Guardian: The strange world of urban exploration

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Oct 24 19:47:51 BST 2013

The strange world of urban exploration

Urban explorers scale skyscrapers, jump fences, 
lift manhole covers – and break the law. Robert 
Macfarlane joins fearless urbexer Bradley Garrett 
on a night-time jaunt, and discovers the thrills 
of this illicit and dangerous pastime


Robert Macfarlane
The Guardian, Friday 20 September 2013 16.00 BST

Urban exploration: a guide for the uninitiated. 
Urban exploration, urbex or UE is recreational 
trespass in the built environment. Among the 
requirements for participation are 
claustrophilia, lack of vertigo, a taste for 
decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a 
readiness to jump fences and lift manhole covers, 
and a familiarity with the laws of access in 
whatever jurisdiction you're undertaking your 
explorations. Archive and web skills are useful 
too, for acquiring the schematics and blueprints 
that will inspire and orient you. Among the sites 
in your sights are disused factories and 
hospitals, former military installations, 
bunkers, bridges and storm-drain networks. You 
should be content on the counterweight of a crane 
400 feet above the street, or skanking along a 
sewer 10 yards under the asphalt.

The cultural origins of urbex would include, to 
my mind, Tarkovsky's Stalker, the fiction of JG 
Ballard, old-school mountaineering and caving, 
blasts of steampunk (there is a love of girders, 
rivets and brickwork), console culture 
(Bioshock), apocalypse dreams (from Planet of the 
Apes to The Road), the Mission Impossible films 
and (inevitably) Guy Debord and his situationist 
dérive – the randomly motivated walk designed to 
disrupt habitual movement through the cityscape. 
It's quite some gumbo. If urban explorers didn't 
exist, China Miéville would have had to invent them.

The scene has its subscenes. Just as certain 
climbers prefer granite to gritstone, and certain 
cavers prefer wet systems to dry ones, the 
explorers have their specialisms: the 
bunkerologists, the asylum seekers, the 
skywalkers, the builderers, the track-runners, 
the drainers. Most people start out in ruins, 
though: these tend to be the easiest sites to 
access, and the aesthetic payoffs – the pathos of 
abandonment, the material residue of inscrutable 
histories – are rapid. Ruinistas dig "derp" (UE 
slang for "derelict and ruined places"). Detroit 
was the world mecca for derp, until it became a 
city-sized version of Don DeLillo's "most 
photographed barn in America", and it was 
impossible to see it except through a haze of 
ruin-porn imagery: HDR stills of dusty ballrooms 
and atria, with artfully scattered detritus (detroitus) in the foreground.

Along from the ruinistas come the adventurers, 
who are mostly out for the kicks. Photography is 
important to the adventurers too, they specialise 
in the "hero shot": the lone explorer seen from 
behind on the rim of a building or bridge, or 
heavily backlit (partly to preserve anonymity) 
and framed in a storm-drain or archway. Such 
images unmistakably have their origin in Caspar 
David Friedrich's icon of Romanticism, Wanderer 
Above the Sea of Fog (1818): the dark 
frock-coated traveller atop his peak, with the 
mists of unknowing spread out beneath him. Every 
modern-day mountain summit shot owes a debt to 
Friedrich's painting, and UE has absorbed and adapted the same image.

Then there are the self-styled "guerilla 
preservationists", deep into heritage theory, and 
genuinely committed to creating a coherent 
photographic and textual record of buildings that 
would otherwise crumble unnoticed until a 
developer arrived to raze all trace of them. 
Their archives are carefully curated on websites, 
their identities disguised with pseudonyms and firebreaks.

