Over the summer months, we received a number enquiries to the website as to whether we would be willing to offer out photographs for sale. After a quick discussion, and an afternoon googling how to set up a gallery payment system, we are pleased to be able to offer a number of limited edition fine art prints of our favourite landscape photos from around the South Downs, Surrey and the South Coast. New galleries with additional photographs will be added in the future, including a series of Wildlife photographs and if we decide to, a selection of our favourite photographs of abandoned spaces.
The plan is to offer each photograph to a strictly limited edition of 12 prints, all pieces are professionally printed and signed by the photographer. They will be available in A4, A3 or A2 sizes (measure along the longest edge) with prices starting from £40 for an A4 sized print. All artwork will be printed on Fine Art Photo Rag paper as this is our preferred paper.
To view the photographs we have available to purchase, please visit the gallery below:
After nearly a decades worth of volunteering work at the R3 ROTOR bunker at RAF Wartling the summer of 2019 saw a key milestone reached; English heritage deemed the site safe enough to run a series of Members Tours within the old bunker. Here on TheTimeChamber, we have been involved with the remedial works at the old RAF Wartling bunker pretty much from the start, where we have seen the bunker dried out, severe leaks repaired and access down into various spaces made safe.
A short history from Subbrit regarding the initial ‘big pump’ history.
When Wartling was sold by the MOD in 1976 it was still in excellent internal condition. When inspected in 1970 the power was still connected; the lights worked and although stripped of most of its equipment all the teak flooring was still in place on both levels. There was no water ingress anywhere. When visited by members of Subterranea Britannica in 1987 the bunker had deteriorated badly in the intervening years as it had been broken into on several occasions and badly damaged by vandals. All the glass windows looking into the two level operations room had been smashed as had all the toilet fittings. A lot of wiring had been stripped out and all the copper had been removed from the mains transformer. All the teak flooring on the upper level had been removed. The lower level was flooded to a depth of three feet in the corridor corresponding to a depth of five and a half feet in the AC plant room and operations room neither of which had raised false floors. As it was impossible to determine the state of the floorboards in other parts of the lower level no attempt was made to enter any of the rooms. A photographic survey of the lower level was made from the open doorways. It has subsequently come to light that the floorboards had not been removed from the lower level; when the bunker was eventually pumped out most of the floorboards had collapsed into the void below but in a few rooms they remain in place and in relatively sound condition. On the upper level, a brick wall had been built across the main access tunnel from the guardhouse to the bunker just beyond the cable shaft. The bunker and surrounding land was sold for the second time in 1989 but vandalism continued unabated and eventually a new secure steel door was fitted to the emergency exit to prevent further illegal entry.
When the bunker was again visited by members of Subterranea Britannica in 1996, the water level in the lower level had risen to seven and a half feet above the level of the lower corridor which was now almost completely submerged. There were plans to pump the bunker out in 1996 and the water was tested by the Environment Agency and was found to be sufficiently clean to pump directly onto the surrounding land. The water level was reduced by several feet but the pumps were insufficient to reduce the level to much below the 1987 level. The pump out was abandoned and the bunker was once again allowed to flood. In the later spring of 2004 the owner was approached by Subterranea Britannica and it was agreed that a further attempt should be made to pump the bunker dry. The water was once again tested by the Environment Agency who declared it fit to pump directly on to the land. It was decided to wait until later in the year when the ground would hopefully be at its driest and a start date of 11th of August was set for the ‘big pump’. By the time the pumps were turned off on the morning of Sunday 22nd August some 2.75 million litres of water and been pumped onto the surrounding farm land.
It was initially thought that the bunker would be left to flood again and was sealed accordingly, however the land owner is interested in preserving it for future generations. This was because the R3 Bunker at RAF Wartling is an interesting site as it is one of only a few accessible ROTOR bunkers that is still in its original configuration. Other R3 type bunkers around the country found subsequent uses and heavily altered internally. As a result of this a small contingent of volunteers from Subbrit and KURG undertook to perform some remedial works, not to restore the bunker, but rather to stop it deteriorating further
All water ingress points sealed by digging down externally,
Wall and sump and water storage bowsers installed at cable shaft end to manage water ingress from this point,
Pumps installed using original sewage ejector pipes and grey water tank to enable efficient pumping from lower levels (staged pumping),
New electricity meter, armoured cable under field, and electrical distribution board installed from Radar House,
IP66 lighting & electrical sockets throughout upper level,
LED floodlights to light up main ops room,
New vent shaft constructed on the demolished cable shaft,
Improved security with new locks and doors,
Re-rendering of blockhouse,
New galvanised grilles on blockhouse,
Metal flooring grilles over cable ways,
Metal hatches over voids & rotten access hatches,
Numerous upstairs rooms swept and mucked out,
Ops room swept, cleared and dry for the first time in decades,
asbestos survey carried out (negative result),
New entrance stairs constructed (a requirement of allowing EH visits),
Safe access steps provided down into various rooms on the upper floor,
Stabilisation of the Kelvin Hughes projector pit.
Future plans include continued cleaning and making good to enable access to all rooms, including plant room and installation of new flooring and walkways. A selection of photos showing the current condition of the bunker are displayed below:
We have a confession, we enjoy a good tunnel and have written about them before and spun tales of our ventures into the underground. There is a specific type of underground structure that has always fascinated us, World War 2 deep shelters. We started our journey into them way back when we found ourselves on the Medway climbing through a small grille and into the Shorts Tunnels that are burrowed into the chalk. Our interest was peaked further when an explorer appeared out of the blue and offered to show us some sites in Dover. From there we were hooked and have since covered a large number of shelters around our local area and further afield when possible, covering both civilian and military shelters.
During the Great War the Germans bombed the civilian population of the United Kingdom by using their Zeppelins to drop bombs on Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. In total, 1,413 civilians were killed, and a further 3,407 were injured. This naturally led the population to seek refuge underground from the possibilities of aerial attack. During 1924 the government instructed the Committee of Imperial Defence to establish the Air Raid Precautions sub-committee, under Sir John Anderson, whose purpose was “to examine the question of protection of the civilian population against air attack.” Initially, their concerns were for the warning, prevention and repair of damage, maintenance of vital services, the movement of the seat of government and the continuation of its operation; there was only a brief mention as to the provision of public air raid shelters. Proposals were put forwards by the Ministry of Works to construct new tunnels as deep refuges beneath the new tube lines in London. However, this was determined to be prohibitively expensive at £2,000,000 per line (a HUGE sum at the time – about £124,000,000 in todays money!). However, it should be noted that a number of deep level shelters were constructed at a later date. The sub-committee explored the possibility of also constructing large shelters throughout the country, but no construction occurred. In 1935 it was decided by the new Home Office ARP department that dispersal was more suitable -cough- cheaper than large scale air raid shelter construction.
In 1937 the responsibility was passed to the local authorities, yet it was not until the Munich Crisis of 1938 did they start to act and provide shelter provision throughout their boroughs. Numerous schemes were proposed , yet ultimately rejected due to cost or size. One successful scheme was the construction of a series of deep shelters beneath the Northern and Central Lines through London, however it was only decided to construct these tunnels during the height of the Blitz and they opened a little too late to be of any initial use. The Goodge Street Shelter was used as Eisenhower’s command centre for D-Day and Chancery Lane. It was proposed after the war to use these tunnels to construct a fast tube into central London, but this didn’t occur and most are used for various means nowadays such as archival storage, or a hydrophonic farm. At the same time, many local authorities throughout the country completed construction of tunnel shelters; either deep shelters buried within the local geology, or cut and cover shelters within local parks.
