Urban Exploration and Industrial Estates: The New Ghost Towns?

All painted up and no where to go.

My daughter has had a fascination with old dilapidated buildings since college. I remember taking her out on photo shoots of the many Industrial Estates around the area that had lost a lot of business to a continuing economic downturn.

Considering that I used to patrol a lot of these estates when I worked in Security, it felt strange to pass these same buildings that only a few years previously had been bustling businesses.

Only the weeds are growing.

A lot of these places I’d delivered office supplies to in a previous job. At no time during my office supply days did any of these thriving places seem close to financial ruin. I remember smiling faces at the reception desk and helpful hands taking the supplies from the back of my van. A cup of tea or coffee would be offered and if I had time, I’d accept. Coffee, biscuits and gossip then on my way.

No cars, no security.

My daughter would always ask what building housed what business. When was the last time I’d been there. Did I know anyone who still had access to the buildings so we could take pictures inside. The answers varied, but, in each case I knew of no-one who could let us inside. It seemed a shame then and does now. I would have liked to have seen if they all resembled the deserted place I’d been in before.

Not down yet.

I remember when my daughter (Meg) finished her last year at University, we collected all her things from her shared house and put them in the handy HomeStore Self Storage warehouse in Ipswich. It sat at the end of Ransomes Europark and we had to drive past a lot of ‘dead’ businesses to get there. Because of the ease involved with entering and leaving the place we went there a lot.

We passed the old business where I had collected old office furniture years before. The one that was so disquieting and surrealistic. Each time we drove past I wondered who, if anyone, ever went into the building now.

Still empty after all these years.

As times continue to force more and more businesses under the hammer. Industrial Estates are becoming the new ghost towns of this millennium. All that’s missing are the rolling tumbleweeds and the lonely blowing wind.

Tumbling tumbleweed.

Urban Exploration: The Abandoned Hotel – Just A Coffee Break Away

The back of the reception desk and bar.


**This has been posted because of the interest generated by my other post about Urban Exploration. Time will tell if this is a popular enough feature to make it a regular thing.**

1. The building and it’s abbreviated history. 

The hotel first opened in the late 1500’s. It has been known by two names, one was when it first opened. In more modern times it was known by another. Writers, painters, politicians and celebrities have stayed in the hotel over the years. Infuriatingly I can’t find a specific date for when the hotel closed down. There are plenty of references to the fact that this historic place now houses a world famous coffee house and a hiking gear retailer, but, no date anywhere about when it closed its doors for the last time.

It had to be open as late as 2003 because I remember going there for a work’s party. It was old and had the look of a shabby but stately lady who’d seen better days. The carpet was plush, if a bit faded and the walls and ceilings were stained almost dark brown from cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke that had been exhaled over the years.

My daughter worked at the newly fitted coffee house and it became a regular talking point amongst the employees as to what sort of condition the place was still in, whether squatters were living there and if it were haunted. One of the coffee house managers told them that he had keys to the hotel and if they wanted to have a look to let him know and he’d give them the keys.

2. Entering the Dragon.

My daughter and a colleague decided to take him up on the offer and one day after their shift had finished they did indeed ask for the keys. Armed with the keys and nothing else but a growing sense of excitement they unlocked the door and went in.

Last orders, please. The Bar area of the hotel.

Despite the fact that the hotel had only been closed for a few years everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. This was probably due to the advanced age of the building itself, it was built in the late 1500’s and old places tend to manufacture dust, and it’s location in the town center.

The electricity was off and the whole downstairs area was dark, dank, and eerie. It was also deathly quiet. The entire hotel, in fact, felt as if it had been wrapped in an insulating layer of cotton wool that refused to allow the noise of the busy town to invade its dead halls.

The two coffee shop explorers wandered over to the reception desk and found most of the room keys were still mounted on the board behind the desk. Telephones and stationary still adorned the counter top. Letter boxes still awaited post for guests who were never going to stay there again.

