I like writing, but often I’m not in the mood. I like reading, as well, but also need to be in the mood. I’m no longer an adolescent either, which means the reading material that presents a worthwhile investment of time and focus to me is almost exlusively non-fiction. After I’ve read something interesting, it often gets me in the mood to write about something – to attempt to reproduce a piece of work of equivalent literary quality to what I’ve just read, yet transcibred into a specialist subject which I could be considered an authority on. The bottleneck comes therefore as a trifector; topics I find interesting to read about become rarer as I get older, so I read less; reading less means I am more seldom in the mood to write; and there is in this world merely one subject matter on which I would consider myself well-experienced enough in to at least be able to provide a dozen thousand words of insight on. This subject is, rather embarassingly, pretty silly. “Urban exploration”: one of the 21st century’s fastest growing fads, centred around taking deviant risks to achieve fairly instantaneous and novel rewards. There are many definitions of this phenomenon available from different demographics which partake in it. Personally I like the following: “travelling on foot, usually trespassing on private or sensitive land, into infrastructural parts of the man-made environment which are either unauthorised for members of the public, or ‘TOADS’ (Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned and Derelict Spaces), as a leisure activity”.
Where to start. Firstly, it needs to be disclaimed that urban exploring is actually terrifically easy. It is not a skill, and it is definitely not – as some who do it have referred to it as – a ‘sport’. If you were to ask somebody who has never set foot on a skateboard before to follow a professional skateboarder around a supermarket car park and attempt to repeat each arrangements of flips and rotations they make the board do with their feet, the novice would not even be able to stand on the thing and move around, let alone attempt copying the tricks, which would require hundreds, thousands of hours of repetitive failure, honing and muscle memory building to be able to do. If you were to ask someone of average physical ability to follow an urban explorer into an abandoned building – through some bushes, over a chainlink fence, and through a ground floor smashed window – and proceed to take photographs of it with a fully charged DSLR camera they have bought for a grand from an electronics shop, I would be seriously concerned for the person’s ability to tackle the plethora of every day challenges life throws at one if they were to struggle with the demands of it as a task. With that said, there is a side to it that is definitely rough and tumble. Covertly accessing some of the cream of what has been proved as possible to infiltrate in urban exploring so far can be, and has been, reasonably described as a ‘military exercise’. A funny fact – from which conclusions should not be totally drawn from – is that the country who’s high level urban exploring scene is comprised of the highest proportion of female participants is, by far, Russia – coincidentally the primary country throughout the 20th century who’s armed forces comprised a significant female contingent during a major conflict. A bit of a sweeping generalisation, but it should not be fully discounted as an interesting little demographic study. Physical work is engrained in urban exploring. If you are physically unable to do at least one pull-up, a massive portion of what’s out there to reach is perpetually unavailable to you. Nevertheless, it is nothing like a sport beyond demanding a display of occasional athletic prowess.
Nor is urban exploration a snug fit into the world of academia. The best efforts to do so have come from several experienced urban explorers who have attempted at length to cite ‘autoethnographic immersion’ in the ‘lost spaces of cities’ as some sort of revolutionary new tool with which to rewrite the field of psychogeography in scholarly circles. To be fair, it is interesting, and in such niche study it may have merit. But taking a step back, it’s silly. A feature in Nature is far fetched. Nor, finally, is it some sort of commercial venture. Avenues to make a living which heavily involves the bulk of one’s role being one’s passion project are as of the moment mostly confined to advertisement and/or branding revenues from large social media followings based upon media content that involves “travelling on foot into infrastructural parts of the man-made environment which are either unauthorised for members of the public, or ‘TOADS’, as a leisure activity”. Styles of media content which have been proven to produce what I would class an a ‘sufficient’ steady income are further limited to either filming oneself talking into a camera whilst doing an activity, or filming oneself doing daredevil antics in as much of spectacle as possible. These two styles fit aptly into two rather more antiquidated professions; the telivision presenter, and the stuntman. Both in turn fall under the umbrella of the even more antiquidated line of work of the clown or court jester.