The civil defence provision was provided by each borough through a variety of means; Anderson Shelters and Morrision table shelters were provided to homes. Communal street shelters were provided for persons caught out in the open during an air raid warning – these were design to provide protection from shrapnel etc and had accommodation for around 60 persons. Trench shelters were excavated within parks throughout the country – these were simple cut and cover constructions formed of reinforced precast concrete, providing accommodation for a few hundred people. Finally, deep shelters were constructed by a handful of authorities around the country, some of these used pre-existing cave systems, such as Chiselhurst Caves. In other areas, such as Surrey, Stockport, Birkenhead or Portsmouth, specialist tunnels were excavated into the local bedrock; these tunnels provided shelter for up to 1000 persons. Finally, many industrial buildings converted their basements into Air Raid shelters for their staff; the Shorts Brothers factory in Rochester constructed tunnels into the chalk cliffs for both staff and the general public and we have seen evidence of the basement conversion at the Wolverton Railway Works.
Similar tunnel provision was constructed at military installations throughout the UK to provide protection from bombing raids, or the cross channel guns aimed at Dover. These were typically much smaller shelters constructed for the accommodation, storage and operation requirements of the military personnel stationed at the installation. Some of these shelters were constructed for other operational purposes, such as protected radio transmission stations, dressing stations and plotting rooms.
Below is a short selection of our photos from numerous years of disappearing down dark, dank holes in the ground!
After a recent mention on Twitter by a fellow explorer (a few years ago now, mind, and our memories of the trip were jogged recently by a Channel 4 programme) that linked to our Chernobyl pages, we realised that we never told our the full story of our visit. Aside from a few rambling stories in the pub, we have only ever added photos on an interactive map and left it at that. Even when we posted the visit to various forums, we never went into too much detail as to what we remember from our trip. So here goes:
We went to Chernobyl, experienced the Ukraine and took some Photos. You can skip to the end to see a selection of our photos if you don’t fancy reading our rambling tale.
It all started whilst visiting Germany in 2010 whilst we were standing in an underground ammunition dump, vague talk of visiting Chernobyl started and our ears pricked up. As an explorer the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is hard to ignore. There lays in the Ukraine the abandoned city of Pripyat, which can be your playground for a small fee, what more could you want? OK, add a train graveyard, a power station, other towns & villages, a huge military installation and the worlds second most radioactive tract of land and you have something! Chernobyl is somewhere that we have always wanted to explore, yet we have never been sold on the idea of flying 1,500 miles to be given a 4-Hour whirlwind tour of a few tourist spots and shooting off again. We felt that you would not see much, but our minds changed when one of our friends managed to organise for a group of us to spend 3 nights staying within the zone. 2011 was a milestone birthday for one of us (30 for those that care) and rather than sit in the pub over a pint of warm bitter(ness), we boarded a Hungarian budget airline and pointed ourselves to the East.
We had no idea what to expect and when we landed at Kyiv Zhuliany Airport we entered utter chaos. Zhuliany is an old domestic Soviet airport that had undergone a period of rapid expansion. As is the progress typically found with infrastructure, air flights had increased dramatically but the airport lagged far behind. So far behind it had yet to leave to drawing office. We spent an agitated few hours sweating in a marquee erected on the edge of the runway awaiting entry into the country. It was here that we nearly didn’t even make our trip. The checkpoints into the Exclusion Zone shut every night at 10pm sharp with a military enforced curfew blanketing the area. We didn’t fancy a trek through the undergrowth to make our visit(others have!). Having left the airport at 8:30pm we faced a two hour drive into the wilderness with a driver who was more concerned with exhibiting his knife collection than the road in front of him. After a high speed race out of Kiev, we made it just in time and feeling hungry, tired and slightly dehydrated and we slowly started to retire to bed. But first our English fixer produced a vast quantity, and we are talking about 16 litres, of Tenants super) from his checked-baggage for us to indulge ourselves with. No wonder he wasn’t too happy when the baggage handling system ejected his suitcase from the plane hold at lightspeed!
Our first real experience of the Ukraine, other than the shambles at the Airport, was the food. Food shows you exactly what a country is about. A few months after we visited another group took a very similar trip and dismissed the food instantly. It was good hearty food that kept us going for the majority of the day, which was an important factor as we had decided to forfeit lunch to allow more time exploring. We did make use of the local shops and smuggled snacks into the zone with us, against the advice of our guide. I liked the food, even if it was served by a stern looking women who looked as though she would not hesitate to clout you with a ladle if you made a fuss. I will happily eat a Ukranian Shepherds Pie again for breakfast again. Reminiscent of the old Soviet Era and the treatment of Westerners, our time ‘living’ within the Zone was an eye opening experience. We were subjected to a curfew each night, had to travel in the company of our guide at all times and our meals were pre-planned with zero choice in the matter on when or what we had. Large military style vehicles raced along the roads and camo clothing was the fashion of the day.
After an early start and a quick breakfast in a semi abandoned building, we loaded ourselves up into the minibus and raced our way deeper into the Zone. At least we thought we were. More accurately speaking, we were driven 100m down the street to stock up in the shop where we entered the world of befuddled communication. Abacuses were used to calculate the totals and modern calculators used to communicate the final price. We purchased the obligatory souvenir mugs and we also discovered Kvass (and if you know where to buy it in the London area, please drop us a line). Whilst wandering around outside the shop waiting for the others to finish their shopping spree, we noticed two odd things. None of the services pipes are buried, and the place is a lot busier than we expected. A few rattly coaches shot by, cyclists pedalled their way to wherever it is they are going and a handful of workers, presumably on down time, ambled past us in a cloud of tobacco smoke. Our guide explained to us that between three and four thousand people work in the zone at one time. A little further down the road from the shop was the monument to the fireman who perished in the disaster, and as was the way with this trip, we drove the 100m down the road to get to it. To be fair, Eastern Bloc countries know how to construct memorials.
We didn’t immediately head towards the Reactors, or Pripyat. Instead, we drove off into the undergrowth and towards the partially completed cooling towers. The first 4 reactors at Chernobyl use river water cooling channels as their primary cooling medium, but the newer reactors were to have cooling towers. Reactors 5&6, and their cooling towers, were never completed due to the accident and lay in a state of semi-completeness. Scaffolding still clung to the rim of the cooling towers and the construction cranes hang dormant over the reactor buildings. Cooling towers have some fantastic acoustics and some unusually high radiation levels due to the dust accumulation inside. We didn’t stay long here and moved off in the direction of the Reactors and to enjoy a spot of fish feeding.
You never realise how big a power station is until you stand up close and have it tower over you. Reactor 4 blew up in 1986 and the Russians set about burying it below a mix of sand, boric acid and cement. There is only one problem, the Russians were never very good at concrete and the sarcophagus that shrouds the reactor is crumbling. To make matters worse, the ground slab that was built after the explosion was never sealed properly and rain water leaks through the structure and into the ground, picking up radiation as it goes. Since we visited, the EU has tented it under a specially constructed steel structure in an attempt to confine it if it collapses. Of course, we didn’t know this much detail when we left and happily wandered around the memorial site at the foot of the reactor. The group at this time was a buzz of excitement, we all stood about for posed photos and cracked jokes.
From here, we headed to Pripyat and had to pass through yet another checkpoint nestled between tumbledown barbed wire fences and lush green vegetation. It is hard to described driving into an abandoned city as it is not something we do everyday. Phrases such as post-apocalyptic, worlds end, nature reclaims all, and desertion come to mind. And as much as it is a cliché, it was exactly that. Sometimes a cliche works and we found ourselves driving down a post-apocalyptic road that was originally a 4-lane high way that bisected the city (sorry, we had to say it). The minibus could barely squeeze past the undergrowth as we zig-zagged around many obstacles that potentially blocked our paths. It was impressive as well as slow going. Buildings would reveal themselves in a passing glimpse, only to then be swallowed up by a green mass; side roads resembled footpaths and lamp posts were easily mistaken for trees. Pripyat wasn’t immediately abandoned, it took a few days for the Soviets to issue an evacuation order and parts of the city were still in use for workers of the power plants as late as 1998. The swimming pool and sports hall was fully function up until 1996.
After making our way slowly through the undergrowth, we ventured upon part of the city administration the fire, police and city workers buildings. A small part of the group detached themselves and started crawling all over the derelict vehicles that were strewn around the yard. We found ourselves surrounded by enthusiasts, whilst overlooked by vehicles perched on roof tops, and we joked that their current state was how they had left the factory. Our guide quickly ushered us back into the minibus in an attempt to stop us scattering like kittens. He had a point, the curious will wander. And wander we did.