My daughter’s exploration mate found where the mains electric box was and he turned on the electricity. The entire hotel hummed visibly as the electrics geared up and started running up and down its three floors. They both went to the lift (elevator) and went up to the first floor (second floor in the US).

They headed down the hallway and looked in rooms with open doors. Some of the rooms were in complete disarray, while a few others still had beds with linen on. They looked like a guest had just awakened and thrown the covers back to get out of the dusty bed.

In one room, they found holiday snaps (pictures) that a guest had left behind. Pictures of a better time, perhaps, but in the haste of leaving and heading to their next destination had been left behind. No one it seems from the hotel staff had bothered to collect the pictures and see that they were sent to the missing owner.

Still very clean, considering. You could spend the night here.

Besides an air of sadness the hotel felt as though it were still inhabited by some sort of ghostly guests. “The rooms,” my daughter said, “felt as though the floors, ceilings and walls were full of memories just waiting to come out and be noticed.” Not too surprisingly they both began to get a bit spooked by the place.

Especially after they’d found the ‘bird room.’

One of the hotel’s guest rooms had a broken window and birds from around the town had obviously set the room up as a giant nest haven and nursery for their young offspring. Nests littered the walls and floor. Broken eggshells and loose feathers were scattered everywhere. The only thing missing were the birds.

As they rode the lift down to the ground floor and turned the electricity off, they heard noise coming from the vacant floors where they’d just been moments before. This added to the already spooky feeling that they both felt growing in them. The beat a hasty retreat to the hotel’s connecting door to the coffee shop and it wouldn’t open.

Fighting back a rise of panic they began to bang on the heavy oak door to get someone’s attention. Finally after what seemed an age the manager opened the door. With raised eyebrows he asked them why they hadn’t just opened the door themselves as it was unlocked.

The creepy and slightly gross ‘bird room.’

They explained that it must have been locked or stuck. The manager shook his head. “No to both of those ideas,” he said, “It wasn’t locked and I opened it with one finger on this side.” My daughter and her colleague looked at each other and said, “Oh.”

3. The big finish.

The first floor hallway.

Neither one of them ever went back to tour the old place again. Like Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House, whatever walks the halls of that hotel, walks alone.

Urban Exploration: Off Limits Curiosity Can Kill

English: An urban explorer under Hobart, Tasma...

I was going to talk about a film I watched last night. The 2011 film URBEX aka Urban Explorer was directed by Andy Fetsher and distributed by German distributor Universum.  It is about a group of five young people who go through previously sealed tunnels underneath Berlin. I quite enjoyed it and will be reviewing it later.

As I was trawling the net (or Googling the net if you prefer) to find more information on the film, my eye caught a reference to urban exploration. I went back and clicked on the link to a Wikipedia page.

The Wikipedia definition of Urban Exploration is, ‘ Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as draining (when exploring drains) urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, or building hacking.’

Essentially urban exploration (UE) is something that has been steadily gaining in popularity since 2006. The dangers, according to Wikipedia, are many: Arrest – for criminal trespass or common trespassing. Jail or imprisonment – this one sort of dovetails with arrest. Physical – this can be broken down to personal injury and health issues (mostly due to exposure to Asbestos).

I can see the appeal. The article in Wikipedia intimates that this is a new hobby of younger people. I am guessing that includes a demographic of perhaps 13 to 30. Although looking at it, I would probably enjoy participating in the practise as well.

I remember getting excited when I learned  about the ‘buried city’ underneath Seattle in the mid seventies. This curiosity was given a booster shot of publicity when it featured in an episode of Kolchak: The Night StalkerAmazingly this curiosity has been around since the 1950’s and it’s first official tour took place in 1965.

Seattle underground city. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I felt the same burst of excitement when years later I learned of the buried city under Edinburgh, Scotland. I would have given my right arm to see  either of these two fascinating places in person. If you wander through the web, you’ll find that a lot of places have ‘buried cities’ or ‘underground vaults’ all available for public legal touring.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll find images and links to the UE world of ‘tours.’