Up at the avant-garde of urbex are the 
infiltrators, the "real" explorers, who tend to 
be more stimulated by systems and networks than 
by single sites, and who cherish the challenge 
involved in accessing super-secure locations. 
Like climbers, infiltrators experience what Al 
Alvarez called, in his classic essay on climbing, 
"feeding the rat". The rat lives inside you, and 
itfeeds on fear. The more you feed the rat, the 
larger it grows, the greater its appetite – and 
therefore the more fear you must experience in 
order to sate it. Infiltrators run tracks in the 
brief gaps between trains, they take dinghies 
down storm-drains, they lift-surf, and 
occasionally they die – in ways that may strike 
you either as noble, or as liable for a Darwin 
Award, depending on your attitude to urbex.

The culture of urbex is mostly but not 
overwhelmingly male. Its politics are hard to 
simplify: libertarian in the main, fringed here 
and there with a Fight-Clubby anarchism, and in 
certain people aimed at resisting the rise of 
surveillance and the privatisation of urban 
space. Like all subcultures, it thrives on 
acronyms and slang. Security guards are "seccas". 
"The Fresh" is sewage. Manhole covers are "lids", 
and you "pop" them. Sleeping overnight in a site 
is "going pro-hobo". Certain terms have been 
imported from urban design: "Sloap" is Space Left 
Over After Planning. "Toads" are Temporary, 
Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict Spaces.

  Lightning strike. Photograph: Bradley Garrett

Urban exploration is international, with groups 
around the world, but it is too various in its 
motives and methods to constitute anything like a 
community. A code of honour is broadly adhered 
to: no criminal damage, no sueing anyone if 
anything bad happens to you. In the white 
sandstone under Minneapolis, digging teams work 
in shifts to open routes into sealed caves. In 
Toronto an explorer has bolted a pitch and 
abseiled into the vast tailrace pipe under the 
Niagara Falls. This year, Russian explorers are 
on fire, taking the practice to places – Dubai, 
Hong Kong – it's never been before.

Urbex is not for everyone. Let me put that 
differently: urbex is hardly for anyone. 
Participation is high in profile but small in 
number (perhaps 20,000 globally), and the thrills 
are niche. Not for urbexers the sturm und drang 
of mountains or the arid elegance of desert 
exploration. Their epiphanies are mucky, their 
metaphysics mephitic. The short-term risks are 
grim: drowning in sewage, falling from girders, 
gralloched by razor-wire, skewered on 
scaffolding. Longer-term dangers include 
respiratory problems from exposure to dusts and 
gases. I know, I know: why would you? Who would? 
It is a hugely strange scene, and – occasional 
claustrophiliac with an intermittent taste for 
decay that I am – I find myself rather gripped by it.

I met Bradley Garrett at London Bridge early one 
afternoon. He said he had a great story for me, and he did.

"The bridge is hollow," he said, tapping his foot 
on a utility hatch two-thirds of the way along. 
"There's a control room at the north end; if you 
get into that, you can cross the Thames inside 
the bridge. Come – I'll show you."

We took the stairs by the north end. Partway 
down, Garrett hopped over the stair-rail and 
began edging along a narrow skirt of masonry that 
stuck out from the bridge's side, 10 feet above a 
Sloap of concrete, ventilation hatches and 
aerials. He had his hands flat against the 
vertical brickwork, and perhaps half a foot's purchase on the skirt.

"Are you happy coming out along this with me?"

I wasn't. It had been raining, the masonry skirt 
was wet and angled, and I needed to be able to 
pick my children up from school without crutches.

"No matter," said Garrett, and hopped back over 
the rail. "We'll see it another way." We followed 
the steps until we were under the bridge. There 
was a steel door, secured with a hunky padlock. 
Garrett pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket, 
chose one, had the lock off in about a second, 
ushered me inside, and closed the door with a soft clang behind us.

"That's some bunch of keys you have there," I 
said. I flicked on a headtorch. We were in a 
control room. Zinc venting, ducts and 
technicoloured wiring lashed with cable ties. Two 
wall-mounted dashboards with switches and dials.

"So – if you follow this ducting south out of 
here, then you're inside London Bridge," Garrett 
said. "Keep going all the way over the river, and 
you reach a much bigger control room at the south 
end. Hit the exit bar on the emergency door there 
from the inside, and you can let in who you want. 
When we made a film about UE a few years ago, 
called Crack the Surface, that's where we held 
the premiere. We had 86 people, a generator, a 
screen, a projector, and a lot of beer. It was a great party!"

