I have some friends, who put on parties. Sometimes, they’re put on in buildings that aren’t theirs. Nobody else uses these buildings, but still, the police don’t like it. Something about loud bass in the middle of the morning seems to rub up the wider community the wrong way.
I figured there must be somewhere in this city – Nottingham, with more caves than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, a place with a glorious industrial past that’s gone to rack and ruin – where we could revel in peace. It makes sense, right?
Urban Exploration is the collective term for an activity, or group of activities, that take place on the edges of the law. It is deliberate trespass for the purposes of documenting (usually through photography) the decline of urban landscapes. Anyone can be an urban explorer – all it takes is a low wall and an unlocked door. It’s not going into places that are still used (usually, but you’ll find a dedicated bunch online who genuinely find drains or railway tunnels intriguing – something Freudian about fascinations with holes could be inserted here, but that would be crass), mainly because there’s nothing particularly interesting about a working office building or hospital (as anyone who works in one would tell you). But there’s something about an empty school, or a deserted mental asylum… These are the places that take a grim hold upon the imagination of children, as sources of monsters and psychopathic criminals – the same bizarre, irrational transformation from ordinary to occult takes place in the mind of adults, a residual evolutionary fear of (or fascination with) the unknown.
The care and attention taken to locating sites, determining access points, and then building up collections of tools to defeat any obstacle to ingress (any combination of locks, doors, fences, window boards, brick walls, ledges, tunnels, shafts, or guards, tackled with makeshift ladders, lock picks, crowbars, parkour, hacksaws, ropes, torches, etc.) indicates a mentality most commonly seen in cat burglars and collectors of finely trivial artefacts such as stamps, bugs, cereal boxes and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. Online, forums are full of explorers comparing their equipment, laying out tools in dazzling arrays of size, shape, and function. The detail and care taken into their maintenance and use struck me, initially an outsider, as disturbingly obsessive – it didn’t surprise me when I found urbex websites describing the hobby as a fetish. It’s only with a fetishist’s attitude towards old stuff that the really cool shit is accessible – and the greater the dedication, the greater the photography. The one piece of equipment most explorers cannot do without is a camera, people in the exploration community usually fancying themselves photographic artists (but more often than not it just makes it easier to gloat, like those long-haired guys in hostels in Berlin who won’t shut up about South-East Asian parties).
But there remains the fact that this is illegal. It doesn’t matter that there’s a strict code for most people who do it – “take only photographs, leave only footprints” – because if you’re caught, you will face some kind of repercussion. Usually the owner will wave a finger and ask you, sternly, to fuck along now. He might ask why you’re there, to which you’ll reply that you were just taking photos. Usually at this point they’ll realise you’re harmless (and just a bit strange), so might smile as they escort you off the premises.
Trespass might be some kind of crime (and as I’ve said, it’s not actually something the police get involved with – it’s part of ancient common law – the police would actually be committing an offense if they were to assist in removing a trespasser or their property from somewhere in most cases) but it’s so mild, and so barely enforced, it merely becomes part of the sport for the explorer. Fences and walls are the Pacman arena, security guards the ghosts. And once they realise you’re only carrying a camera and a slightly foolish taste for abandonment and decay, well, they’ll turn you out, but not particularly grudgingly (although, do note that if you’re entering a property in possession of something clearly used to break-and-enter like a crowbar, you will be in serious trouble if caught by an officer of the law – for prosecution in court, burglary only requires that intent be proven – you have been warned).
The first stage is research. It’s perfectly feasible to walk around the city centre and see potential access points everywhere. Usually even the smaller places will yield something remarkable (the old Odeon cinema on Maid Marian Way has a striking panorama of Market Square, for instance). But different strokes for different folks, as they say. I was starting from the position of wanting space for free parties, and Nottingham is unique in its geographical history – thanks to being located on a large plateau of soft sandstone the city is known for having more underground chambers than any other in the country. Since Saxon times it’s caves that have been Nottingham’s most famous attraction, carved out by hand (so they’re all tall enough to stand in) by the poor and the lepers, banished from the surface communities. Most buildings in old Nottingham have cave cellars – so many, in fact, that over the years dozens were lost, rediscovered every few years as houses collapse and roads sink. Chances are most locals will have a friend who knew a guy that had an uncle with a cousin and so on who honestly found a tunnel that went all the way from the Castle to Derby Road, or to the city hall, etc. These stories are all untrue; there are no cave networks under the city centre worthy of legend. The Broadmarsh caves were a massive complex of workshops and stores in the side of a cliff, partially buried by time and excavated by modern workmen. Most of them are filled in with concrete, to provide foundations for the glorious shopping centre above, but some were preserved as one of the tackiest tourist traps in the Midlands. There are no good caves left in the centre of the city. Further out, however, is a different story.
