It’s strange how abandoned buildings and underground tunnels can be such fascinating places. But the truth is that most of us have turned our attention to these quiet abandonments at some point, even just in passing. With the world a smaller place than it once was, sometimes the only real uncharted territory left – at least as far as urban explorers are concerned – is directly beneath our feet. As a result, some discerning individuals have turned their attention inward, to the forgotten treasures on our own doorsteps. In this introduction to urban exploration, we examine the origins and objectives of this hobby, which is every bit as underground as the places it seeks to discover.
Urban Exploration Past and Present
Urban Exploration, or urbex for short, has been around for hundreds of years and has changed little despite advances in equipment. Known by many names, including urban spelunking, building hacking or draining, urban exploration delves into the abandoned, unseen or off-limits places around us, in some cases making the hobby illegal (more on this below). But at its most basic level, urbex is about taking an interest in the urban landscape, and need not involve trespassing or other violations.
Urban exploration is sometimes referred to as building infiltration, although this term generally refers to the investigation of active buildings. Such places might include deserted floors, rooftops, and hidden areas of working structures. Often less physically dangerous than trudging through abandoned buildings with a flash light, building infiltration nevertheless does not come without risk and the chances of being caught are significantly higher.
Urban exploration is most commonly associated with abandoned places. Unlike mindless vandals, real urban explorers live by the old code – “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” – and have a deep appreciation for the places they investigate. Destruction of property is strictly against the rules, as is souvenir hunting. Urban explorers may be photographers drawn to the mysterious beauty of urban decay, but may also include historians, architects, archaeologists and even ghost hunters.
While explorers love to discover all manner of abandoned places, the most coveted may include abandoned amusement parks, theatres and cinemas, railway stations, factories, power stations, missile silos, nuclear bunkers, insane asylums, schools, workhouses, hospitals and sanatoriums – a mesmerising mixture of the most secret, ornate and eerie abandonments around.
The subterranean world beneath our cities is often considered the Holy Grail of urbex. Tough to access, with concealed entrances that urban explorers often refuse to disclose, the complex network of tunnels and passageways that lie beneath are astounding. An inconspicuous manhole may lead to sewers, storm drains, utility and transit tunnels, even ghost stations and entire abandoned subways. And in old cities like Edinburgh and Paris, “underground cities” and catacombs may be open to the public, but miles of tunnels like the Paris mines are strictly off-limits. Perhaps most unsettling of all, some of the world’s most impressive – and sinister – ossuaries lie in the subterranean realm.
Dangers and Legal Issues
Urban exploration can be both hazardous and illegal. Trespassing and invasion of privacy are two oft-cited violations, while asbestos, hazardous waste and infected needles are just a few of the dangers explorers face. Urban Ghosts does not advocate breaking the law and endangering yourself or others. If you do decide to explore, always ask permission first and take the appropriate precautions, including safety measures. Remember, some places even offer tours, like Manchester’s beautiful Victoria Baths.
Legal Urban Exploration
For hints and tips on how to explore the urban landscape legally, without having to worry about the cops, read this article by Al Ebaster of Forgotten Pennsylvania. And don’t forget that the safest, easiest and by far the most comfortable way to explore is from your own home PC. For all you need to know about urban exploration, pick up a copy of Access All Areas by the late urbex legend Ninjalicious.