We slipped out and Garrett locked up. Two men in 
suits gave us puzzled looks but didn't break stride.

  Victorian drain, south London. Photograph: Bradley Garrett

 From London Bridge, Garrett took me on a 
haphazard walk through the City. He had climbed 
pretty much every major building we passed. He 
and other explorers have topped out the Shard 
four times, the Cheesegrater twice, the Lloyd's 
Building once ("many CCTV cameras, no response") 
and the Walkie Talkie building multiple times. 
The Gherkin went up before Garrett arrived in 
London, to his enduring regret. On the whole, he 
prefers mid-level structures to skyscrapers: 
"Something like the Shard has no relationship to 
the city. From its summit, you look down and 
London resembles a giant circuit-board. It all 
seems chilly and lifeless from up there."

Certainly, Garrett perceives the city like no one 
else I know. Seen through his eyes, it is newly 
porous, full of "vanishing points", "imperfect 
joinings" and portals – service hatches, 
padlocked doorways – that you wouldn't usually 
notice. The usual constraints on urban motion, 
whether enforced by physical barriers or legal 
convention, don't restrict him. The city's 
accessible space extends far down into the earth 
(sewers, bunkers, tunnels) and far up into the 
air (skyscrapers, cranes), with the street level 
only serving as a median altitude.

We stopped at the foot of the Walkie Talkie 
building, aka 20 Fenchurch Street. "Look at 
that," Garrett said. "There's a big wheelie bin 
pushed right up under the scaffolding. If you 
were staying over tonight, we'd come back here 
later on. Up on the bin, on to the scaffolding, 
drop down, and we'd be into the site. From there 
it's just a case of getting across no man's land, 
and into the stairwells and the inner core. Then 
we pelt up 34 flights of stairs to the summit."

The purple hoardings around the site carried 
creepy corporate feel-good mottos: "Rise To The 
Top Faster", "The Building With More Up Top" and 
"The View Belongs To Everyone". "Except the view 
doesn't belong to everyone," said Garrett. "It 
costs £25 per person to go up the Shard. This'll 
be the same. The least they could do is make it 
free. But they don't – so we take it for free."

Garrett (urbexer, academic geographer, blogger) 
is an extremely interesting man. He is also 
generous, unpredictable – a lot of fun to be 
around. I think he might be among the few 
genuinely fearless people of my acquaintance. 
Things inconvenience him (security guards, 
flesh-wounds, court cases), but as far as I can 
tell, nothing much scares him. He has 
thick-rimmed black glasses, a goatee and 
moustache, and chin-length dark brown hair that 
gets banded back into a ponytail when action 
beckons. His speech mixes West Coast dude-isms 
with the gnarlier syntax of culturaltheory.

Garrett grew up in California. In 2001, aged 19, 
he co-founded a skateboard shop in the city of 
Riverside. He sold out to his partner two years 
later, and used the money to study maritime 
archaeology in Australia, then to start a 
"cultural resource management firm" in Hawaii. In 
search of some "seriously empty space", he moved 
back to northern California and began work for 
the US Bureau of Land Management, specialising in 
the archaeological heritage of Native American 
groups. He felt uneasy at the politics involved – 
and decided to become an academic geographer 
instead. He ended up in Britain with a 
studentship at Royal Holloway to study three 
marginal groups: neo-druids, mudlarkers and 
urbexers. The druids and the mudlarkers fell away 
(for the good, I feel) and UE became Garrett's exclusive ethnographic focus.

His research method was extreme and immersive. He 
spent four years embedded with a group of 
London-based explorers – "the scribe of the 
tribe" – as they enjoyed what he now describes as 
a "golden age" of UE. He took part in "more than 
300 trespass events in eight countries with over 
100 explorers". Among the results of his research 
were a doctorate from the University of London; a 
gallery of remarkable photographs; arrest by 
British Transport Police (BTP); the 
battering-down of his front door and confiscation 
of his computers, phone and passport; a court 
battle; a post-doc at Oxford; and now the book of 
his PhD, published as Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.

