The reasons for exploring the NGTE were primarily due to its secretive nature and secondly due to its impending destruction. As we made our slow, cautious way around the huge pipes, concrete sumps, cable runs and debris, observing the huge storage tanks, laboratories and glass fronted concrete buildings, we felt we were onto something big.
With ears peeled for the slightest noise, tipped off that security patrolled the site on some form of silent modified golf cart, we approached a high steel door. Gingerly, crouching to avoid observation, we tried the door. It opened but the hinges were rusty and it required more force. Suddenly it gave, creaking open by an inch, the shrill noise of the grinding metal echoing around the site, which pinpointed us immediately. We hurried inside, confronted by an enormous hall with a huge subterranean chamber stretching its entire length.
Wow! For a moment, we forgot about security.
We started photographing.
Such subterfuge would've been familiar to John Harris, self-styled "Country House Snooper". In the immediate post-war years, he explored and documented the damaged and deserted country houses scattered around war-torn Britain. This lead to a career in historical architecture, co-authoring Pevsner's Lincolnshire and becoming the librarian at the RIBA. He also spearheaded a change in the attitudes towards the demolition of old country houses by co-partnering Marcus Binney (who founded SAVE) with the Country House Exhibition of 1974.
Whilst Harris' activities and campaigning lead to a career and positive change in the attitudes towards forgotten and unwanted buildings, in the four years of my website, interest has snowballed, leading to enquiries from many diverse organisations such as TV production companies, artists, musicians, preservationists, journalists, historians and archivists.
Of particular interest are the employees, trainees, apprentices and custodians of the buildings I've explored. Former employees, or those associated with the buildings, often write in and their comments become part of the descriptions I give the photographs. In this manner, the empty, desolate shells I photograph become much more poignant, as the human history behind them gradually emerges.
One of the most popular locations on my website is the top-secret MOD testing establishment Aquila. Although largely stripped, we still found much evidence of the work performed there, including X-ray machines and the bizarre and unnerving anechoic chambers. One of the founders of Aquila, now in his nineties and in retirement in Australia, took great joy from my pictures and his granddaughter supplied me with pictures of him there in the 1950s. Aquila was demolished shortly after our visit and a housing estate now occupies the site. With photography banned when the site was active, my pictures are probably the biggest collection in existence.
I've also followed Harris' preservationist footprints more closely. I've yet to campaign for a building myself2, but my photos have compelled others to do so. For instance, when I published images of the decrepit Beedingwood House, SAVE contacted me with the intent of saving it. This former Victorian rectory, an asymmetrical sprawling building, complete with large circular rooms and corner towers, was now literally falling to pieces and scheduled for demolition. I'm not sure if they were successful, but Beedingwood still stands, and has yet to succumb to the bulldozers3.
In another example, a local preservation group prompted my trips to an abandoned mental asylum in Colchester. The ballroom was a matter of concern, because they didn't believe assurances from the building's owners that adequate protection was in place. They asked me to take a discrete look. After creeping in, I found the ballroom the subject of vandalism, with several attempts made to set fire to it. I took copious pictures, subsequently used by the preservation group to drum up pressure, but alas, security was not improved. The inevitable happened with the ballroom burnt to the ground two years later. My pictures, taken over those years, presented a poignant history of what happens to buildings when the local vandals and arsonists take hold.
The BBC used my growing asylum knowledge for Restoration Nation, a BBC4 regional tie-in to the popular Restoration programme. I selected the location (Rauceby, near Sleaford), and was able to find former staff for the show, as they'd been in touch after seeing pictures of the hospital on my website. I ended up presenting part of the piece, being captioned as an "Asylum Historian" and spoke about the hospital's history and design. The background to the piece was the difficult decisions concerning the reuse of former Victorian mental asylums.
We were lucky at the NGTE. The site had only recently closed and vandalism was entirely absent. I took a gantry to the roof of the building, and photographed a crane used for lowering turbines into the testing rig 90 feet below. (A handwritten note on the open doors of the rig mentioned a Rolls Royce turbine, the last test). We descended into the darkness below, working through dark chamber after chamber, discovering myriads of controls, feedback equipment, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics and the underbelly of the testing chamber itself.
We emerged, blinking in the sunlight, in a completely different place, about fifty yards from the original building we entered. This allowed us to get some exterior photographs without the risk of being seen by security.
Many of the sites we visit have a security presence. The guards are simply doing their jobs, and we try not to waste their time or cause them difficulties: therefore they're avoided at all times. If apprehended, we fully co-operate and immediately leave if asked to do so. The rules change if you don't comply with security's wishes, and the situation could escalate becoming more serious than a civil trespass.
