GLASGOW after midnight. Umber rainclouds, amber streetlight. A rangy man in his thirties, eyes shadowed by the brim of a leather bush hat, peers over a steel fence and up at the clock tower jutting from a cluster of old brick hospital buildings into the dank sky.
“It looks very secure,” he murmurs. “I’m not sure it’s going to be doable.”
He sounds disappointed. Ben Cooper has, after all, enjoyed verboten views from much of the city’s skyline. The Armadillo, the hammerhead cranes of the Clyde; he has made unauthorised ascents, after dark, to the top of them all.
On Hogmanay he climbed the Hydro while it was still under construction and watched the fireworks at the bells. “To be able to go down to the river and look at these places and know I’ve climbed them,” he says in his quiet, understated way. “That’s kind of fun.”
This particular tower on this particular night seems to have him beat, however. Or does it? Noticing that a gate has been left ajar, he’s through and heading for the shadows. But too late. “Hey!” The night watchman is sharp-eyed tonight. “What are youse daein?” He’s a stocky bullish man in late middle-age. His walkie-talkie hisses, apoplectic, but he seems more bemused than angry as he clocks all the camera equipment. “Youse urnae thae folk that’ve been sneakin’ inside buildings?” he asks.
Cooper says no. The night watchman seems satisfied, and escorts us back out to the street. But the truth is that one of thae folk is exactly who Ben Cooper is. He’s an urban explorer, or urbexer, one of a growing band in Britain and beyond who take pleasure in places most of us would either avoid or never consider entering: construction sites; abandoned factories; derelict asylums; old mines; railway tunnels; impotent power stations; Cold War bunkers; quarries; sewers. They are raiders of the lost works.
Urban exploration has many subcultures, each with its own fetishes and slang. There are rooftoppers, builderers, cataphiles and those with a taste for “ruin porn” – artfully lit photos of decaying masonry and Rorschach water stains. Drainers, devotees of the sewerage system, will enthuse about the “fresh” smell of human waste and the “noxious comfort” found down there in the warmth and dark.
There is even a forum thread on 28 Days Later, the UK’s best known urbex website, dedicated to photos explorers have taken of themselves naked at favourite sites – on top of high rises, within decommissioned Soviet submarines and so on. Pictures exist of Ben Cooper starkers atop a turbine in Inverkip Power Station. “Did I feel vulnerable?” He shakes his head. “More cold.”
Although fairly widespread in London and the big cities of the north of England, urbex in Scotland remains an underground pursuit, sometimes literally. “I feel any attention that urban exploration receives is counterproductive,” said one Scottish explorer who declined to be interviewed, “and things have already become increasingly harder over the ten years I’ve been doing it due, in part, to security guards and owners of vacant property becoming more aware of this strange little pastime.”
Strange, yes, and to say the least, a minority interest. There are, perhaps, only a couple of dozen people in the whole country who are doing this regularly. It happens mainly in the Central Belt and up the east coast to Dundee and Aberdeen. Glasgow, in particular, is an urbexer’s playground – of all Scotland’s cities it has the greatest concentration of derelict and industrial buildings, and arguably the most intensely elegiac sense of itself as a fading and melancholy beauty. It is the city of phantom shipyards, neon-stained puddles, and A Walk Across The Rooftops.
It is important not to get caught. Also, some see it as part of the game. One explorer, who wishes to remain anonymous, talks about tracing a route through a working dock in order to gain entry to a historic building; timing the patrols of security guards and avoiding tripping infra-red alarms by belly-crawling along the ground. “It’s more rewarding if you can find somewhere new, especially if it’s a bit challenging and requires planning – to see if security take a certain route, if there are cameras, if there are motion sensors. With a few of the more difficult sites I was still buzzing days afterwards. Risking arrest or injury is the trade-off you have to make to see some of the best places.”
There is a wide misconception that Scotland has no trespass law. Entering private property without invitation is civil trespass. Criminal law applies when the trespass takes place on particular types of property, including railways, ports, airports, Ministry of Defence land, buildings used for the manufacture and storage of explosives, and sites considered to be at risk from terrorist threat; all of which hold attractions for urban explorers. Penalties vary from fines to imprisonment.
In addition, the police can seek to charge trespassers with a range of other offences. It is not unknown for urbexers in Scotland to face criminal charges of breach of the peace even though they have been exploring property where civil law applies, the idea being that their parlous antics, perhaps high above the rain-slick streets, caused “alarm or distress” to the person who spotted them.
Some urban explorers get a kick out of this outlaw reputation; others feel baffled that the authorities would consider them a threat, arguing that what they do is victimless. There is no real urbex community in the sense of a cohesive group with agreed rules, but there is a loose set of ethics which most seem to follow. Breaking in by force – cutting wire, picking locks etc – is frowned upon, as is removing any item from a site. “Take only photographs, leave only footprints,” is the mantra.