The book's style is volatile and its stories are 
extraordinary. It narrates "the rise and fall of 
the London Consolidation Crew (LCC), the UK's 
most notorious place-hackers", and Garrett's 
years with them. It might be imagined as a gonzo 
road trip rewritten by a committee comprising 
Margaret Mead, Edward Abbey and Dizzee Rascal. I 
wouldn't be surprised if film rights have already 
been optioned. The narrative of the book follows 
Garrett from noob (uninitiated) explorer to 
cutting-edge infiltrator – though he is careful 
throughout never to style himself as either 
champion or leader. Intercut with the helter 
skelter storytelling is heavy duty analysis of, 
among other subjects, the politics of UE, the 
affective role of photography and video, and the 
phenomenology of urban flow. Studding the text 
are dozens of Garrett's startling photographs. 
This combination of anecdote, image and exegesis 
gives the book a distinctive triple-tone that will not be to everyone's taste.

  Saint-Sulpice church, VIe arrondissement, Paris, France.

After a dramatic prologue describing his 
detention by BTP (hauled from a plane at Heathrow 
while up in first class – Gordon Brown fumed at 
the delay), Garrett examines the emergence of 
urbex in the late-1970s, and details his own 
early forays into the scene. He earns the trust 
of the explorers who will become his key 
companions – only ever identified by aliases 
("Gary", "Patch", "Winch", "Marc Explo"), with 
whom he learns the ropes and ticks off the London 
classics: Battersea Power Station, Millennium Mills.

Many adventures follow. Rumours are investigated. 
Tip-offs are pursued. Garrett and a female 
explorer called "Rouge" hear about a derelict 
Soviet submarine floating in the Thames near 
Rochester: a U475 Black Widow. They buy a kid's 
dinghy and paddle out after dark to the 
submarine. The dinghy nearly sinks, they're 
almost swept away by the current, then once 
aboard Rouge is almost knocked out by the sealing 
wheel of a falling hatch. When they do get off 
the sub it's low tide, and they have to mud-wade to safety.

One weekend, "Moses" proposes traversing the 
Forth Road Bridge from north to south: "The plan 
was mental and everyone loved it." They drive to 
North Queensferry, find an open hatch in one of 
the pylons, and climb an internal ladder to the 
upper girders. This was, as Garrett puts it, 
"serious edgework", especially when it begins to 
rain. "Start crawling really fast right fucking 
now!", yells one of the crew. Inexplicably, they all make it across.

The team head out across Europe, sleeping in 
derelict motels, scoping out site after site, 
getting "sleep-deprived, stinky and buzzing". 
Garrett hits America, climbing a Chicago 
skyscraper in a storm and gaining astonishing 
images of a city "bathed in black cloud and blue 
 with lightning strikes crawling down from 
the clouds into Lake Michigan". In one 
jaw-dropping episode in the Mojave desert, he 
penetrates a "boneyard" of decommissioned 
aeroplanes, climbing over barbed wire, and then 
hiding in the landing gear of 747s and military 
cargo-carriers while security patrols pass by. 
"It was," notes Garrett drily, "a vast playground 
and a long night." In the sewers of Minneapolis, 
he and Marc Explo "charge headlong into a tiny 
stoop filled with raw black sewage like molasses, 
a den of faeces packed with cobwebs and little 
white subterranean spiders, which we fended off 
with nothing more than a stick and a bottle of 
André champagne until the fumes almost took us 
down" (I re-emphasise: urbex is not for everyone).