Whenever we have told someone that we spent three days touring ‘The Zone’ we get asked the question “weren’t you worried about radiation?” Not constantly, no. We had Geiger Counters and our own experiments showed that we received more radiation on the 4 hours flight to the Ukraine than we did during our 58 hours in the zone. Upon entering the zone we received strict instructions from the Chernobyl Inter-Inform Agency regarding dangers we faced, radiation was near the bottom of the list; the only caveat was that we did not venture into the undergrowth as the radiation levels are noticeably higher, as are the dangers of tics, bears and wolves. During our tour we did trek to see one of the mechanical grabbers that was used by the helicopters to lift radioactive debris back into the reactor hall; the radiation levels were incredibly high and we didn’t hang around for too long.
It is here that we originally got to when we started writing the original post five years ago and the final line was “bugger this, this is long” and we left it abandoned – so here goes, lets finish attempt to this.
One of the lasting memories from our trip was the time spent in the minibus with Armin van Bureen blasting at max volume. Our driver had one specific taste in music and nothing could sway him – not everyone agreed with it – but with the sunshine beaming it eventually grew on us and seemed to fit our moods. We still now, 7 years on, have some of the mixes on our phones as it brings back some great memories. For anyone that has played the first Call of Duty Modern Warfare, our next stop was somewhere familiar. The swimming pool and fitness centre. A huge empty, tiled hole in the ground that inspired some great photographs.
As we have described earlier, Pripyat is densely overgrown place. Across the street from the leisure centre was one of Pripyat’s middle schools (1 of 19), but we couldn’t see it until we were right on top of it. Typically we drove there! This was the first place that the abandonment really hit home. Everyone can remember what school was like. The noises. The strict teachers. The playground. It was a huge sprawling complex, littered with old books, posters, furniture and gas masks. Everything an explorer wants; nothing had been removed and subsequently thrown about the place by looters and other visitors. One of the numerous undertakings by the The Soviet Union was to stockpile gas masks in every public building, for fear of an attack on the Motherland. Only now they lay scattered through an old kitchen gathering dust after the metal poachers had removed anything of value. A striking realisation of the paranoia that gripped, and still grips, Russia. The only other time that we were acutely aware of the preparations of the Soviet Union were when we travelled the Metro in Kiev, where huge blast doors that would turn the station into a shelter were still evident. Our final stop for the day before a dinner of Ukranian spicy sausages and pasta was to the Greenhouses; Pripyat was furnished with a huge set of greenhouses (now smashed) to provide the town with the needed provisions during the winter months. The small scale seed laboratory attached to the side was used after the accident as a soil sampling laboratory to track the spread of radiation throughout the exclusion zone.
After a night of sitting about chatting a whole heap of breeze whilst drinking cheap Ukranian Beer we had picked up after another confused trip to a shop, we settled down for bed in a very warm workers barracks. Day two started in the same manner as our first day – an early rise, breakfast in the workers canteen (pancakes), a trip to the shop for supplies, Kvass and another round of confusing communication followed by a race to the next checkpoint with Armen Van Bureen jarring our eardrums.
Having long held the belief that climbing to the highest point whilst exploring is the best way to understand the scale of somewhere, it was a perfect day to find ourselves 15 storeys up overlooking the abandoned city of Pripyat from a precarious balcony. Decaying buildings sprouted up from the forest canopy like a long forgotten Mayan city in the middle of jungle, and the decaying hulk of the ruined power station loomed in the distance. It really did put into perspective the damage human actions can have. After enjoying the views, the discipline of the group descended into chaos; we had strictly been told not to climb out onto the roof as there was a temporary ban in place after someone injured themselves a few weeks earlier. This was quickly ignored and half the group disappeared up a small ladder and out into the roof in the morning sun. The other half stood on various balconies and decided to see who could frisbee plates the furthest. Our guide wasn’t overly impressed with our behaviour and hastily ushered us out of the flats after various items discovered the effects of gravity inside a lift shaft.
Following our descent into what resembled a mob of teenagers, our next stop was a far more sombre affair and the bravado and rowdiness ceased. Pripyat had 75 kindergartens dotted throughout the city to serve the population of 50,000 residents and our next stop was the Kindergarten Cheburashka. As we climbed into the building did it dawn on us that the children who would have attended the Kindergarten at the time of the accident would now be about the same age as us. We silently moved through the building in a somewhat solemn mood as children’s toys, miniature abacus, clothing and cots scattered about the place left us in a contemplative mood. A small mount of Trance music picked up the mood was we travelled onto the next place!
Over the years, Pripyat has become famous for one thing; the Ferris Wheel and Funfair. Our guide had given us a choice of where to go next and the group decided that for the benefit of the few who hadn’t seen it we should pay the wheel a visit. We pulled into the square that was home to the funfair only to discover that a “photo shoot” was in progress and our guide ushered us off around the corner. The photoshoot was something to do with being “young and radioactive” and involved removal of clothes….. ahem. We spent a short time wandering around the funfair as there isn’t actually a great deal to see once you have taken a wide angle shot of a bumper car etc etc. As is the way with touring the Exclusion Zone, we loaded ourselves into the minibus and drove the 50 metres to the Culture Palace. OK then. Not much to say from here other than we all disappeared into the woodwork and crawled over every single corner of the building. Unfortunately, we didn’t find a way down into the basement where we had hoped to find a Soviet shelter. Our guide swerved our questions on what was down there and took us over to the riverside cafe instead.
The final stop of our two day tour before we checked out with the InterInform Agency was the old railway station that served the city and power station. Occasionally it is still used to bring in supplies for the decommissioning of the plant. We spent a good hour climbing about the forest of trains that had been abandoned after the explosion; nothing special to report until the station master (I think) approached us and in very broken English asked us
I don’t think our guide Maxim was quite prepared for this offer and quickly bundled us all into the minibus murmuring that we needed to leave now to make our exit time at the checkpoint. We had time, we should have taken the train. Nevermind, it was time for a few more beers!
Permission. Sometimes it is the only way to see a place unless you are willing to take huge, and in our mind, unnecessary risk. We have to admit that there is a lot of jittery fun sneaking in and exploring somewhere that is hidden from public. We love it and it is what has kept us going for so long. However, there are a number of places that we would never have been able to visit unless we asked, or waited another five years for it to become a possible explore.
Unfortunately, there are some explorers who do not agree with this statement and think it goes against some sort of exploring ethos, what ever that is? Answers on a postcard please. Each to their own, but we have seen quite a few places by simply asking can we have a look round, or knowing the right people who hold the right keys! We understand why some people would be put off by a permission visit as they’ll feel that the freedom of exploring is lost as areas will be inaccessible and big groups will mean that photography becomes difficult (it frustratingly does). Whilst some of this is true, more often that not, we have come across a facilities manager who is happy to turn a blind eye on the odd occasion. Thus allowing us to see a few things we didn’t expect to see. Such as the view of the QRA at RAF Upper Heyford from the top of the control tower, the long disused ward area in Springfield Hospital, an unexpected cinema, the top of the RADAR at Neatishead, and many more.
Recently, we were on one such organised visit to Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea for a photographic tour organised by the NHS heritage team in the area. We were also fortunate enough to see a few extra bits once the tour had finished, which got us thinking about how lucky we have been with some of places we have been allowed to see and decided to put together a rundown of some of our favourite ‘permission visits’.
Before the heritage project got underway at USAF / RAF Upper Heyford, you used to be able to contact the one of the old maintenance guys and ask to be shown around. Armed with a bundle of keys, stories stretching back 30+ years (including one involving a personal letter from Reagan) and a hundreds of acres of a Cold War Air Base led to a fascinating day. Highlights included hearing those hallowed words “i’ll be over here if you need me, don’t be long” and a quick run up some sketchy stairs.