It is, then, nothing more than a hobby. It is most akin, I believe, to stamp collecting. It is the outlaw’s stamp collecting. An urban explorer will over time and repeated practice of the activity amass a portfolio of photos, proving visits to and documenting details of numerous artificial localities which the non-urban explorer does not get the opportunity to travel to, just like I don’t have a book of rare stamps. Some stampbooks are more impressive than others; full of a larger number of stamps, containing stamps of historical significance, containing stamps of noteworthy aesthetic, containing rarer stamps – some of which by context indicating that special lengths that most other stamp collectors are unwilling or unable to go to were gone to in their acquisition. If a stamp collector just collects the stamps that are on letters they receive on their front porch, their stamp collection might not be terribly varied, but it will however have not cost them any money. An urban explorer who ventures into the same four abandoned buildings within walking distance of their local area and nothing further will also amass a very homogenous portfolio, but will have undertaken the hobby totally for free. For both the stamp collector and the urban explorer to acquire a diversified portfolio, there must be an investment; be it time spent scouring the internet and monitoring item market price plus postage costs, or phsyical effort of infiltration and the price of a full tank of petrol many times over. Some stamp collectors get jealous of others’ collections, too. Is that to suggest, then, that some off-limits man-made spaces or ‘TOADS’ are more valuable than others, and that it is common for explorers to develop feelings of envy at others’ opportunity to visit certain places they have not been able to? Yes, it is.
To have an appetite for risk in business there needs to be the potential of an attractive return. The same principle applies to urbex, but the manifestations of attractive returns are not quantative. The longstanding political rift in the community of enthusiasts somewhat orbits around the fact that the motivations to bother doing it in the first place vary wildly between partakers. For some, the photographic subject matter of dereliction in building structure, or city skyline views from rooftops, are the traded commodity. Others are purely curious in the way an historian is – they want to see what kind of stories old mouldy paperwork tucked away in manager’s offices of bygone factories for redundant manufacturing might tell. Some enjoy a chance to get up close and personal with the architectural merits of a range of different structures, whilst others believe it is the only way to truly and comprehensively get to know where they live – they feel obliged to trespass in order to truly learn about their local environment. Some want the biggest and best stampbooks to flaunt to their peers or the wider world by any means necessary, others enjoy the technical challenge of pulling off ‘the perfect heist’ – a hitchless, clean and invisible trespass experience using techniques others would not have the patience, aplomb or perseverence for. At least, this was a common sextuplet of motivations perhaps a decade ago. Nowadays, the social media gratification angle has taken a stranglehold on the scene. For each motivation, though, there is a subjective but somewhat correlated measure of yield. A small, stripped-out, delapidated factory covered in broken glass void of any artefacts, architectural merit or high viewpoints, for example, does very little to fire anybody’s jets besides possibly a first-time moocher at best.
Despite different sites carrying different value for different people in urbex, there is definitely some level of objective esteem towards places. To boil this measure down to some elementary components, quality of space is influenced by about five physical departments and three psychological; size, contents, beauty, condition, historical-architectural significance, otherness, rarity, and finally, some sort of unique overriding atmosphere that cannot be described and I won’t attempt to. The others are quite simple really. Size matters, and it’s usually the bigger the better. More to see, more to find, more potential for a range of feelings to be evoked, the higher the rooftop in the city the greater in all respects it is. A place full of interesting items and structures has the capacity to retain one’s attention span for much longer than a space which is void of contents within four walls: there’s nothing to look at. Any place, any thing in this world in fact, can be a pretty sight, or repulsive on the eyes – that much is clear. There is also a level which entropic decay where an abandoned building simply becomes a thoroughly unpleasant place to be, regardless of what it is or what is in there – yet, consider, many civic and public buildings which have been in a state of disuse for one month may not different in any way whatsoever to how they were when in use and familiar: dereliction can give certain places a vintage and increase its value like a wine. An abandoned building built in a modern architectural style which does not stand out from the general 21st century urban aesthetic, and which served a purpose for which there are many similar examples in the same state, will not excite an historian much, whereas a one-of-a-kind purpose-built structure in an architectural style hard to see in the wild will most certainly.