After two years, Garrett's group merged its 
efforts with another team to form the London 
Consolidation Crew, which soon became known for 
its audacity and ambition. The intensity of their 
activity increased ("dusk was another dawn"), and 
the rats inside them grew: "Our thirst for the 
adrenaline rush of getting away with things 
became insatiable." The crew settled on a "holy 
grail": to reach all the "ghost stations" of the 
London Underground, and complete "a photographic 
survey of the disused parts of the LU". 
Consulting "pre-war Tube maps" and "new worker 
track maps" they confirm 14 stations as "ghosts": 
"the crown jewel of the system was Aldwych 
most difficult was going to be the British 
Museum". Stepping on to the tracks instantly 
raised the stakes. Trespass is not a criminal 
offence in the UK unless you prevent someone from 
going about their normal business. This is not 
the case on railways, however, where bylaws 
permit criminal prosecution (with a six-month statute of limitation).

Garrett's attempts to reach the ghost stations 
form the most controversial episodes of the book. 
These actions led eventually to his arrest and 
the forced dispersal of the LCC (bail conditions 
currently prevent them from communicating). His 
trial is ongoing. Transport for London, 
apparently fearing copycatism, have recently 
threatened his publisher, Verso Books, with legal 
action over the publication of "illegally 
obtained information" in Explore Everything.

As will be obvious, urbex is not without its 
critics. Detractors style it variously as naive, 
fetishistic, self-heroising and, well, criminal. 
Its brand of subvertionist play can easily 
resemble Scooby-Doo-ish japery (don't get stuck 
in the vent-shaft, Shaggy!) or wilful 
trouble-making. And there is rich possibility for 
insensitivity to those people who are compelled 
to live their lives in a context of dereliction: 
the thousands of homeless who inhabit the 
storm-drain network beneath Las Vegas, for instance.

Garrett is familiar with these lines of attack 
and – as a good ethnographer must – gives them 
due consideration in his book. Much depends on 
the motives you ascribe to UE, but the explorers 
themselves are mostly poor at self-analysis, 
preferring to fall back on T-shirt catchphrases: 
"Live on the edge", or "Do epic shit" (an 
imperative that can be read two ways).

Garrett acknowledges the difficulty of 
generalising a motive for urbex (or, as he puts 
it, "reifying a co-ordinated explorer ethos"), 
but he personally celebrates it as a form of 
activism, which "recodes people's normalised 
relationships to city space", and creates 
temporary "regions of misrule". Or – as Foucault 
in a militant mood might have said – they aim "to 
disrupt dominant hegemonic spatial control 
through tactical urban infiltration". His book 
ends with a manifesto-climax that readers will 
find either rousing or riling: "Wherever doors 
are closed, we will find a way through. Wherever 
history is buried, we will uncover it. Wherever 
architecture is exclusionary, we will liberate it."

Perhaps. It's still unclear to me exactly how 
urbex will roll back privatisation or resist 
surveillance culture. It may even do the opposite 
(more cameras, more "seccas"). Successful access 
campaigns have tended to be large-scale movements 
rather than lone wolves, the most famous instance 
being the Kinder Scout Trespass of 1932, though I 
suppose a counter-example might be the 
fascinating optical trespasses of the 
contemporary American photographer, Trevor 
Paglen, whose ultra-long-lens cameras peer into 
the black-ops sites and classified landscapes of 
the American security complex, making visible 
what the state keenly wishes to keep unseen.

Late that night, I met Garrett again at 
Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide. Two of his 
friends joined us: Scott and Alex. Our plan was 
to lift a manhole cover and drop into the 
Victorian sewer tunnels through which flows the 
Fleet, one of London's "lost rivers". Garrett 
wanted to show me the Fleet Chamber, a vast 
Bazalgettian structure near the outfall into the 
Thames. We had waders and headtorches ready to 
go. Garrett was mildly concerned about flow 
levels in the Fleet, due to the day's rain.

"We'll get in there and have a look. If it's 
running too high, we'll just turn around and come out."

"I need to make the half-midnight train from 
King's Cross," I said. "We'll get you there," 
replied Garrett. "In fact, if you want we'll walk 
you north up the tunnels, and pop you out of a 
manhole just by the station." I liked the thought 
of taking the tube rather than the Tube back to 
King's Cross. But I pitied whoever sat next to me on the way home.

