Sunlight is streaming through shattered glass, creating patterns on the rotting floorboards. The wallpaper is peeling like dead skin and the ragged curtains are faded. The air is heavy with silence until the rare sound of footsteps echoes across the empty room.
This is a fate that has befallen many buildings in Sheffield, and around the country. From homes and hospitals to factories and warehouses, they have been left to crumble and decay. Time slowly ticks by and they are forgotten, most passers-by barely give them a second glance.
But some do.
An empty building may not sound like somewhere you would want to visit, but a trend called “urban exploration” often shortened to ‘urbex’ or ‘urbexing’ has spread across the globe.
A wave of blogs, forums and websites has inundated the Internet, one of the most popular being 28dayslater.com, named after Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic film.
On the website urban exploration is described by a forum member called Alias, in an introduction to urban exploration as “learning to appreciate your surroundings and the buildings and structures around you and seeing beauty in places where many people will not.”
Those that go ‘urbexing’ all do so for different reasons; there are the thrill seekers looking for an adrenaline rush or documenters wishing to photograph the beauty of these derelict sites before their state of decay makes them impenetrable or before they are demolished.
Amongst the online community, one photographer really stands out. Henk van Rensbergen takes beautiful pictures of derelict buildings for all to see at abandoned-places.com. From visits to abandoned asylums to haunted houses, he advocates the unspoken rule of urban exploring: “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”, and on his website states, “Amongst urban explorers vandalism, theft and troublemaking are considered poor ethics.”
However, urban exploration is often illegal, as explorers do not always gain permission before entering the empty premises. Urban explorers also face many dangers in exchange for a thrill, old buildings are often riddled with rotting floorboards, broken glass and rusty nails. As well as this, prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause long-term health problems.
But these dangers aren’t enough to prevent some people from taking the risk.
Nic Stewart, a 21 year old phone support technician from Sheffield got into urban exploration as a natural progression from activities he was already involved in. Having a passion for both parkour and photography, he was always looking for new places to train for parkour as well as new challenges after he had tackled all of the more public areas of Sheffield. He adds “photography also pushed me to these places, I’m always looking for a new angle and a new environment to shoot.” He is one of the documenters, uploading his findings to his personal blog nicstewart.com.
His attitude to danger is that it is “one of the more interesting parts of the activity. I find it adds to the experience.” But he does take precautions, “I carry a first aid kit and some walkie talkies in case we split up in a large building. Mostly the dangers are things I am used to; such as falls and broken glass, but in some situations there are things outside of your control such as asbestos. In these situations leaving pretty quickly is the only sensible solution.
Nic also always carries torches, as “they can be very useful for dark buildings and for if you get carried away in the twilight hours.”
However Nic avoids urban exploration during winter. “Some of the dangers are amplified with the chance of ice. The other factor is the number of daylight hours available. The last thing any of us want to do is be stuck in a dangerous building in the dark.”
He also mainly explores with a group of people, which makes things safer and never goes alone. “This is significantly more dangerous and in some situations I have wished there were a few more people around if not for any other reason but how creepy some of the buildings can be.”
The rise in popularity of urban exploration began in the 1990s and was arguably brought to the attention of the online community by the publication in 1996 of a zine called ‘Infiltration’ by Jeff Chapman better known to the urbexers as ‘Ninjalicious’. The zine’s 25 issues, containing information about “going places you’re not supposed to go” were published online at infiltration.org, and have been inspiring people to do the same ever since.
Chapman also published a book, in 2005, shortly before his death, called “Access All Areas: a user’s guide to the art of urban exploration.” The book discusses ethics of urban exploration as well as giving tips on how to go about doing it. In Sheffield, there are plenty of places to explore, for example some of the older factories and warehouses. Nic says, “the industrial heritage of the city lends well to the activity; there is always something there to explore and I have not been in a building yet without some hidden gem, from beautiful scenery and views to a perfect place to train for Parkour.”
So what else makes these abandoned buildings so appealing?
“I probably enjoy the feel of the buildings most. There is a great divide between what was and what is now, finding rooms that have not been changed in years and thinking about what they must have been like at the time,” says Nic.
“One of the best places I have explored was an old psychiatric care center just outside of Hillsborough, it was barely touched from when it was used and had a very eerie feel.”
Nic sticks to the traditional ethics of urban exploration and doesn’t cause any harm to any of the buildings he enters.
“I am there to enjoy the surroundings and explore rather than to cause mischief.
Nic understands that he is breaking the law but has had very little trouble from the police.
“They seem to have very few problems with me going atop a tall abandoned building to shoot a better picture of the city or parkour training on the first floor of an abandoned hotel. We are keeping to ourselves and staying out of the way and I have never had any reason to even consider what I am doing a crime.”
Nic is one of many people with a love of urban landscapes, a landscape that is waiting to be explored, from its great heights to dark and forgotten corners.
“I have a longing to see the city I love from different views. The biggest thing for me is probably the thrill although it probably paints the activity in rather the wrong light.” To him the biggest thrill is “the thrill of the unknown.”