Then we have the vaguer psychological characteristics, starting with otherness. What I mean by otherness is how far removed the space is from normal life. Spaces which may tiny, barren, historically and architecturally dull and ugly, can still be reverred by urban explorers because of their otherness – they are spaces which simply would never be experienced by a life containing zero practices of trespass. Ventilation shafts to underground railway systems are a good example of poor performers in each other measure, yet desirable for their otherness. Otherness leads nicely into a discussion about rarity in urban exploring: a factor I consider to be a double edged sword. One of those edges is, for the most part, otherness – about physically being somewhere that is so far removed and novel from ordinary life. Otherness generates a degree of rarity in a physical space but they are not quite the same thing. There is also a competitive element with other explorers at play. Somewhere is rare in urban exploring if the visitor count from the rest of the scene is low: exclusivity bolsters value. The rare stamp which peers do not possess is the one that turns heads and wets lips of collectors. A place could be rare because there was a physical glitch in its access some time ago which has since been patched – it used to be ‘possible’ but now isn’t – or it is a place which simply is so heavily guarded and secure that few have the bottle to run the gauntlet, or one which is not known about as the discoverer has simply kept to themselves and not shared with any of the rest of the scene.
The words possible and doable are used a lot in urban exploring. Often it refers to a time and a place, particularly in regards to places that are underground. For several months of one particular year in the past, for example, the hatch to a former Cold War bunker may have been open, but since then, it has been welded shut. People will talk of those few months as ‘back when it was possible/doable’. There are also surface-level places of interest in urban exploring which are not able to sealed in an airtight manner such as a bunker, some of which that are frankly impossible to ‘urbex’ – despite what anyone involved in the hobby with an overconfidence will claim – as a result of their securitisation.
On a dark winter’s night in provincial England, a man detonates an EMP device he acquired on the Darkn Web. It knocks out the power to an electric fence and infra-red camera system surrounding a military base, where nuclear weapons are manufactured. After the power is out, the man scales the fence, touching down onto an open expanse between the perimeter road and the fence. Military trucks pass, frenzied by the power outage, and the man drops to the ground disguised with a ghillie suit. His target is to reach the nuclear containment facility. Outside the main gate of the base, he has hired some goons to cause a raucous by doing doughnuts with their cars. Main gate security are focused on this distraction whilst he makes his way deeper into the base. Reaching the building in which the containment facility is located, an armed guard stands outside its doorway. He gently creeps up behind the guard and put a chloroform-covered cloth to his face. Inside the building, he avoids several more military personnel by ducking into corridors – he is able to do this because he has a sonar-tracking system installed illicitly on his smartphone courtesy of a contact in the intelligence services, and is able to see where personnel are moving in the building before their paths are crossed. Armed police and police helicopters soon arrive at the scene, the latter equipped with infra-red cameras, but the man is wearing a tin foil-coated costume under his ghillie suit, so is invisible to the ‘eye in the sky’. The former are distracted by the hired goon boy racers out front. At the blast door to the containment facility, cameras looking at it still down from the EMP, he begins to cut through with a gas axe. Soon, the facility is breached, and the man is able to make an escape having taken the live plutonium fuel.
Guess what? This didn’t happen. This will never happen in urban exploring. This is total fantasy. It is so far beyond the mandate of the mere hobbyist that it is hilarious if any reader believed they were reading a true account. But, some realities of what has been achieved in urban exploring still make for breathtaking reading. The examples of national infrastructure infiltrated in the last fifteen years and the methods used to do it will have no trouble impressing the layman, but none of it has come out of an action movie.
There are several dozen sites in the UK which either defy realistic possibility of undetected infiltration from a logistical viewpoint, or where consequences for getting caught by the authorities are so offputting to anyone with anything to lose that attempt is basically off the table for the scene. The Home Office circular 018 / 2007 ‘Trespass on protected site’, sections 128 to 131 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, provides a list of what, to all known self-styled urban explorers, is not on the menu. The pinnacle, but not even the whole tip of the iceberg of what is considered to be national security, is covered; Royal-related places, government communications complexes in and under Whitehall, anywhere at all that might see radioactive material passing through it, any military base that has some connection to the States, and a few other military-related sites of particular sensitivity like Devonshire Dock Hall – where Trident submarines are built – in Barrow-in-Furness. There are several sites in the United Kingdom which one might be surprised to not see on the list; Porton Down, for example, as well as the Animal Plant and Health Agency in Surrey – where vials of live Swine Flu and other pathogens sit in laboratory fridges each night – and Madley Communications Centre in Herefordshire, currently the country’s only earth-satellite station.