When being led around Robben Island (“the Alcatraz of Apartheid South Africa”) by a former prisoner (arrested for violent arson upon a government tax office), the personal touch only vaguely makes up for feeling like a schoolchild or common tourist, gawping at this terrible place. He hints that he was raped, as were most of his friends; he now lives on the island with the guards who refused to prevent this in what is usually seen as a striking example of rapprochement. Whilst standing in a courtyard where Mandela and Tutu were for forced to pose for white propaganda photography, under a teary sky and reading a poorly-laminated sign with descriptions of prison life (essentially naked and miserable) I’m seized by the uncontrollable urge to run away, into the prison complex, to find a quiet corner behind a locked door, and reflect for myself and myself alone on the decades of torture that have soaked this place with an atmosphere that seeps into the skin far more powerfully than the African rain.
I know I’m not alone in my distaste for the sanitised gift-shop tours that spring up to support the maintenance of historic places. Witness the constant and endless debates on the ‘correct’ manner to treat the concentration camps of the Third Reich; whether to let them decay and dissolve back into the surrounding wilderness or to preserve them as monuments to the eternal ability of man to degrade man. To preserve is to simultaneously lose their power, some say, as the tourist money begets some twisted cousin of a theme park that, no matter the good intentions of the preservationists, will soften the horror. But then, the reply comes, if we let nature takes its course we will lose these places to moss and grass, and the horror will erode, move into memory, lose immediacy and poignancy. Whatever happens, we are condemned to lose sight of the past.
The Nottingham Catacombs are in the Rock Cemetery on Mansfield Road. They were built in the early 20th Century, by a company convinced that the city could attain the international allure of Paris or Rome if only it had comparable tunnels full of skulls and bones. They were bankrupted early into construction, building only a fraction of the intended network; these days it’s riddled with rubbish from local kids, glowsticks and beer bottles. Walking past the graves of epidemic victims in the round amphitheatre of the Plague Pit (the section of the cemetery built on the collapsed ruins of an old sand mine), sunlight blocked by thick trees, heading to a small corner where a set of thick iron bars define the entrance of the dark, unmarked tunnels… well, there’s a reason the area is associated with Satanic cults.
The Mansfield Road area is riddled with tunnels and sand mines. Several were destroyed for modern foundations, but there are two sizeable complexes left – the best is Rouse’s sand mine. Ask in the shops along the road, going north past the YMCA, if you can have access. You’ll be turned down, but you won’t feel as bad when you sneak in after someone leaves the large doors to the entrances unlocked (as they strangely, frequently, seem to do). There are over 700 metres of dark, sandy tunnels – they used to be filled with fairy lights and called ‘Robin Hood’s Hideout’; local Victorian kids thought it was a troglodyte fortress; more mundanely, it was used as a bomb shelter in the Second World War (basements are uncommon in the UK, so Nottingham’s caves proved an advantage other cities didn’t have). Nowadays it’s musty, mysteriously misty, and far too easy to get lost in.
Rouse’s is fun, but it’s hardly practical – the location is partially residential and the ceiling probably couldn’t cope with loud vibrations. A dedicated WWII bomb shelter, like that under Player Street in Radford, sounded a better shot – I even managed to dig out blueprints and maps from the city archives (the old lady behind the desk gave a suspicious squint when I asked about ‘bombs’). With an described capacity of 9,000, and rooms full of pre-war telecommunications equipment, the Player’s Tobacco shelter soon took on near mythical qualities over the weeks the area was combed for old manholes and blocked staircases. Asking around local businesses, rumour has it it’s still there, used to store ‘sensitive documents’, but nobody really knows what the deal is.
