- since 2011 -

Bex maniacs

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

From skyscraper roofs to disused asylums, welcome to the shadowy and slightly odd world of the urban explorer. Mind your step...

<i>West Tower roof</i>, looking down on Beetham's first high-rise on Old Hall Street

West Tower roof, looking down on Beetham's first high-rise on Old Hall Street (© The Kwan)

At 40 storeys and 459 vertiginous feet, Beetham's West Tower is the highest vantage point in Liverpool and one of the country's 20 tallest buildings. Just looking up from street level makes most people dizzy. Standing outside on its exposed roof, dead of night, in the howling wind, and peering over the edge and into the void with a camera, would appear to be the preserve of the lunatic fringe, or urbexers as they're alternatively known.

West Tower is a particular favourite of The Kwan as he in turn prefers to be called. In the idiom of urbexing (a contraction of urban exploring) it's a 'live' or in-use building. The view, he says, is "something to behold" and the whole experience, he admits, was "pretty scary as we visited on a really windy night." No kidding.

By way of contrast, The Kwan is also partial to the derelict hush of St Cyprian's Church on Durning Road in Edge Hill (consecrated in 1881, left standing while the terraced streets around it, including its traditional congregation, have been swept away) "mainly because of its history and the beautiful organ that's been left abandoned. This place is special to an urban explorer, although it's also been adopted by drug users who've left it strewn with syringes."

<i>Organ in St Cyprian's Church</i>, corner of Durning Road and Edge Lane

Organ in St Cyprian's Church, corner of Durning Road and Edge Lane (© The Kwan)

Like some but not all of his colleagues, The Kwan is also an accomplished photographer. On most urbexing forums, visitors are struck by the quality of the imagery - as I was when first encountering the phenomenon online while researching obsolete/at risk Liverpool landmarks like the Tobacco Warehouse at Stanley Dock and Royal Insurance HQ at the corner of Dale Street and North John Street.

Here are shots good enough to grace coffee-table books: panoramic views of the West Tower variety taken by daredevils perched atop skyscrapers or, more terrifyingly, dangling from construction cranes; and pictures of vacant rooms, corridors and staircases in factories, warehouses, churches and hospitals deserted seemingly at a moment's notice to dust, damp and decay like something from a sci-fi movie. The photos are surreal and sometimes haunting, but don't ever confuse urbexers with ghost hunters - they will not be amused.

For the law-abiding adventurer in all of us, there's an undeniable thrill about being somewhere we really shouldn't be, especially if that somewhere is secretive, unknown and inviting if a touch (but not too) forbidding. Urbexers (they're also known as 'infiltrators') take it to extremes. Although they operate with Playstation stealth and dexterity on the blurred boundaries of what is not illegal, they follow a code of ethics and conduct laid down on acephalous forums like 28 Days Later which celebrate 'the exploring of abandoned buildings which the public have forgotten or wish to forget' and 'seeing beauty in places where many people will not'.

Trespass may be an offence (albeit civil rather than criminal), but urbexers do not break into properties - they enter only if there is suitable access, often asking for permission and never taking anything away or causing damage. Active military sites, power stations, railways and airfields are strictly off-limits. 28 Days Later declares: 'If caught by a security guard it is advisable to be as nice as possible and explain clearly and un-confrontationally to them why you are there'.

<i>Air-raid notice inside Central Hydraulic Tower and Engine House</i>, Wallasey Docks

Air-raid notice inside Central Hydraulic Tower and Engine House, Wallasey Docks (© The Kwan)

And they are there - everywhere. A few days before Christmas last year someone called @Guerillaphoto reproachfully tweeted 'All this talk of the Olympic Park on Twitter and no one is mentioning our infiltration of the site despite the security' together with visual proof. Recent UK headlines include: 'Tower climbers dice with death' (Blackpool Gazette); 'Police condemn cathedral climbers' (BBC News Lincolnshire); 'Urban explorers warned off Vauxhall site' (Ellesmere Port Pioneer).

"Urban exploring is massive," says The Kwan. "It's got so many different avenues to discover, from going down drains to scaling rooftops and everything in-between. I first came across it with a fellow photographer at an exhibition of derelict pubs called Closing Time. It got me thinking about doing a similar project on industrial sites, so I googled 'closed factories' on Merseyside and found a website called Urbex Forums and I was hooked. I thought, 'Wow, how popular is this?' and 'Why have I never been aware of it before?'

"Liverpool is a paradise for urban explorers because we have so many beautiful buildings that are empty or partially empty, from the docklands and warehouses right into the city-centre with its cranes, historic buildings and high-rises. I prefer destinations that have interesting things inside to photograph, like equipment, signage, documentation or evidence of habitation. Most places are dark even in the daytime and it challenges your ability to get decent images, especially as they're exposed for anything from three to 30 seconds. A sturdy tripod and cable release are essential.

"You get a feeling of privilege from planting your feet on a spot that's remained untouched for a long period of time. I remember visiting an old cotton warehouse with an oak floor where a kind of furrow or path had been worn deep into the wood, running from a desk to a workbench about 30 feet away. It must have taken years and was probably made by a man or woman who spent most of their working life trudging back and forth at this very spot, and now it lay empty. It's important to record these things so we can see what was there before the demolition teams move in."

The dangers are manifold. 28 Days Later encourages members to 'always know your limits' and explore in groups, never alone, and warns that the seasoned urbexer does not suffer fools gladly - the types who 'believe that these buildings are just open areas to f**k around in'.

<i>Staircase at Poole Parc in Ruthin</i>, North Wales, formerly a psychiatric convalescent hospital

Staircase at Poole Parc in Ruthin, North Wales, formerly a psychiatric convalescent hospital (© The Kwan)

Essential kit includes warm clothes and gloves, hardwearing boots, a torch, food, water and small medical kit, and at advanced level things like a nylon rope, hardhat and paper mask, and never - ever - spray paint, marker pens or tools like crowbars and wire cutters. Among the potential and potentially deadly hazards are asbestos, lead paint, chemicals, pigeon droppings and rotten floorboards. To be clear: I admire these people, but I'm not advocating what they do.

"There is always the risk of running into a security guard, but by far the biggest peril for me is metal thieves," admits The Kwan. "I've encountered them on three occasions so far, and when you're carrying hundreds of pounds worth of camera equipment it can be a bit worrying if the odds are unfavourable and they're not very friendly.

"I've made acquaintances in the urbex community who are blazing a trail, so to speak, by finding new and different venues, some of which I'll probably never visit because of the risks involved. But I would stress that all urban explorers operate with the utmost respect for their destination. We care about buildings and we've even had owners of properties asking for help to report damage or theft. In effect we act as covert security guards."

* Go to The Kwan's homepage

'For the law-abiding adventurer in all of us, there's an undeniable thrill about being somewhere we really shouldn't be, especially if that somewhere is secretive, unknown and inviting if a touch (but not too) forbidding'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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