We took a punt years ago and fired an email off the Springfield Hospital requesting permission to photograph the buildings for our then fledgling Asylum section (now superseded by the County Asylums Website). Not expecting to hear anything other than a straight No, we were surprised when a member of their staff reached out and informed us they’d be happy for us to look around. It was even better when we met them and they started out by saying that the exterior of the building could wait, but access to the old Wards couldn’t!
Another ‘what happens if I send off an email and ask’ visit that succeeded! We spent the morning being shown around the internals by the communications manager and a very reserved facilities manager, only to then be shown around in the afternoon by the old caretaker who happily lead us all over the shop and regaled us with stories from the last 30 years!
Cefn Coed Hospital, Swansea
The Heritage Team at Cefn Coed Hospital have recently held a series of open days to show people around the old hospital buildings before they are decommissioned. Through our work with the County Asylums website and the hard work of a friend, we managed to attend and spent the day being touring (tourbexing) with a group. At the end of the day, once the rest of the group had left, the organiser happily turned to us and said “do you want to see more?”
Why walk when you can drive? Germany is littered with Cold War bunkers from both sides of the Iron Curtain and whilst some of these remain derelict and hidden in the middle of absolutely nowhere, others are held under caretakership for one reason or another. It is hard to pin down which was the most memorable, but driving into an underground ammunition dump and parking up at the platforms that could take a full length train was rather surreal!
There is a certain madness to our exploring. We find ourselves surrounded by stunning scenery, only to ignore it and stalk off into a rotten building, or disappearing for hours underground and coming out at dusk. Something isn’t right with that! We often talk about how beautiful some of our surroundings are, and how it would be fantastic to spend some time in them with the cameras, only to ignore this and do something derpy.
It started on a cold December morning at 6am, the car was loaded and the destination programmed into the navigation system. All being well, we were ready to head off to Europe for a weekend of blasting around the French country side looking at defunct military buildings.
“Which way do we go?”
“First exit. No, wait, second exit. Shit. GoogleMaps just crashed”
At least, that was the excuse. Having barely got a mile down the road something had gone wrong. It was in the mind-fog of our early start did we discover the ineptitude of the navigator (ahem, me), and found ourselves heading into London and around the M25, and not down the M20 towards Le Chunnel. Bugger. Put me in a drivers seat and I can get you to within an inch of where you need to go; put me in a passenger seat and ask me to navigate and people realise I was lurking behind the door when the navigational skills and attention spans were handed out. Our trip to France had not started well, hopes of making an earlier train unfortunately dashed by a fucking halfwit. Things didn’t improve on the other side either when the Sat-Nav decided it was more efficient to route us through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany before finally arriving back in France just outside of Metz. We didn’t need to go through Germany, but it is always nice to unexpectedly clock up five snowy countries in a couple of hours and avoid the militant French police whilst hammering along at a reasonable pace. The one thing we did learn on this detour is that the Ardennes area is rather pretty and a visit in the future is required. After my brain fart at 5am, the proceeding car journeys saw me consigned to the back seat and navigation duties being passed on to a far more responsible and attentive person.
On a normal day, a plan can come together extraordinarily fast for us and concludes before it has barely even started. Other times, a fleeting chat over a beer can lead us down a winding path that ends a year later, exploring the French Maginot Line and Germanic fortifications around Metz. Being British, we could not possibly have appreciated the scale of the border fortifications built by the French along the Maginot Line, or the German fortifications around Metz, without visiting them. Our Country sits in ‘splendid isolation’ just across the English Channel nee Moat, which has kept out invading land armies for as long as our history books can remember, except for that time the French and Dutch got lucky! All in all, this has negated the need for hugely complex line of defensive installations that sprawl across hundreds of miles of shared border – we spent our money on vast Naval project instead (It was easier to harass The Empire with a fleet of ships). However, the United Kingdom doesn’t entirely lack in large scale fortifications, areas such as Dover and Portsmouth were heavily fortified by the Victorians over fears of a French invasion. But, these structures are toys compared to those on the continent. For starters they are not big enough to include their own internal railway, or underground accommodation for one thousands fighting troops, or have popup gun turrets (cool!!).
For those of you that weren’t paying attention in history at school, or haven’t already opened a new tab for some quick wiki research, the Maginot Line was an enormous defensive system built by the French in the 1930’s to defend against possible invasion by the German Army. France had seen the world bloodiest and deadliest war fought along this same border some two decades earlier and did not want to experience it again. The Maginot Line was intended to stall the German Army for long enough to allow the French Army to mobilise and rush to the border and mount a strong defense. Complicated politics meant that they did not fortify the Belgium border, which unfortunately left the side gate open for German flanking maneuvers and the rest is history. Metz was annexed and fortified by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war in the late 19th century to prevent the French retaking it, only to have it, and the forts they built, handed back to the French after World War 1. World War 2 saw the forts back in German hands after their invasion of France and they proved their worth by stalling the Allied Armies on their advance into Germany.
What explorer would not want to pay these forts a visit? The reason for their construction might be on the grim side of the scale, but everyone likes a bit of James Bond and the fanciful bunkers that he swanned about in. Unless you are prepared to risk it all for exploring some high profile sites in the UK, we currently lack large all day explores and road trips covering numerous sites are now the norm. We were looking forward to having a one to two sites a day to wander in. Our plan involved exploring a mix of the French Maginot Line Gros Ouvrages of the Thionville Fortified Sector and the German fortifications encircling Metz. The area has rich pickings (we’ll go back at some point), but our weekend saw us visit the following sites:
Francois-de-Guise / Leipzig
France also taught us one other thing – the British really do fail when it comes to winter. Give us 0.5 inches of snow and the entire country seems to grind to a halt; the rest of Europe seems wrap up a little more, shrugs and carries on regardless. We adopted the European approach, which isn’t very much as the local authorities are very efficient in clearing and gritting the roads. Besides we were in a Quattro. Not much stopped us…..
The snow had the added bonus of making the area superbly photogenic.
Gros Ouvrage Rochonvillers
Rochenvillers. Gros Ouvrage Rochenvillers. Gros Ouvrage ‘I am bloody bored of walking this really long burnt out tunnel’ Rochenvillers. Nothing had prepared us for the scale of this place. It was huge. Someone should open up a bar halfway between the accommodation block and the fighting blocks to serve refreshments to the intrepid explorer or metal thief. We exaggerate, but Rochenvillers is one of the largest Gros Ouvrages along the Maginot Line and boasts a near 2 mile long tunnel and nine underground fighting blocks. Unfortunately, miscreants found there way into the tunnel network a number of years ago to steal valuable metals and caused untold amounts of smoke damage in the process. Soot lined tunnels suck up torch light to no end. Some surface photographs can be found here.
Gros Ouvrage Brehain
Brehain. Another Gros Ouvrage. The tunnel wasn’t so long in this one, thank god, or it would have gotten very boring. Brehain was another one that was refurbished during the Cold War, along with Rochonvillers, Molvange and later Immerhof, to form a defensive strongpoint against rampaging Soviet hordes. There is also evidence inside of German use in the Second World War. We went in the snow, which added to the atmosphere. It was bitingly cold though.
Gros Ouvrage du Michelsberg
Billed as “the smaller one” of the trip, but still went on for a mile underground. We were lucky to visit Gros Ouvrage Michelsberg at this time of year as it is normally closed to the public. Thankfully the owners very kindly agreed to open it up out of season for us fellow bunker perverts to snoop about their fantastic restoration – they even provided us with a breakfast. If you are in the area, do try and drop by and have a look, it is a brilliant tunnel complex with restored parts and to-be-restored parts filled with equipment from the 1930s. Lovely. Why can’t there be more places like this?
Feste Luitpold/Groupe Fortifie L’yser
Murals. Nearly every military installation we have visited has had some sort of painted mural, drawing or carved graffiti from bored soldiers on a wall somewhere and we doubt we will ever get tired of finding them. L’Yser had some of the best and most intricate ones that we have come across in our years of exploring; incredibly they have thus far been unmolested by idiots with spray cans. Unfortunately, some had had there faces scratched out, but this was only in one or two places, odd! Whilst L’Ysers did not cover the same length underground, the site was extensive and was made up of multiple fighting blocks interconnected by tunnels, ditches, barbed wire entanglements and dense undergrowth that made for a lot of walking.