To kill some time we went instead to a stalwart of the Nottingham urbex ‘scene’, the Great Northern Railway warehouses next to the city’s station. Grand but burned-out buildings, relics of when this city produced lace and cigarettes that were transported around the world. One of the warehouses is now the home of smack fiends. The other is a shell, four walls held up by a mesh of scaffold and concrete like a set from a dystopian film. Several bodies have been found dumped in dank recesses here over the years, and I could still taste the stench of waste and death until the next day.
Finding locations that are full of potentially valuable stuff (and with the ease of eBay we’d have no trouble offloading anything – no need to deal with stern men in long coats down the local) is always a tricky temptation for the urban explorer. It’s only one simple act that violates the code – picking up a valuable piece of mahogany from a pile of timber transforms photographer into burglar. And it’s so tempting when you know how easy it is to get in and out undetected…
But, then, I’m looking for somewhere to use specifically beyond simply taking photographs, so am I any better? The aim isn’t damage or theft, but loud noise and the inevitable mess of the hedonistic will take away what makes a true site of urban decay so beautiful – that sensation of walking through the remnants of activity, of seeing how a building, left to its own devices, is taken back by the elements whilst still possessing an eerie and indescribable atmosphere, a property of emptiness. With urban exploration, purity is the attraction – to hasten the process would be to undermine the entire point. The more I explore, the more I realise I’d rather protect than reveal – begods, I was becoming one of them, the crowing forum members who detest those who abuse their skills for evil. I was even beginning to sound like a tourist.
We were meant to be looking at a large factory on Ilkeston Road. After jumping the fence we heard people inside the ground floor (the owners clearly just didn’t care about replacing windows or weeding the yard, which to our mind was akin to a hotel’s neon vacancy sign – unlocked doors would be the mint on the pillow). Not liking the CCTV either, we decided it would be a night job. As we sat on our bikes outside the gates, dejectedly watching the pigeons freely wheeling in and out of the roof, I remembered a night I’d got lost walking home from Blueprint through Radford’s estates and stumbling upon an empty roller disco straight out of Scooby Doo. It was a better target than none – it proved impenetrable, but nearby was a ruined water tower on a warehouse, behind an invitingly dedicated metal fence.
Inside was a huge complex, larger than we could have ever anticipated. We made entry into a generator room, patches of oil spilling out from old car batteries. Through the door a ruined, cavernous car garage filled with the sound of echoed drips. We light-footed through the network of workshops and warehouses – rotten clothes; children’s toys sprouting cress; huge lathes and table saws rusting to pieces; vast collections of car parts, all decayed beyond use. The toilets were overgrown (vines crept out the bowl, through the ceiling), with the splintered twilight from above exaggerating the contrasts between the vivid blues and reds on the walls with the green, mossy vegetation that could be found in every crack and crevice. Downstairs was a flooded music studio, shattered drum skins and a Smash Hits from 1988; upstairs, on the roof, an old clay tennis court riddled with holes and cracks. There was an office building, papers and desks as they were the day they were left – the office gym equipment was still in place, in working order. There was thousands of pounds’ worth of merchandise within these buildings, and evidently nobody gave a damn enough to want to take it with them – what was even more remarkable was that it seemed most of it had been left untouched for years (not by the owner, junkies, homeless, kids, or otherwise).
The water tower had had its ladder broken off, and was home to hundreds of pigeons. The sky darkening, egress was more important than messing about with nesting birds – it’s also dangerous to mess around too much in large pigeon nests, as disturbing their droppings in such large quantities tends to kick up dust filled with parasites (usually far more dangerous than asbestos, another common risk). In the distance we could see Jubilee campus, and the futile erection that is Aspire.
Radford, like other working class areas of Nottingham, are riddled with buildings like these, left over from the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the financial sector. They’re magnets for the homeless and the poor, some of whom were left destitute by the same economic symptoms that closed the factories, decimated the world-famous Nottingham lace workshops, and left swathes of northern Britain empty and socially scarred. It’s a bitter irony that while communities split and people struggle in ugly ways, these buildings nevertheless fall apart and disintegrate with such beauty.