On paper, to have free exploratory reign over somewhere like AWE Aldermaston or Sellafield would be to turn each of the eight factors which measure a place’s worth in the urbex world up to overdrive. It would be, scientifically, the highest level experience available within the hobby on the British Isles. But to attempt to engineer such a situation in the face of all the obstalces and consequences surrounding it is simply beyond the mandate of any hobbyist. A prison sentence will be hurtling towards a trespasser at full speed once in view of the first camera on the wrong side of the fence. Ironically, though, many of the deemed impossible sites on ‘the list’ are not strangers to trespassers. Nuclear disarnament groups in particular have done time inside for breaching and occupying several of them. RNAD Coulport near The Trossachs – where armed warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines – has seen several instances of undisclosed activist trespassers apparently ‘strolling on the disused Polaris Jetty’, according to the MOD. At the other end of the spectrum, a man was jailed for six months several years ago for being found on the roof of the long-shut down Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in Snowdonia, with a knife and a sack of weed on him, because he ‘heard about the place and thought it seemed cool’. It would be of no doubt to the general reader that these are not places, for a matter of national security, where Joe Public should be able to freely roam. A former British military officer come mercenary and founder of one of the world’s most succesful private military companies would certainly – of his firm’s work in African warzones he cites: “It has to come down to whether you want security, or not. If you don’t have security you don’t attract foreign investment, your economy and your infrastructure doesn’t develop, and therefore you can’t progress.” In other words – don’t take the piss. This is the message that razor wire fences and a contracted and designated security force for the national infrastructure site should be sending to mere hobbyists. Show some respect. And for most, it gets through.
Sometimes, in the sea of normal life, bumping into passers-by on their phones, buying their coffees, whatever it is they do, it’s easy to dwell upon the variety of opinion on this practice those who do not know of it would have of it. To most: a pure nuisance; reckless trespasser, criminal, loiterer. Others might think despite masochistic and displaying a baffling risk-assessment, some civil use for it as a skill in modern society isn’t such a ridiculous idea anymore, despite being a stone’s throw from burglary. Many sites of particular esteem for the keen urbexer these days carry High Court Injunctions, a request from the landowner to the High Court to elevate a site’s by-default civil trespass status to contempt of court by simply being there. Most of Canary Wharf is under this umbrella after an onslaught of children trying to get to its building’s roofs to pose for photos. Swathes of heavy industry have been too for several years after run-ins with activists. In any site where an attempt at securitisation has been made, trespassers quickly come to terms with the fact that all its traps are there just for them. They always were. The greater the security endowments, though, the greater this weighs on the mind.
A sophisticated and effective perimeter fence for an industrial site of national significance, as an example, comes at a price tag of over thirty-five times the UK’s average household income, with implementation and maintenance costs of sensors, cameras and roving personnel adding a sum on top of that. All this has been bankrolled for the sole purpose of keeping unwelcome visitors out of it, and so unsurprisingly getting stuck on the wrong side of the fence invites a plethora of questions in one’s direction as to methods, motives and more from people employed to securitise the supply chains, property and assets of a multi-trillion-dollar sector with ample resources and choice to invest in said line of work. Alternatively, if, let’s say, a tree was to fall in the forest and no one was around to hear it, this rather unsavoury outcome is bypassed with no time wasted for the authorities that be. Dignified explorers conduct themselves with respect for their arena, and wasting its time is a comprehensively shameful outcome. Arenas on the Home Office’s list, mind, bring much more than merely shame to the table for the trespassers. Only single figures worth of Britain’s explorer’s would say “they aren’t impossible, it’s just that nobody’s put in the ten thousand hours yet”.