Urban Exploration in Oświęcim
Urban Exploration in Oświęcim (Photo credit: robfuncken.nl)

My daughter adores old  buildings and abandoned industrial estates. They are, to her, the modern equivalent of the ‘ghost town’ and they hold the same fascination as the Mesa Verde held for me as a youngster. But if I am really honest, I feel the same about buildings or areas that are abandoned and forgotten in the not so distant past.

I can see the allure of exploring these forbidden places. Places that have been deserted and emptied of human occupants with only the vestiges of prior inhabitants remaining.

Seattle’s underground city.

I worked, for a very short time, for a used office furniture retailer. They would go and survey what office articles such as desks, chairs, filing cabinets, et al, an out of business retailer had left behind. A bid would be put in for clearing out the remaining equipment. If the bid was accepted, we would go in and collect the things for cleaning, inexpensive repair and re-sell the items at a ‘discount’ price.

It was while I was working for this small business that I got to experience what could be called a type of urban exploration.

The business had been a long running traditional employer of thousands of people in the local area. The company had gone into receivership in the mid 1990’s. I was tasked with another employee from the furniture store to collect any office furniture that was deemed ‘worth messing with’ and bring to the store’s repair warehouse.

Manufacturing memories.

The abandoned building was the size of two American football fields laying end to end. It was winter time and the inside of this huge mausoleum was ten degrees colder than the outside.

Machinery, desks, chairs, filing cabinets and other assorted office paraphernalia was scattered throughout the building. The main area  was surrounded by little offices that perhaps the worker’s supervisors had run their sections from.

The entire area, including the offices, had a feeling of panicky departure. It looked like a land bound Mary Celeste.  Books were left open on desks as if they’d been abandoned mid-sentence. Pens, pencils, staplers and staple pullers littered the desks and the floor.

A lot of the pen holders still had expensive pens in them. The desks were full of papers; expense sheets, manifestos, instructions and private correspondence. A few briefcases were scattered here and there. If not for the thick layer of dust that permeated the building and the lack of order and people, it looked as though everyone had just left hurriedly for a fire drill or a quick union meeting.

It was eerie, disquieting and  fascinating.

One room was full of children’s books. Not your run of the mill present day books either. Quite a few looked as though they might be collectors editions of children’s classics. Black Beauty, Treasure Island, and other children’s books littered the floor and filled boxes that were in untidy heaps.

When my colleague and I had our lunch break we went into the areas that were ‘off limits’ and explored. These areas were even more fascinating. Where the main area we’d been working in looked hastily deserted. The off limits area looked like there should still be people there working and planning their rosters and task lists. This area was almost clean. The ever present thick dust that had coated everything in the other room was not present in these offices. The look of disarray was not present either.

Everything was neat and precise and clean. We both felt a little like cat-burglars so we did not stay long. I don’t know about my co-worker, but I felt like the inhabitants of the offices were going to come in at any minute and throw us out.

 When we finished our collection of the old office things deemed saleable, we left. I felt like a modern day archaeologist. As silly as it might sound, I felt I knew how the folks had felt that explored the Egyptian tombs and the Aztec ruins.

Oh sure, my little exploration of a business gone broke couldn’t compare in importance or significance, but, the snapshots of daily activity in an recently deserted building was fascinating.

I can well imagine why people have been increasingly interested in this modern form of exploration. The mix of forbidden exploration of hitherto unknown or sealed locations and the chances of injury combined with the visceral and tactile experiences must be a heady combination that is difficult to refuse.

A lot people are curious about life before we came along. Even more so if the life we see is of an infamous or disturbing nature. It will be interesting to see where this variation of time travel will go.  Because that is what urban exploration seems to be. A quick look at yesterday or yesteryear, that is dirty, forbidden, dangerous and excitingly real.

I can understand that.