Urban explorers are, generally, youngish, middle-class men (Ben Cooper has a degree in physics and astronomy and runs a bike shop in Bearsden) though not exclusively so. The female explorer Tenebris – Latin for “to darkness” – lives in a Scottish city and prefers to use an alias for fear of legal repercussions. She talks with affection of her experiences 50 metres up. “It’s a break from normal life. Addictive is the right word,” she says. “Cranes are properly amazing. You get an amazing view over the city, literally a different perspective. And it can be peaceful, if you have a nice roof, to just sit there and watch people walk by below. You feel a bit disconnected, I guess. It’s relaxing.”
Exploration can be an intense sensory experience. “Alastair” – again, not his real name – is an explorer on the east coast of Scotland. He has a particular interest in industrial sites, and feels that by exploring and photographing them he is, in some small personal way, chronicling and paying tribute to a vanishing culture. But that makes it sound overly earnest, whereas for Alastair it is a sensuous, even numinous pleasure. Flicking through a folder of his photographs – here a brickworks at dusk, there a jute mill at dawn – he recalls the smells of turbine oil and wild flowers, the “disinfectant-mustiness” of derelict asylums, the air of almonds which denotes the presence of cyanide in a chemical factory. He remembers, too, the sky changing from midnight blue to violet to gold as the sun rose over a flour mill.
“These places are awe-inspiring,” he says. “The beautiful sublime.” His journeys to such buildings he characterises as “pilgrimages”. And although he does not care for the religious connotations of that word, it is hard not to see his explorations as almost prayerful in their profound attentiveness. To stand alone in a vast old building in the dark, every sense heightened, and to think of the generations of workers now gone – what is that but a sort of private requiem?
GLASGOW a little before midnight. Ben Cooper leads the way up a tree-shadowed slope towards the steel security fence and we climb over. The derelict building shares its grounds with a working hospital, which means there are guards, and other security measures. But he has been here before, and wastes no time in heading first for the roof and then to a narrow vent which gives access to the cramped, cobwebby heating tunnels beneath the complex, and from there – via an unlocked window – into the building itself. The vent is just one-and-a-half feet high, a tight, painful squeeze past a loose metal grille; Cooper, despite being six foot one, seems to manage easily.
“I don’t cut things and I don’t break things,” he says. “Firstly, that’s criminal damage, so there’s a whole new level of being arrested and charged and prison. Also, it seems like cheating. Any idiot can use a crowbar to smash open a door. But that’s not in the spirit of it. It’s much more interesting to work out a way which doesn’t involve breaking anything.”
He believes, in fact, that urban explorers can play a role in protecting properties from vandals and metal thieves. He recalls visiting the derelict Paton’s in Johnstone, a textile mill dating from 1782, and nailing doors shut in order to prevent ne’er-do-wells gaining access. Despite his efforts, it was torched in 2010, the oldest machine mill in the world up in smoke.
For Cooper, society does not value its industrial heritage highly enough, an attitude he considers rooted in class bias. “Every time some rich American decides he wants to buy an oil painting there’s a huge outcry that it must be saved for the nation, and suddenly 50 million quid is found to stop some Titian from going to America,” he says. “Whereas buildings that aren’t works of art but which mean a lot to the people who worked there are destroyed without fuss. The latest is the cranes at BAE Govan, a landmark on the Clyde, yet they are going to be demolished and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. We worry about oil paintings, we worry about country homes, we worry about stuff that belongs to posh people. We’re not interested in places where people just worked and lived, ordinary places, and I think that’s a shame.”
Most people, one would think, could identify with that sentiment. But the urban explorer mindset is in other ways very different from the norm. Urbex, like mountaineering, can require a willingness to risk injury or death and to remain calm in the face of that risk. The canny urbexer prepares well for each exploration, perhaps packing a respirator in case of asbestos, a gas meter to detect poison air, and certainly a torch, back-up torch and back-up to the back-up torch. But ultimately what it comes down to is a desire and capacity to walk into the dark and see what is there.
Cooper, in 2008, walked the length of the Molendinar Burn, once used to power Glasgow’s early mills, but which was enclosed in pipe in the 19th century and is now almost forgotten. It is still exposed above ground, briefly, in the east end, and so he decided to see what, for years, only rats had seen, and follow its course to the Clyde.