This is one of the few rules governing urban exploration. Another rule, a motto originally taken from caving organisations, states "Take only photographs, leave only footprints". Implicit in this statement are that nothing should be taken (theft) and nothing should be damaged (criminal damage).If a site is well secured and protected it will remain that way. No urban explorer would resort to damaging anywhere to gain access, although ingenious methods are employed to get around fences or into buildings.
We actively discourage exploring alone. Often the buildings we explore are severely dilapidated, weakened by years of water penetration or wet-and-dry rot. Relying on a mobile phone alone would not suffice, as a signal is unavailable in some of the larger locations. Exploring with one or two others is recommended so help is at hand if difficulties or injury occurs. A third party is always informed of where an exploration is taking place, and what time you're expected back.
It was now late at the NGTE. We found an open window in another huge glass fronted building and nimbly jumped in. It wasn't long before we found ourselves in another cavernous space; a huge pipe fitted with pressure doors, sensors, more test equipment and overhead gantries and cranes. The sheer scale of this oversized Meccano set was truly inspiring.
Again, we set about exploring, taking pictures, and trying to capture the vastness of the space. A huge pile of scrap metal in one corner of the room suggested demolition, or systematic stripping, had started, although we were unable to identify the source.
Suddenly there was a loud noise from one corner of the room. It sounded like a hammer on metal. My first thoughts were that someone else was trying to get it. The blow sounded again. And again. Randomly. Our hurried whispered conversation confirmed we were both utterly spooked by now, and it was time to leave. Neither of us wanted to investigate, or be investigated, by what had made that noise. Quietly we rushed out of the hall, back to the office, through the open window, and away across the site.4
My first exploration was purely exteriors. Drawn to some random pictures of a derelict mental asylum in South London, I visited the site, walking around its perimeter, documenting each ward as I trudged through the overgrown foliage. Months later, I was inside and this derelict asylum in Coulsdon, South London, became my favourite urban exploration location.
Named Cane Hill, the Second Surrey County Lunatic Asylum was a state-of-the-art design when first conceived. Architect Charles Howell was trying to scale the unwieldy 'corridor plan' of the mid-to-late nineteen century, prompted by the increased size of the institutions from hundreds of patients to thousands. His solution was a unique design, a radial placement of the pavilion style wards around a horseshoe shaped central corridor. Its design, although in retrospect flawed, was the bridge between the 'corridor' and 'echelon' style of the late nineteen century. Cane Hill is a unique building.
I still remember the awe of entering the hospital's chapel, and finding a fully equipped Victorian church, furnished with pews, organ and pulpit. The polychromatic brickwork, and a marble alter, confirmed the Victorian's fascination with detail. It was astonishing to find this chapel in the middle of a derelict, damaged, arson-attacked and rapidly decaying complex of buildings.
My ambitions with Cane Hill revealed the limitations of urban exploration. As a computer programmer, specializing in 3D CAD Systems, I wanted the opportunity to 3D model an asylum, to allow people to walk through it virtually in real time (the technology utilized by First Person Shooters was now sufficiently advanced). Such an endeavour pushed urban exploration to its limits. I needed pictures, from all orientations, of all the rooms, corridors, main areas and exteriors. Such a rigorous and formal photography shoot would be impossible under the conditions of urban exploration, where fences, locked doors, alarms and security dictate routes and opportunities. Therefore, without formal permission, my plans for this site were quashed.5
So, for those interested in preservation, documentation and history, urban exploration is sometimes a useful tool, where a building is clearly unwanted and neglected and where the owners are faceless bureaucracies or government agencies. But it should always be remembered that other methods of gaining access would work just as easily, including asking the owners nicely. Some urban explorers are members of respected, reputable organisations and join club trips instead of resorting to clock and dagger techniques. But for those like myself with no formal architectural qualifications, and interests in old buildings for which no exploration societies exist, and faced with uninterested owners, then urban exploration is the only resort.
After returning home, we viewed our pictures and further studied the site using the incredibly useful Google Earth. Working out our path, we'd covered about 10% of the NGTE. Despite being unnerved by our weird experience, we'll be returning. It's now a race against the demolition crews to grab, document and preserve something of this site before we're left with yet another dull superstore and associated distribution centre. And I really hope a former employee will find me through a search engine one day and e-mail me: "Yes, that's the place where we designed and tested the engines of Concorde."
© Simon Cornwell 2006
1: At the time of writing, I was referring to the site as the NGTE. However for the people who worked there, it was always called Pyestock. It was NGTE:Pyestock from 1946 through to 1983, at which point it became RAE:Pyestock and so on.
2: I have since written a listing application for Cane Hill Hospital. It's currently being reviewed by English Heritage.
3: After an arson attack in 2007, Beedingwood House was declared unsafe and completely demolished.
5: Instead, I systematically photographed Rauceby Mental Hospital and intend to recreate it virtually.