Feste Graf Von Haesseler/Groupe Fortifie Verdun
Our second German fortification of the day; Verdun consists of two forts that are situated close enough together to be considered a single fortification that guards the area. Both forts suffered extensive battle damage when the Americans bombed the crap out of it in 1944 during Patton’s attempted to dislodge an entrenched German Army. The extent of the damage was obvious, fractured concrete, tumble down bricks and gaping holes littered both forts. Marvellous.
Feste Leipzig/Group Fortifie Francois-de-Guise
This one we knew nothing about, not even if it was ‘visitable. We rocked up, chanced our arm and found a slightly awkward way in. Group Fortifie Francois-de-Guise was re-purposed during the Cold War into an aircraft control centre for the French Air Force. Nicely decayed inside and untouched. However, it smelt of dead rabbits.
We must go back, Europe was fun! And now for some photos:
We had not visited to Romania with the intention for exploring, we were there for the wedding of two good friends. The thought of sloping off and exploring never crossed our mind. Not once. Honest. It is well known in the exploring community that Eastern European countries are ripe for picking. Since the fall of communism and the subsequent rise in the free markets, life has been turbulent for every country of the defunct Warsaw Pact and the remains of vast industries and military installations litter their countrysides . On our drive up into the mountains of Prahova, it became apparent that Romania was no different and we passed numerous places that would provide a happy few hours exploring.
But, we didn’t come for this. We came for a wedding and a break in the mountains – it is a breathtakingly stunning country and we would highly recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere to go that is a little of the beaten track and quiet. It was only after driving back down from the cable car – an awesome 70s retro thing aside a modern Swiss machine – in Sinaia did we notice a large reinforced concrete Berm as we hurtled around a corner. I don’t think the car had pulled to a stop before I was running into the bushes, forgetting about the warnings of black bears, like an oblivious child. This isn’t the first time we have been abroad and stumbled across something that has piqued our interest. We spent a good hour driving up and down the mountain trying to track the moss covered concrete through the dense forest.
From what I can make out (information is limited for obvious reasons), but the track was built between 1974 & 1976 and used through until approximately 2009. The course was constructed primarily of concrete, with wood side bars and consisted of 11-14 turns, a bridge across the main access road and a total length of 1500m. More photos can be found here.
Post Script: We had started to write some gumph to go with the photos, but we wouldn’t normally do this sort of post and didn’t know what to write without it screaming ‘look at me’. So we deleted it and decided to let the pictures do the talking. It has been a fun year with many miles travelled. Lets see what 2018 brings, we expect it’ll be a bit quieter.
Since switching over to WordPress many years ago we have never taken the effort to update the layout and look of the website. During the original switch, we made the conscious effort to preserve the look of the website. You can also blame it on laziness, a stubbornness against customising a WordPress theme and the past layout serving our needs perfectly well. However, in the last seven years the internet and mobile phones have progressed at an incredible rate, which has resulted in our website lacking in a few key features. Namely, responsiveness. To get round this problem there a few WordPress plugins that exist that allow the website to serve both mobile and PC platforms with ease. These plugins come at a cost and add unseen overhead to the data that the server handles and this route has resulted in us have quite a high number of plugins installed. Not the best practice.
We must admit that a visual update was not entirely planned, but we manically clicked a few buttons and eventually broke something. This caused us to decide to look into the website as a whole and identify where we could make improvements. What is it with the dark winter nights and fiddling with things? A few key areas were identified and we set to work butchering the latest WordPress Theme to meet our demands. All this has resulted in the following improvements:
A new front page,
A dynamic menu that you cannot escape,
A reduction in the plugin count by 1/3, hopefully speeding the site up,
Responsiveness to mobile/desktop browsing,
Full width pages being applied to the site as a whole,
Some flashy design gimmicks we quite like – hello parallax scroll!
Some other things we may not be remembering right now.
Hopefully you find the new look satisfying, best get back to some exploring now! Next up, the Maginot Line.
We are not the first. We will not be the last (whoever is, turn the bloody lights off). We do not do things better. We hopefully do not do things any worse? We are a copy of what came before us. We don’t subscribe to being prolific pioneers, we are weekend warriors in it for the shits and giggles. And ten years ago we discovered that it is not really worth doing something, unless someone somewhere, would prefer you not to be doing it. We started poking our noses into abandoned buildings, had an aggravated trespass notice slapped in our faces and found ourselves entering into the world of Urban Exploration. Over the years we have seen some inspiring places and made some good friends along the way. Furthermore, we have had run-ins with irate security guards, pissed off land pirates and surprisingly pleasant police officers. I do not think we ever expected to be actively exploring ten years after we first set foot inside Pyestock, or build a website, but it still interests us and keeps us going!
Rewind ten years to when both of us were studying at university and on separate computers in separate parts of the country, we stumbled upon a set of photographs posted on a music forum of the then recently closed Rover Longbridge plant. These photographs piqued our interest and through the miracle of the internet we found Simon Cornwell’s formative UrbexUK website, and the burgeoning forum 28dayslater. We devoured everything we could and subsequently lost many hours to people’s stories and photographs and it left us wanting more. We are probably not the only explorers from this time that were inspired by what we saw online – the scene has started to gain exposure in the press and grow.
After a quick phone call to each other, and a little research, did we discover the National Gas Turbine Establishment down the road in Farnborough. Who would not want to walk around acres and acres of a cold war jet engine research establishment? Retrospectively, things were vastly different on our first explore. We would typically approach a site with a fuzzy printout from Flashearth, an AA Road Map for navigation, a small point and shoot camera and an AA Maglite. There was always a high chance back then of ending up hopelessly lost in the middle of a housing estate desperately trying to figure out where on earth you were. Now you can easily tap things into the search on your smartphone, grab a dSLR and you are good to go. Hell, even the largest forum has a comprehensive map of UK locations that save the bone idle from doing any research or simply driving about (we must admit it is sometimes handy for a rainy weekend).
It’s probably around this point in our trip down memory lane that we should also admit to wandering about abandoned places as kids, but that would be clichéd right? Probably not, as it was somewhere to go and have a crafty smoke, bb gun war and hang out away from parents. We had a misspent youth crashing around a derelict holiday camp on the Isle of Wight and building dirt jumps next to an old Anti-Aircraft Emplacement in the village we grew up in. We have always wanted to know what is going on behind the scenes, it is our human instinct to see what is over the next hill. Over our lifetimes, society has built a construct that rules should be obeyed, boundaries are set and routes followed; all closely guarded by the rise of Health and Safety practices, scaremongering in The Press and ‘The Nanny State’. Blow that.
Urban Exploration throws caution and common knowledge to the wind and asks, what’s over there? Can I climb that scaffolding? Why is this floor so bouncy? Should I really have eaten all those MacDonald’s? Oh shi—!
Realistically, there is a fence that leads to roaming through empty rooms appraising someone else’s detritus. Contrary to popular belief pushed forward by the Daily Fail Mail recently it is rarely eerie. Although it is an unnerving experience from time to time. An unexpected noise from a building banging in the wind can reach down into the hind brain, hunt about for the right lever and trigger a reaction that heightens the senses and dumps a whole chunk of adrenaline into the system. This has previously caused us to hide in cupboards for no other reason than a loose door thumping against its frame. It sometimes takes a special blend of nerves and foolishness to stay put and not scamper off into the distance. All this has culminated in ten years’ worth of tales and stories from the other side of the fence, normally shared over a pint and rarely on this blog.
