandals” Urban-X says. “What we do is document forgotten environments, not wreck them.”
Both feel strongly on this and are determined to clear up the common misconception: “It’s not about breaking into places,” he continues. “Often we’re rediscovering sites that have been abandoned and forgotten about for decades. We see ourselves as historians, in many ways.”
When they have entered a ‘forgotten environment’ they take pictures and post them on one of the many ‘urban-ex’ forums which have sprung up over the last few years. If they manage to enter and document a place of particular interest, and especially one with security, there is a feeling of accomplishment as their images flash around the world, to be viewed by Urbex fans from Sydney to Syracuse.
“In the case of the Astoria” says Grey, “we had to go back three nights in a row before we could get in, due to security. When we did though, it was well worth the effort”.
The now demolished Astoria Ballrooms, in Rossendales former Valley Shopping Centre, had seen generations of people from far and wide enjoy their first pint, their first dance, and their first gig. During the 1960’s up to 600 teenagers would cram into the ballroom to see headline acts of the day such as The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who. And all for the princely sum of sixpence.
The two friends had enjoyed many a good night at the Astoria, and felt it deserved a final goodbye. This is indicative of their belief that even places of little architectural value deserve to be remembered in some way.
But not everybody is so enthusiastic and Greater Manchester Police take a far different position: “Anybody thinking of taking part in activities such as these needs to consider the consequences of their actions, in terms of personal and public safety and any offences they may commit.”
Legal implications aside, however, Urban-X is keen point out that from a safety point of view he and his group take all manner of precautions, including letting somebody else know where they are going to be.
“If a building has fallen into disrepair and may be dangerous, we always have somebody stationed outside who will get a call or text every 30 minutes” he says. “We take safety very seriously. You have to or accidents happen”.
“There had been a lot of rain the week before” Grey says, “but we expected the levels to have dropped by the time we went in.”
On reaching the half-way point they found that a sudden downpour was causing the already swollen waters to rise quite dramatically.
“We didn’t think twice,” he says, “we radioed back to the entrance and turned around. There’s no room for heroics when you are underground and that culvert has been there for a hundred years. It would wait another week.”
However, it is impossible to eradicate danger altogether. While ‘rediscovering’ an abandoned Victorian hospital, they were forced to climb a thirty foot drainpipe and scramble over various rooftops to gain entry. This must be why they are sometimes referred to as urban rock climbers?
“Well, yeah” says Urban-X, “in a nutshell. Some people go scuba diving in the wrecks of old ships, some people climb mountains. We climb drainpipes.”
Apart from the excitement of investigating what they see as pieces of living history, of documenting structures and architectural works which may not be here for very much longer, there is also an artistic angle. The Rossendale group are all talented and artistic photographers.
“We have a lot of fun with the photography” Grey tells me. “Though it can be a challenge; a lot of the time we’re in low light situations, or in places which are cramped and wet. Safely transporting a thousand pounds worth of camera equipment through waist deep water is a task in itself.”
Their images have proven to be a hit though. Recently approached by a professional photographer who is interested in staging a show, it may be that they soon have a whole new audience: “Yeah, we have been asked about a show of our work, and we have been asked about writing a book. At this point, though, we aren’t counting our chickens.”
As I begin to pack up and say my goodbyes, both are keen to stress that this is not something to be undertaken lightly: “If you have an interest, get online, join forums and do some research. The last thing we want are reports of broken arms and legs….or worse! There are various sites around the country which are abandoned, safe and wide open to visitors.”
Grey-Z goes on to say, and he cannot stress this enough: “Never, ever go into abandoned building alone. You never know what, or who you might find.”
Note: If you are an eccentric billionaire philanthropist who would like to donate a suitcase full of used twenty pound notes to The Rossendale Historical Detective Agency – of if you just have any questions – feel free to leave a comment. If that tog blog can track them down, maybe they’ll answer for you.
Original work by Ian O’Brien.
Edited for ttb by Ian O’Brien.
First published 19/11/12.
Big Issue in the North.
- Urban Explorers give new life to old buildings with help from Instagram (wgntv.com)
- Rossendale Museum stage a 60′s exhibition for the Festival (rossendale60sfest.wordpress.com)
- Cafe Artisan Supporting the 60′s Festival (rossendale60sfest.wordpress.com)