In the course of the 21st century so far, illicit and undetected access to localities previously considered impossible to reach unauthorised has proved to be possible. The cutting edge of the practice has evolved. A place is now only considered impossible if the last person to prove its next-of-kin was possible deems it to be a bridge too far, like a applicant for a job is only as good as their last one. Cynicism about some of the cringiest incarnations of the activity aside, one thing that makes urban exploring worth writing about is that a startlingly large portion of the off-limits man-made and thus privately-owned environment is now – even if for brief windows of time in the small hours of the morning – the realm of individuals at leisure. I don’t believe this is a phenomenon which has ever happaned in quite this fashion before. Ben Cooper – an early Scottish urban explorer on the scene in the late noughties – I believe captures something very original about this phenomenon in his writings:
“Why explore? It’s the simplest question, but one with a hard answer – I could give the answer that Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest; “because it’s there” – but that’s only part of it. On one level, that’s a facetious answer – a non-answer. On another level, it’s quite deep – exploring is, perhaps, what defines us as human. If we weren’t explorers, we would never have left the grasslands of East Africa to reach every continent – it’s in our genes. Freedom of movement is our second most fundamental freedom; freedom to exist is, of course, the most fundamental. Our freedom of movement is very restricted, however – we don’t really live in a three-dimensional world, we live in a mostly one-dimensional world of corridors, roads, paths and other lines, bounded by places we mustn’t go. In our modern world, we are no longer wandering over the grasslands, we are bounded by fences, walls, borders and signs. Mostly by signs – “No Entry”, “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”, “Danger Of Death”. But, above all, we are bounded by expectations. It’s expected that we will stay in our place, that we won’t investigate or be nosey. It’s expected that we will obey instructions, orders and signs no matter how silly they are, or how much they treat us as children. It’s a statement of adulthood.”
All of this can be seen as a big deal for some, whose interests and worldviews are cornerstoned by the ideas of upholding God-given freedoms, retaking spatial ownership, resistance or anti-establishmentarianism, as well as testing the capabilities of infrastructural security setups. One could wax lyrical about a triumphant progression in the arenas of human nature, from the bold and fatal voyages of polar maritime explorers in the nineteenth century, to Tomb Raiders in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the early 20th, to the Himalayan mountaineering feats of the mid 20th. A beautiful testimony to innate inquisitiveness for the lost and forgotten wonders of the world, executed through a lens of daring counterculture for the greater good of heritage documentation. Ha! Yeah right. Unfortunately, I don’t for a moment believe it will ever rouse the curiosity of even a tiny majority of the world’s critical thinkers or those in the business of real human progress. It will never save lives, bring wealth, cure pestilence, serve justice or feed the five hundred. It is petty and hedonistic.
The hedonism surrounding urban exploring as a fad in the 2020s is easy to find on the internet. Not only the UK scene demographic – but the global – has a strong air of a freak show about it, yet some characters hiding deep in the crowd I truly believe are amongst the most interesting individuals that walk the streets. Though, this crowd they blend into, is enormous. In a country like Britain riddled with urban, civic and industrial decline, the treshold to build a decent-sized urbex portfolio is quick to reach, and as a result the active scene these days appears mortally saturated. Thousands of players flock to social media to advertise their wares of a hundred photographs apiece taken in many of the same abandoned buildings, often of the same vista. Thousands of others come bearing clinical photographs from the rooftops of London’s high rise blocks of flats or office buildings. There is not enough time one can healthily spend on their phone applications scrolling through everything on offer. This opens up two discussions which interest me. The first circles back to the subjective versus objective nature of reward within the hobby. With the growing popularity of the ‘rooftopping’ sub-genre in particular knowing little bounds and reaching a population greater than other sub-genres, there is an evident uniformity to the kind of creative product being brought to the table on social media. This is true of abandoned building exploring – colloquially slanged as ‘derping’ – too. A night shot from a high rise roof looking over a built up area of London, with a figure in sillhouette squatting near the precipice, clinging to a crane, or perhaps even on the adjacent building, has come to epitomise the highest value photograph for probably the largest poportion of self-styled urbexers. To me, the snob, they are like top of the range BMWs and Audis. The lowest common denominator symbol of success in the form of precision engineering. I only turn my head at a classic Ferrari, though. I will see a hundred new high performance German cars on an hour’s drive round the M25. So, the parameters for ‘the best’ photograph have become clinical and objective, fuelled by social media feedback; the nails have been hammered down through this process. But rooftopping is a sub-genre with little variety. The exact same subject matter is paparazzied, just from different angles.