Throughout the last ten years we have ventured around UK and Europe taking in the sights, sounds and smells of old abandoned buildings. Alongside all of this we have restored an ROC post in Sussex, helped out with the efforts at RAF Wartling to keep it dry, become involved in the relaunch and running of the County Asylums website and built this website to publish our photos on and share our stories. In hindsight, our first website was not that great – it was a loose collection of images and words with no real structure. After finding a book in the library, learning some code and writing a history, we found our feet and the website developed. We set about learning some more code and we took it further, got out of our depth and finally decided to install WordPress after our hand was forced when a previous hosting service killed our website and then professed their innocence. It was an exploring friend who saved our bacon, and to this day, keeps us online. We owe him much scrumpy. Alongside all this, the exploring world has changed immensely over the last decade. Forums are on their death beds, Social Media has become the primary playground of the new generation of explorer and the older guard has driven themselves out of view in an effort for privacy, family life and careers. Forums are dead. Likes and shares on Instagram, Youtube and Facebook are the order of the day today, unfortunately (you can find us on all three, hah!).
So, what is next? To be entirely honest, we are not sure really. There will always be something we want to explore and somewhere we want to go. We will continue to keep the website online and up to date; there is nothing more satisfying than hearing from people about how much they enjoy our site! It may undergo a revamp at some point in the near future to give a fresher look (Update 2018: welcome to the new look) and the photography section will be expanded too. We have talked about making a photobook; we should probably publish one about Urbex Loo’s, or Derelict Staircases, as a tongue in cheek reaction to the highly polished and stylised ones creeping onto book shop shelves of late. We may even venture into making a video, but only if everyone is happy to watch 60 minutes of shaky camera footage of nothing in particular.
On a final note, there is something that we have discovered in the last ten years of running this website. It takes a lot of bloody effort writing blog posts. If we sit down and write a blog post and leave it unfinished in the drafts folder, it’ll rarely get posted as the original thread is lost and the post starts to aimlessly wander (a bit like this one really). We tinker with it, we fiddle with it and six months later, we delete it in frustration at the original idea being lost. Hiding in the background there sits an entire post written our 3 days on Chernobyl that we have edited numerous times since we started writing it . We just cannot get it to flow in a way we are happy with it as what we think we be a jovial post turns into mindless drudgery. The same goes for forays into Ireland and Scotland to look at ROTOR bunkers, or the West Country. The list goes on.
As part of turning Ten, here is a look at some mediocre explores and favourite photographs from the last decade. Bare with us, on some explores our inspiration goes no further than popping our heads into a room, muttering ‘that’s nice’ to ourselves, snapping a photograph and walking off. Other times, the celestial bodies align in our favour and we walk away with a set of images that one day will hang proudly on our walls.
‘Don’t rush, take as many of photos as you can. It’s possible you may not see this place again.’
West Middlesex Hospital Morgue
The main hospital complex was in the throes of demolition preparation when we turned up with our cameras and we initially found it uninspiring. So why does this explore sit in our mind? Having not been exploring that long, this was the first place we explored off the cuff. No research beforehand, no help, we simply turned up and climbed over a wall, and after we had disentangled ourselves from a mess of service pipes, figured a way in. It was also the first time exploring solo. A liberating experience, right up until the point a security guard hammered on the boarded windows of the Morgue whilst we were standing on the opposite side. We were like a pet caught eating the Sunday roast off of the counter top; our hind brain was leading our legs towards the door whilst we still attempted to take photographs of our surroundings. The morgue was the highlight, 3 ceramic slabs, a 36 body fridge including a bio-hazard section and paraphernalia all over. Lovely. Morbid, but lovely.
Cane Hill Hospital, Croydon
Needs no introduction to be honest. We loved it. Well, our second trip made us love it. Our first trip was a paranoid blur worrying about dogs and where to safely have breakfast. Do we need to say more? Cat and mouse games with security, vast amounts of paraphernalia left behind, wards with beds and acres of buildings. An explorers paradise; whole days were lost by many people who ventured in. Other days were lost to not even making it through the fence.
We can vividly remember sitting outside Cane Hill on a summers evening with a handful of other explorers after finding the fence freshly sealed! We had hoped to show one explorer around, who had driven close to 200 miles to get there before demo progressed too far and the charm lost. After a quick phone call to another explorer that ended with no solution to our predicament we headed back to Portnalls Road to leave, only to bump into security making their rounds. Normally, we would leg it at this point, but being cornered and finding them being in a friendly mood, sat on the grass chatting about the demolition. Tails between our legs we went to walk the perimeter fence. As we left we bumped into two other explorer mates who had arrived and hastily decided to make our way back to find another way in. Murphy’s law came into effect and the sodding guard made another guest appearance! This time a quick greeting passed between us and they went on their way. In hindsight, they made a point of stating that they were heading back to the front gate knowing full well what we might do. Whilst we had been talking to the guard, their dog had been going spare and barking at the bushes and nothing would calm it down. Upon returning to our cars later, we discovered that a few more explorers had been hiding flat in the bushes waiting for us to move along and stop bloody well talking to security. This was the same trip where 5/6 stealthy explorers run full pelt into a cupboard of a half demolished ward, thinking it was a corridor, only to hear a slightly squashed cry of “it’s a cupboard” a little too late. We lost all regard for our noise levels after that point.
RAF Bawdsey R3 ROTOR Bunker, Suffolk
Ever driven to the edge of Suffolk to see what is there? Not much in all honesty other than the bracing wind from the North Sea, rural life and a flatness that prevails just about everywhere beyond Ipswich. Until, that is, you happen upon RAF Bawdsey. Home and birth place of the RADAR and what was a mint condition ROTOR R3 underground bunker. We had previously seen RAF Wartling – a damp ruin, RAF Portland – a burnt out shell and RAF Bempton – a gutted hole. It was interesting to see one so intact. No real stories from this one, other than a lot of standing around in the dark waving a torch as though we were attempting to swat a fly.
Fox Brothers Mills, Somerset
We live in South West London. Anything vaguely representing an old Victorian Mill has long been converted into swanky apartments that cost the earth and pack you in like battery chickens. When we started ten years ago we were spoilt for choice with extensive sites such as Pyestock, Cane Hill, Longcross Barracks and West Park that could all draw you back repeatedly for another visit. What we lacked was the old Victorian textile mills. However, the rest of the country did. For some reason the old Mills up north have developed the disastrous habit of spontaneous combustion and falling in on themselves when no one is looking; meaning that some of the best ones have disappeared before we found the time to get to them. Being geographically closer to the West Country, we turned out attention to the two Fox Brothers Mills in Somerset. They’re big, there is equipment close to 150 years old still in situ, clothe sits half-finished on the production line and nature has slowly taken over. What more could you want other than a well stock beer fridge?
Post Script: as of August 2017, part of the building complex at Tonedale spontaneously combusted once conversion work had started. Hmm.
Ystrad Einon Copper Mine, somewhere in Wales
Wales. A stunningly beautiful part of the country with some surprising hidden gems throughout its landscape. You wouldn’t expect it, but if you hack it down a very long single track road somewhere near Aberystwyth you come across a small clearing, complete with two bare arses disappearing into the bushes, that hides one of only two underground water wheels in the country. Something rather special, once you have dug the weeds out blocking the stream and allowed it to drain. That water is cold.
West Park Mental Hospital, Epsom
Our local. In one of the many times that West Park opened up, we ventured over with the sole purpose of finding some new parts that we hadn’t seen. Upon making our way between the male & female sides of the buildings to see if some of the male wards had opened up, we came across something no explorer ever wants to see. At the time, the only way between each side was to go through the admin courtyard and hope that you weren’t seen by anyone in the Rehab Clinic opposite. As we carefully looked around the door to see if the coast was clear, we saw the unmistakable markings of the Police, complete with dog van, being unloaded and the front gate being unlocked. Bye.
Wolverton Carriage Works, Wolverton
An early start, a not very stealthy inflatable boat and squeaky pump, rotten floors and sunrise. This all made for a memorable trip to Wolverton – what used to the the countries largest carriage works for the LMS railway. Lovely stuff. Even if we did go in circles as we left and winced after watching one of our party take a quick lesson in rotten floors and gravity.