Garrett and I had already tried and failed to get 
under London earlier in the day. We'd accessed 
the network of steam-tunnels that runs beneath 
the Barbican, pushing through a door in an 
underground parking lot, but had been seen almost 
immediately and left at speed (Garrett jangling 
his magic keys coolly, me sweating through my 
scalp with nerves). And our Fleet Chamber 
adventure was also to be frustrated: dozens of 
workmen in hi-vis jackets were swarming around 
the Fleet manholes, putting in a late-night maintenance shift on the tunnels.

"Fuck! I have a positive relationship with Thames 
Water," Garrett said. "We've told them where 
dozens of leaks are. But it's not good enough to 
share the Fleet with their workers. Plan B it is, then."

Plan B was a huge 19th-century subterranean 
reservoir, buried under a north London park and 
now drained of its water. Garrett knew of its 
existence but had never been there; Alex had 
scoped it out once. He declared its awesomeness as a space.

We caught the Tube north. The other three 
reminisced about a big urbex meet in Antwerp. "It 
was mad! People were running everywhere," said 
Scott. "The sewers were full. The train tunnels 
were hopping." "I fell into a hole and gashed my 
leg to the bone," said Garrett. He rolled up his 
trouser leg to show me the scar. It was long, 
wide and shiny. "But I was totally twisted on 
dope, and didn't notice. We got out and went to a 
bar for something to eat and drink. I started 
feeling dizzy, and realised my boot was full of blood."

In the park, in the dark, we got kitted up in 
silence. There was a bank to climb up, and some 
fencing to roll under. Alex and Garrett located 
the lid, and used two drain keys to pop it and 
pull it away with a screech. One by one we 
climbed down a utility ladder into an 
antechamber, from which a rickety staircase led 
into the belly of the reservoir proper. We 
descended the staircase, headtorch beams probing 
the blackness, whistling and hooting at what we saw.

It was indeed an awesome space, possessing the 
extreme functional elegance of major Victorian 
infrastructure, and as beautiful in its way as 
the Roman cisterns at Micenum and Constantinople. 
A cast-iron overspill sluice curved down near the 
entrance, its cup perhaps 12 feet in 
circumference. Dozens of brick archways extended 
in series away from us, with the runnels between 
them holding wide rungs of still water. The 
iterated forms of the arches and the reflections 
of the water created the illusion of infinite regress.

We walked the reservoir end to end and side to 
side, our voices and the splashes of our passage 
echoing. Above us in the shadows hung the vaults 
of the ceiling itself, hundreds of thousands of 
yellow-brown bricks. Fine white silt clouded in 
the water at our footfalls. At the far end we sat 
down, took stock, smoked. Garrett set some music 
going; a drum and bass track called "Stresstest". 
That seemed right. Then he and the others set up a photograph.

"All noobs need a hero shot. You be the model, 
Rob." They backlit the arches with LED panels, 
and set my headtorch to red-beam.

We got out just before midnight. There were 
scattered clouds, underlit pink and orange by the 
city's glow, with stars visible between them. 
Three men moved through the trees to our east, 
scanning the grass with golden torch beams, looking for something.

"Macfarlane Hero Shot.jpg" came through by email 
early the next morning from Garrett. I was in 
thigh-waders rather than trousers, and a hoodie 
rather than a frock-coat, but the homage was 
unmistakable. There it   was: Caspar David 
Friedrich Redux – Traveller Below A Sea of Bricks (2013).

• Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on 
Foot is out from Penguin. Explore Everything: 
Place-Hacking the City by Bradley L Garrett is published by Verso next month. 
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+44 (0)7786 952037
Twitter: @TonyGosling
uk-911-truth+subscribe at
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which 
alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered that shall not be 
revealed; and nothing hid that shall not be made known. What I tell 
you in darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye hear in the 
ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.  
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