This same uniformity of artistic product emerging for ‘derping’ as well is what I find harder to understand. An armchair reader I suspect would assume that the subject matters to be found in abandoned buildings should, by rights, offer different levels of intruige to different individuals. It should be a given. To be part of a group of four in an abandoned sanatorium, it is natural for one member to be particularly compelled by the ceiling coving, the second the tattered wheelchair in the corridor, the third the ivy on the wall creeping in through a window, and the last the eerie quietness and smell of dereliction. And that at the end of the day, they have all had fun at their own pace. The social media marketplace suggests this kind of scenario is on the decline. The same exact dioramas – of particular hospital corridors, factory machinery, rusting vehicles, theatre stages, et cetera – can be found photographed with the same DLSR cameras by thousands of derpers and pinned to the front of their online portfolio as if magnum opuses. Why are they artefacts of more value – of more epic, scale, beauty, significance – than others? There is no maths supporting it, really. It is the work of the scythe of fad: the herd mentality. But this begs the question – how do I know when I have seen my ‘classic Ferrari’ adrift in the ocean of urbex content? That will have to be answered later.
The second avenue of thought this hedonism leads me to is that I’m honestly surprised there are not many more people doing this. Consider for a moment that a global officiation body for both the hobbies of ‘extreme ironing’, and a ‘World Sauna Championship’ heat endurance contest both existed long before urban exploring established some sort of community and discussion. Humans have been up to bizarre and incredibly specialist passion projects beyond the comprehension of most for the best part of the post-war era, yet, it took right up until the turn of the 21st century for urban exploring to quantify itself as something that people were making happen (it’s not like there weren’t derelict buildings before then). Since the advent of social media and the smartphone, the idea of making one’s passion project into one’s identity, business, and foremost focus, has become more verifiably the modern ‘American Dream’ amongst the developed worlds’ cultural society than starting a family and owning a home. Those who unwaveringly self-publicise success as some kind of consumable media product for whatever pastime they excel or sometimes merely provide commentary in are the idols and inspirations to swathes of generation Z, for whom dismissing the temptation to replicate has proven to be a psychological difficulty.
Combine this with the fact that urbex – above all rooftopping and derping – is terrifically easy and a giver of instant, clout-building and personal identity-basing results, and one would expect millions around the world to be at it until the fat lady sings. The global scene population in reality is a bit smaller. Still significant, but I would estimate in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions. Compared to many other hobbies around the world, which require much more repetitive work to become good at, this is still a low census count, and given how low hanging the urbex fruit can be and the instant enrichment to mind, senses and memory it can provide, how a hobby like dressing up as comic book characters is roughly as if not more popular makes little sense. Nevertheless in a largely online-based community with the same wares being put in the shop window by thousands, the effect becomes like a hall of mirrors – it feels like there is infinite number of urban explorers. Because of the sheer number of abandoned and flipside places that can feed the activity in developed countries, and the relatively powerless legal footing most land and asset owners have to put off prospective trespassers (‘civil’ trespass), I only expect it to become a more saturated pasttime. A simple minded chap might be driving home from work and spot a derelict house by the side of the road. He might decide to take a closer look, and upon finding a window open, go in and take some photographs of the left possessions of the former owners whom I’m sure departed many moons ago under mysterious circumstances. He might then fancy going onto Instagram or Facebook, and posting his photos, alongside hashtag ‘urbex’, hashtag ‘abandoned’, and many others. After just an hour he finds a hundred likes and ten positive comments from strangers on his photos, whilst photos from his other hobby project barely get a tenth of those hits. He thinks to himself “hey, this is a pretty good deal”. Urban exploring is a dead easy come-up for a special identity in this online, competitive, self-branding dominated modern world.