Cold War Bunkers, East Germany
Some where along the way, around 2008, we also went a little hipster and did some continental exploring in the former East Germany. Here we discovered what a proper Nuclear Blast door is, got in a fight in a German village (because we didn’t speak German) and blagged a trip into a live German Army base to see their bunker. Needless to say, it was all great fun and we have since made multiple trips to the continent.
Chernobyl and Pripyat, Ukraine
Chernobyl for a time was kind of an explorers mecca. We used to think that the people that went before us were mental as we viewed its the most radioactive and dangerous place on earth. Well it is, but only if your a dick and play with the firefighters suits in the basement of the Jupiter factory otherwise its actually okay. This was a mad trip that passed in a 58 hour blur of fortified wine, weird but enjoyable food, Armand van Buuren trance mixes at an impossibly loud volume, and nunchucks (don’t ask). We must go back.
Middlesex Hospital Chapel, London
One of our best small explores ever. The hospital was being demolished around it, and being suspicious of all developers we wondered if it would ‘catch fire’ or become ‘unsafe’ and be demolished. This building really deserved to be saved as it is literally breathtaking. We remember stepping inside after crawling across a scaffold plank from a first floor window and stopping dead in our tracks. That gold leaf ceiling, Wow. It was also a short-lived explore after accidentally waking a sleeping security guard (oops) that lead to one of us nearly breaking a leg as we made a hasty exit (ever jumped a 4ft wall to find out the other side is 8ft?). Still rates as one of our all time favourites. Thankfully it was preserved and can now be visited.
Concept 2000, Farnham.
This was actually a totally shit explore (tbh everything seemed shit after the initial epicness of Pyestock). It was a derelict office block in Farnham scheduled for demolition, which couldn’t happen fast enough. We only went for one reason – roof topping. We haven’t actually been roof topping since, as frankly that many stairs suck. So we sat on the roof and took some really shit toilet selfies. We haven’t repeated the toilet selfies either because, lets face it, taking photos of yourself in a derelict toilet is deviant behaviour.
With all this reflection, do you know something? Sometimes it simply boils down to just getting out with some friends, chewing the fat whilst looking out over a city or avoiding falling through a floor, and making your own free entertainment for a few hours.
Instagram. Yes, we joined it. We aren’t ashamed. Out of all the social media apps that litter the internet, this seems like the easiest way to casually share images from our website with the world at large. Find us below, enjoy!
During the last year or so, we have been slowly working through TheTimeChamber and updating the galleries to include larger sized and more photos; in doing so we have ended up reediting a lot of old photographs and revisiting long forgotten places. When we began exploring at the beginning of 2007 we were attending University in Guildford and it was ideally placed at a mid-point between Pyestock, Cane Hill Asylum and West Park Asylum. We also had St Ebba’s, Hellingly and Park Prewitt to also feast on and we were somewhat spoilt for choice for a few years. Oddly though, we drove all the way out to Severalls to get our first taste of an Asylum. At the time, West Park had been shrouded in mystery as it was encircled by the infamous laser/cctv grid and there was little information online other than a few ancient reports. As ever, things changed.
Over a two year period from 2008 until 2011, West Park swung from being a very difficult nut to crack (Graylingwell probably takes the trophy as being the hardest), to a wide open walk in the park explore that saw the just about every explorer swarm through. Towards the end of 2007 the high tech security system was disabled by an enterprising night shift guard who preferred to spend his time asleep, than investigate the bells (if only we had known). This marked the beginning of its demise. Eventually the system was ripped out and moved on by English Partnerships and the good ol’ hammer and nail was employed in its place. The pendulum of access continued to swing right up until its eventual demolition. In our opinion, West Park was second only to Cane Hill in terms of Exploring and Asylums (we unfortunately missed out on the Northern ones). It had a vast array of dereliction, items left behind, store cupboards filled with patients belongings and the infamous padded cell. All the while wrapped up neatly in not knowing what to expect with security and if it was going to be a successful trip. Every trip we took, we ended up seeing something different. Some trips were all day affairs, others were short wanders on a summers evening when loafing about was the order of the day, and a few were spent trapped in a single ward.
Our first foray into the buildings saw us climbing through a window and into the corridor leading from the Nurses accommodation, Nightingale House, that would have given us straight access to most of the central services and derelict female wards (at the time, a few male wards were still used as laboratories by the local health authority). We didn’t get that far. Within thirty seconds an angry security guard was shouting us down and demanding we stay where we were. It still amazes me to this day how quickly four full grown adults can climb out of a standard sized window. Against all expectations he cornered us, and then to our surprise, offered to show us around if we promised to bugger off and not come back. We obliged not knowing the next time it would be open as he was busily hammering nails into every available surface. The guard happily showed us the padded cell and then kicked us out the front door. To make it even more odd, he offered a full days access to the entire hospital a week later, stating “i’ll bring the keys, a pry bar and really open the old gal up”. We didn’t pass him up and returned to be shown just about everything we wanted. It turns out though, the guard was on the take. So much for an expensive security system and the effort to preserve the buildings.
In subsequent visits, we either waltzed in through the open doors and windows of the corridors of the female side, or found ourselves ducking into the service tunnels underneath the Lakeview Villa and navigating our way into the complex by feel, asbestos clouds and low hanging service pipes that leave a good scar. All this left me with a lasting impression that West Park was a bit of a incomprehensible warren. It was quite easy to get disorientated as navigating the befuddling mess of service tunnels forced you to surface every few minutes like a lost gopher in a vain attempt to see where you were, and if we could make it past one of the numerous sealed doors. In all of our visits we only ever saw the boiler house once, and that was after getting lost in the tunnels and suddenly and unexpectedly stumbling onto it. This method of exploring has left us with a very disorganised set of around a thousand photographs spanning a two year period of trying to find our way.
Now where to start with them?
The Central Services.
It isn’t known how long the services were in use for, but they were in a relatively good condition and had all manner of rooms to rummage through. Access was always varied here and the stores area and bakers house both sat at the end of a long and well sealed corridor, that meant we only saw them briefly when they opened up towards the end of 2009. In the same areas, there was a wonderful poster showing the phased openings of the M25 in 1980’s (no photo, unfortunately). The services area also provided one of the few limited routes between the female / male sides, and consequently an area you were most likely to run into security and unceremoniously shown the door.
Reception corridor adjacent to the hall, kitchens etc
How it used to look (https://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/HospitalCluster.html)
Restaurant (marked as visiting area on early plans) / Kitchen Area
How it used to look (https://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/HospitalCluster.html)
Main Hall (typically burnt down a few years before I visited).
Wash House / Laundry
At the time, this was piled high with redundant hospital furniture, but with less in-situ laundry equipment as found at Cane Hill. There was a gold mosaic plaque when we first visited, which in subsequent visits had sprouted legs and moved on!
The female and male laundry would have been delivered at different parts of the wash house to ensure the the two populations were always segregated. This meant that the Laundry area was a warren of side rooms, laundry bins, wash machines, hatches, trolleys. You name it, it was probably in there. It also made for a good place to hide out and eat lunch in.
We plan to try and post examples from every single ward at West Park Hospital. Our photos are a jumbled up mess due to the ever changing nature of the buildings accessibility, and the inability to photograph everything when trying to figure out where the hell we were, and how we could get to where we needed to go. There are a handful of areas we didn’t make it into for one reason or another, such as the Chapel on the Male Side and the wards used as Labs. The ground floor wards were mainly avoided as dry rot caused by cavity wall insulation installed in the 1970s, and the removal of the roofing by land pirates, meant that you were in for a quick lesson in gravity and the merits of a free national health service.
The Female Side
The female side was the more commonly visited side of the hospital as it was the side you typically entered into the main site from (park in dogging car park, cross road, walk through field, climb chainlink fence, head into corridor or service tunnels by the outer villas). We think we are right in saying (there is a plan somewhere showing the closure process), that the Female Side was the first side to fully close, with the part of the Male side being used as Labs for the Surrey area right up until demolition and conversion.