“I went into the tunnel wearing waders and walked along it for miles in the dark, hunchbacked, sometimes almost crawling,” he says. “It goes underneath the low level lines out from Central station, so there’s various bits where you have to get down to about two and half feet, with trains rumbling overhead and water rushing past and it’s slippery underfoot. You get to a point where you think, ‘Am I getting in big trouble here?’ There’s only one way out and it’s a long way back, and going back, upstream, I’d be fighting against the water. So there’s always a nagging feeling of ‘Should I turn around? Should I turn around now? Have I had enough?’ It can get very claustrophobic. But that’s the challenge. You have to keep going to find out where it ends.”
He is putting his life at risk. Why do that? “I don’t know. I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and since having her I have scaled back the level of risk I have taken, because suddenly it’s not just me I’m looking out for. But I still don’t think most of it is particularly risky. Very occasionally you hear of explorers getting killed. So you’re always wary of falling from height and things like that, but I think with care and with knowledge it’s not any more dangerous than hillwalking.”
The term “urban exploration” was coined in 1996 by the late Canadian explorer Ninjalicious – real name, Jeff Chapman – in the first issue of his magazine Infiltration, but the roots of the practice go back a long way. A similar taste for ruins characterised the Romantic poets and painters, and from the same period explorers often cite Philibert Aspairt as the Ur-urbexer. Aspairt, a hospital porter, is believed to have got lost in the limestone quarries beneath Paris in 1793, supposedly while searching for some ancient bottles of chartreuse, his skeleton discovered 11 years later and buried where it lay.
In Scotland, the pioneers were the Milk Crate Gang. This group of friends in Glasgow, a number of them academics, made it their business during the mid-1990s to explore the city’s disused railway tunnels, viaducts and buildings. They took their name from aged milk crates discovered inside the tunnel which passes beneath Kelvingrove Park. Although tame in comparison with many of today’s explorers (the gang made a point of never trespassing on any lines still in use) they were influential in their enthusiasm, derring-do and mystique, anorakish superheroes armed with stout boots and old maps. Indeed, the abandoned station in the Botanic Gardens, which closed in 1939 – “a truly incredible place, eerie and haunting,” as they described it – is considered a classic Scottish exploration site even now.
While much urban exploration takes place in a low-key, unflashy way, there are those who bring to it the adrenalised atmosphere of extreme sports and a cultish anti-hero mystique. The urbexer with the highest mainstream profile right now is Bradley Garrett. A 32-year-old American living in London, Garrett is an academic who, in 2008, joined a crew of urban explorers with a view to writing about the culture for his PhD. Over the next four years, he took part in “more than 300 trespass events” including climbing the Shard as it was being built and descending into the Underground system in search of the 14 abandoned “ghost stations”. The result is a book, Explore Everything, which tells the whole extraordinary tale and is packed with astonishing photographs of Garrett and others perched, defiantly heroic in hooded silhouette, on precarious ledges and girders above the city sprawl. More Height Club than Fight Club.
“If you decide to step out on a girder over a skyscraper and you fall, there is no one to blame but yourself,” says Garrett. For him, part of the joy of urban exploration is in part this mingled feeling of personal responsibility and total freedom.
People often come to urbex, he says, when battling feelings of frustration; fed up with a life of filling spreadsheets or working on IT projects. “Exploring costs you nothing and you can do it any time. If you are feeling particularly angsty on a Wednesday night you can just pack up the back-pack, go out and try to find a crane to climb. Testing the limits of what we can get away with, and sometimes being chased and being caught, is all part of the adventure. That’s what’s missing in life just now – adventure.”
He has climbed the Forth Bridge twice. The first time, he did it alone, having been for a job interview at Edinburgh University earlier that day. He scaled the northern cantilever, fell asleep for a while on a work platform, and woke in a light rain to find the sun rising. It sounds romantic in a frightening sort of way, but is Garrett also, perhaps, being disrepectful towards the dangers of the bridge and the many workers who, over the years, have died in its construction and maintenance?
“I feel that going up there and putting ourselves at risk in the same way as the workers had done is actually paying respect to the bridge,” he says. “I’m not sure who these people are that are frustrated by the explorations; probably those who are affronted by others asserting their freedoms. I think people should feel free to explore spaces as they wish, as long as it’s not affecting anyone else.”
The motivations in all of this are various and often unspoken. Why trespass into these places? Because of a love for danger, because of a hatred of surveillance culture, because – à la Mallory – they are there. In the end, though, perhaps the ultimate reason is a lot simpler. What, after all, could be more natural than a thirst to see the hidden and forbidden, to rub one’s fingers in the dust of forgotten places and leave, for a time, a small token of remembrance?
“Curiosity is a human thing,” is how Alastair puts it. “At some point you’ll look back and think, ‘I’m glad I went there. I’m glad I saw that.’”
Click here for further information on Bradley Garrett’s book, Explore Everything, £20. Ben Cooper’s urbex blog is at www.transientplaces.co.uk