It wasn’t always like this. The world wasn’t remotely like this just some fifty or so years ago. Land and asset owners didn’t feel the need to fortify, and defend their physical space in live-action, they just trusted that nobody – not a soul – amongst the millions across the country would want to come and interfere with their property. USAF cruise missile stockpiles at Greenham Common were seperated from public footpaths by what now passes for an allotment fence. What happened? Did society lose a sense of class and dignity? Did the relatively recent events of the war mean that people had much better things to be doing? Had the seeds of the concept of recreational trespass to glimpse wonder simply not planted themselves in anybody’s head yet? Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none. But fast forward half a dozen decades and there is empirically a whole plethora of scum – thieves, vandals, arsonists, terrorists, base jumpers, urban explorers – gathered around the parapet with a design to trespass on private and often sensitive property. Who knows what happened; perhaps sexual liberalisation of the 1960s led to the emergence of punk culture of the 1970s, or the rampant economic privitisation and wealth disparity exacerbated under Thatcher in the 1980s led to the slacker and counter-culture of the 1990s. This isn’t a social history seminar. But around the turn of the century, a few people begun to think that right to access private property and showcase what was behind closed doors in areas quarantined from the general public was valid. They didn’t run their mouth about it to many others besides themselves. Others with a bigger point to prove soon joined in; Greenpeace UK hopped the metaphorical fence which the Women’s Peace Camp in 1980s Berkshire didn’t and chained themselves to coal-fired power station coal conveyors, whilst terrorists in Algeria barged into a gas processing plant in the Sahara desert to take hostages and demand ransoms. The “No Entry”, “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”, and “Danger Of Death” signs became insufficient sole measures required to call your asset ‘secure’ to yourself, your family, your investors, or your government.
An interesting social dynamic emerges, nonetheless. Someone once said to me over some pints in a pub that “ebbs and flows in ambition and discontent have driven western history”, and I think he’s on to something. Periods of established order and deep rooted class-based social structure, suddenly lulled by a surge of public sentiment to down tools, follow a pioneer into unkonwn territories, and start a new life elsewhere with the hope that the grass will be greener. Then order again, then restructure. Are we in a period of restructure now? Arguably: the attempted restructures of today are all around us – making news headlines daily before sinking back into irrelevance – and are lamer, more pint-sized and sporadic. Whilst in medeival times the drive to cast off into uncharted frontiers came from struggle and hardship, today’s frenzy is driven largely by self-pity, self-entitlement and, above all, boredom, in my opinion. Urban exploring, recreational trespass, whatever, is a perfect example of a boredom-crunching, self-improvement striving, lame and irrelevant display of ambition and discontent with the spatial environment of the modern world. It breeds a tenacity and entitlement which is funnelled into a conscious, obsessive challenge against the laws of trespass. Musings of political philosophers like Henri Lefebvre in ‘Production of Space’ – “state imposed normality makes permanent transgression inevitable” – start to line up with what the urban explorer does when they go out to perform the basic currencies of their activity.
The ying to this yang is riper than ever in the modern world, however. Foremost in the western Anglo-Saxon world. Britain is, in the professional sphere by and large, a nation of jobsworths. Particularly generation X and baby boomers. If they are being paid by someone to do something, they will almost categorically not – as the Simpson’s would have the audience believe is the ‘American way’ – “go in every day and do it really half-arsed”. This is especially true in the financial services, industrial/infrastructural, and public sectors: the three domains of the world of work which spawn the lion’s share of ‘TOADS’ desired by the 2020s British urban explorer; your highrise CBD rooftops, derelict hospitals, deep-level bunkers, various factories and what not. The security department at the latest premier urbex photoshoot spot is driven by ambition and discontent too, but of a total opposite aim to the urban explorer. A cliché loggerheads writes itself, and not one that I expect social history academia of the future to ignore, actually.
The more one dwells on the subject, the more seductive it becomes to think that there is something quite remarkable going on here across a broad range of disciplines. The urban exploring scene ought to be, on paper, something of fascination to the archeologist, the sociologist, the political philosopher, and even the intelligence agent. In reality, it isn’t. The modus operandi of the wholesale urban explorer is not rooted in pioneering a frontier – only but a few individuals have demonstrated a considerable case towards this. Rather, it is simply an exclamation and follow-up of “I’ve seen a place that I like the look of – I want to go there – I’m going to ask the last person to go there how I can go about going there – I’m going there – I went there – here’s proof that I went there”. Get caught by a security guard anywhere within mainstream ‘derping’ or rooftopping and you’ll be asked to leave. That’s it. That’s all there is to it, or at least all there needs to be to it to have fun with an easy hobby. A simple sandbox game of “find as much epic whilst getting your collar felt as few times as possible” as one particularly well travelled explorer said, where the whole world is the map, the difficulty setting is custom, and the definition of epic is too.