This was the set of female wards located right at the front of the complex, and as such, next door to security. As a result, and in the pursuit of common sense (it does happen), we avoided them for the most part and subsequently have little identifiable photos from here. They were also stripped bare and had been modernised at some point in the past; there were more interesting wards to look in. We once had to employ some lateral thinking in order to make our exit after MC Hammer had nailed shut the window we came in through.
We would happily stake £5 on this being the most visited ward in the entire hospital as it had the Padded Cell (door missing since the music video shot in 2008). This was also a ward that had a great deal of peeling paint decorating the walls, a boot store under the stairs stuffed with the belongings of patients that must have been there since the eighties and, as the laws of the exploring world dictate, a Christmas Tree.
Exford / Creche
The first ward we visited after our run in with the security guard back in 2008. He had told us to meet him at the front gate in an hour, so what did we do? Poke about the place until we found a way in on our own. Over the years, this ward seemed to be one of the ones that opened and closed with the wind and whilst the rest of the site was on lock down it could be trusted upon for entry; there were possibly two or three trips were this was the only building we made it into. This was also the ward the people mistakenly identified as for Children, it wasn’t. It was a Creche for staff use.
Frinton / Occupation Therapy
At some point in its history, this ward was converted from being used as a ward, to an Occupational Therapy workshop. It was one of the wards with Murals on the upper floor (there was a similar one on the male side), a store cupboard hiding a hand loom and ground floors that were more closely related to a trampoline than supporting the weight of a human being. We spent numerous times in here trying figure out how to get out of here – one confused trip saw us surface here from the tunnels, only to surface here again a few minutes later -, quite an interesting little ward in hind sight.
When we first started writing this post, we didn’t remember much of this ward other than it was adjacent to an old entry point and made a ‘safe place’ to prepare our camera gear, and that there was a random store room bolted onto the side leading from the corridor with no real explanation was to why it was there. Looking at some old plans it turns out this was the bath house that would have been used to scrub down new patients before they were admitted to the hospital wards (learn something new every day)! This ward was quite smoke damaged, littered with old bed frames and used for a music video towards the end of 2008. It was also where we held out whilst we tried to figure out of the PoPo were in attendance, or not. Thankfully, there were training dogs and nothing else.
We generally ignored this ward as the outer appearance made it look uninspiring, it was only on one of our final visits did we venture in and discover a ward perfectly laid out towards the back of the ground floor. The upper floor was was gutted by fire at some point in the past. Downstairs was inaccessible as water ingress had caused the floors to rot through and kill the access from both corridor doors, but you could work you way through the top ward and down a second set of stairs (picking a coat hangar up along the way) to the ward below; complete with curtains and beds.
We always skipped this one at first as we wanted to get deeper into the site and we were led to believe it was fairly mundane, this was until we found myself hiding here for a short while after a noise prompted us to leg it and seek refuge somewhere. Luckily, it was another group of explorers and it allowed to explore a previously unexplored, to us, ward. Turned out, like the rest of the hospital, to be a good rummage.
The male side of the hospital was a little trickier to explore; access was generally through the main courtyard where the security hut was situated, two wards could only be accessed by crossing large expanses of open ground, two wards were still in use and the staff kept an eye out for trespassers and, to top it all off, the ever changing access. All this meant that our exploring of the male side was a little more sporadic than that of the female side as the stakes were higher. The rewards were worth it though.
Darwin / Mayford / Chaucer / Blake
Being the second closest ward to securities location by the front gate, so we never spent a great deal of time in here and we have relatively few photographs. It was famed for a grand piano that was brutally overturned and ruined during the open season, and in later years, as a Gym for the security guards who had bravely loaded up several hundred kilos of equipment on a floor that could only just support a human – that was a random find on a dark night on 2009!
Cavendish / Boswell / Drummond / Mansion
Another ward where our memory is a little blurred after ten years, this is the one with the luminous orange corridor, a ton of peeling paint, weird murals in one section and at one point, photographs of Brains and a pile of 8-track tapes from the old hospital radio! It struck me as someone that had been cleared out on a Friday afternoon after a lunch time trip down the local.
Emerson / Area Laboratory
This ward was in use during the exploring period and I never got to see round. It was used partly as a store for old hospital equipment, so I can only imagine the goodies hiding behind the locked doors!
Garth / Goldsmith
Every explorer envisions themselves walking into a place and it feeling like everyone upped and left the day before, this ward was was exactly that. It was arguably better than seeing the padded cell. The ward was laid out with tables with condiments as if patients were coming back for their evening meal. I wonder how much poetic licence was used by other explorers?
Hendy / Huxley
Another one we only breezed through and didn’t look too hard in, looking back at the photos, we should have done! Had quite a bit of furniture and items remaining.
Being on the edge of the main complex and not easily accessed, the villas were consequently overlooked on most of our visits. We did manage to get into some, but not all. Others were death traps, such as Lake View, where a brown pant moment was experienced. Something you never get used to, and never forget, as an explorer.
Jenner / Kipling / Masefield
On one summers evening, we did gain access into Jenner and Kipling, but we have precious little photos from here for some inexplicable reason – it may have had something to do with the beer in hand and the relaxing exploring we were experiencing. Oh well, have a plan instead.
One of the old entrances into the tunnels – where a well concealed stairwell lead down to an entrance to the service tunnels that came in handy when the main site was seemingly in lock down, or a stealthy entrance was required. We only ventured into the Villa on one occasion and took no photos.
Random dentist chair in a place where it shouldn’t have been! That window in the background. You used to have to climb out of it to bypass a nailed door in the corridor leading to the female side- turns out on a wet day the drain pipe is slippery as fuck and a good way of making an immediately identifiable crashing sound. The basements of this building were piled with interesting equipment.
The admin building
And you can’t have an Asylum post without a corridor shot!
Here’s us on our last visit to the old gal, about 30 minutes before we were rudely interrupted by the old bill unloading the dog van.
We apologise, we made a video. We couldn’t help ourselves. But with the advent of cheap FoPro’s and easy to access editing software, it seemed like a good thing to try out. We have jumped on the bandwagon and joined the 1.4 million other urban exploration videos on Youtube.
So here it is, a short video of our roadtrip as the two of us as we journeyed around Wales. Highlights included wet feet, many photos, one lost scarf, a fall down a hill, one rotten floorboard, 2 ‘almost’ punctures on the car, missed turns and the jetboil working hard. Tea was our fuel, welsh bogs our nemesis and fish and chips in Aberystwyth our motivation. Don’t worry, we aren’t bringing you 60 minutes of tear jerkingly slow, shaky and dull footage.
Hellingly. The forgotten Asylum of the south; 20 miles to the north were both West Park and Cane Hill brimming with interest and rooms crammed with items to rummage through. Hellingly, sat nestled in the middle of the East Sussex countryside, over looking the downs, utterly ruined. It had a certain derelict charm perfect for exploring and photographs alike. There was also a certain ‘I am going to fall through the floor at any moment’ feel to the place. Always exciting. Only a few explorers we know can remember it being anything but a ruin; and that is only because they were local to the buildings and remember it closing.
So imagine our joy when someone we know got in contact and said they had a stack of Hellingly plans and photographs that they would like us to see? It was a little unexpected to be honest. That was a number of years ago now and we had totally forgot about them , at least until we were routing through our hard drive looking for something unrelated and stumbled into their folder.
If you cruise around the internet searching for various things to do with Urban Exploring, you can occasionally come across some interesting old images from before the buildings became derelict. Sadly, little exists in the public domain of the old Victorian Institutions, especially the Asylums. On eBay a few posts cards can be found easily, but the are quite expensive. There are a number of books published, but for every 100 pages, you get a single image. We had never expected to be handed a CD with over 300 historical photographs of the Hellingly Hospital, ranging from circa 1930 until the hospital had closed. We thought it would be interesting to match some of the photos we have, with some of the photos we were given to try and illustrate how the hospital used to be. We have tried to match the images as closely as possible; in some instances the ward may not be the exact same ward, but you gt the jist.