A wall, a window, and we’re in.
Of course, it’s nowhere near that simple.It’s taken no small amount of research, planning and convincing of our accomplice that we’re trustworthy to make this happen. But we’re here. We’ve made it over the wall, up to the tiny broken window – our entry point – and as the last of our number clambers through, we’re confronted with the musty smell of abandonment, the gloom settling around us, and the intense stare of our guide. ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ he tells us – the mantra of the urban exploration community, before we venture in to start our first ‘explore’.
It is, no doubt, an odd thing to be found doing on the weekends. Risking high climbs, potentially fatal asbestos and angry security guards for the reward of hanging around in old buildings may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but ‘Urbex’ or Urban Exploration, has a thriving community of enthusiasts. Joined together by online forums and a passion for history and thrills – because, let’s face it, there aren’t many ways to combine those two things – Urbex-ers, we’re told, can be all kinds of people, and of all ages – so long as you’re very fit, of course. Our guide, a weathered urbex-er who’s agreed to take us in today – and who must, for obvious reasons, remain nameless – tells us a bit about what he does as an ‘explorer’ and why he does it.
‘So I explore abandoned buildings… My personal interest in them is this historical significance and the documentation of them… and it’s a bit of a thrill.’
And once we’re in, we know what kind of thrill he’s talking about. Getting past security and into what used to be the adolescents unit of the hospital certainly gets the heart racing – and not just because we’re not as fit as our guide. The first room we enter, climbing down from the high window where we’re assured there’ll be a ladder – there isn’t – is a whole world of dark, dank atmosphere, broken furniture and overgrown greenery. It doesn’t look, at first, like there’s going to be an awful lot of stuff from the hospital left here. A few dirty typewriters litter the floor and the broken remnants of a toilet peeks round the corner of a room to the side, but you’d be hard pressed to work out what kind of place this was, uninformed.
But we’re quickly moving on. Asbestos masks secured to our faces and hoods pulled up, we’re directed downward, through a tunnel below the floor and up again, into a series of rooms much darker, and much more in tact.
Boarded-up windows cast the room with House-On-Haunted-Hill-darkness and no shortage of menace. We’re forced to stare, wide-eyed at nothingness as our eyes get used to the dark and we root for our touches, aided only by intermittent strobed light from our photographer’s flashgun. The sudden flares reveal, for split seconds, shelves of uniforms stacked in one corner, a mattress on the floor, complete with children’s blankets, and industrial washing machines – power cables still firmly in the crumbling walls. Broken glass and metal litters the floor and mysterious boxes of wires hang limp from the walls. It’s all starting to fit in a little better with our Halloween theme.
But bright, natural light from down the hall beckons, promising to relieve us of our chills; after all, we may have got past the security – we’re safe from that – but no one knows we’re in here, and we don’t know who else could have slipped past too.
Metal thieves are not uncommon in sites like this, our guide tells us, and they’re rarely pleased to see someone wondering onto their turf with a torch. This freakish fact is made all the more when a left-behind Stanley knife from one such scavenger nearly causes a fall in the dark – there’s no reason those who left it behind, or their kind, won’t still be around. Bright, natural, illuminating light, streaming in visible beams from gashed holes in a creaking ceiling, seems like a blessing.
Once we reach it however, it’s clear that relieving us of our nerves is nowhere on the agenda. If the past function of this building wasn’t obvious from the rubble and tarnished electrical equipment of the rooms before, it’s creepily obvious here. Unfathomably disturbing, child-like artwork lines the walls of the bright room – lit from the collapsed roof – alongside literary quotes about how to ‘live your life’ and ‘My Qualities’ posters, with basic, scrawled assets such as ‘I’m a good listener’ and ‘I am a good father?’. It’s the most haunting thing we’ve come across by far. With something of such a personal nature to a patient, it’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to take down before the place was left.
Our gazing around and photo-taking is soon cut short, however, as our guide wants to push on. To show us something more interesting, or because he’s nervous to get through and out, it isn’t clear. Either way we’re not arguing.
Plunged back into darkness, and blacked out corridors, we shuffle past doors to ‘Small group room’, ‘Assessment Room’ and the like, the clinical signs illuminated by torch light. A kitchen off to the right is left almost completely untouched, the cupboards left open, the taps long since stopped dripping. We push on, in silence, past more weird art work – this time, disembodied Papier-mâché hands in macabre reds and blues – in search, we’re told, of a room where there may be medical records left.
Suddenly, over the sparse sounds of our trainered feet on the floor, voices echo through the wall, and they’re not far away. “Torches off”, “lights low”, we’re ordered in a sharp whisper and, our shaken reactions heightened, we’re instantly in complete darkness, save for a the dim glow of a phone screen pointed at the floor. The quiet is palpable. Each time anyone disturbs it with a slight movement, we’re praying that we won’t be heard, won’t be found. The typical sirens of the Mile End area that we are somewhat deaf to after years living here are disconcerting to our guide. Anything that seems to stop puts him visibly on edge. Best case scenario – someone’s seen us scale the wall on the way in, has called the Police, and this is the security guards coming to escort us out, worst case – it’s probably best not to think about it.Each time anyone disturbs it with a slight movement, we’re praying that we won’t be heard, won’t be found
It seems like forever in our pitch-black hush, but at last, the voices move off. Who ever it was it doesn’t look as if they’ve noticed our presence. However, it seems to have spooked our guide almost more than it has us – after all, if we’re found, we’re journalists, we have cameras and passes and years of experience talking our way out of difficult situations – he could be held a whole lot more accountable.
Nevertheless, he leads us on through more rooms of dust covered telephones, abandoned pieces of paper, and rotting furniture. Bed frames in tiny dorms off to the side give a graphic idea of what it must have been like to live here, while handwritten ‘danger’ signs, left seemingly by the slowest demolition workers in the world, keep the sinister atmosphere which permeates the whole place forever present.
Another room full of ‘keep out’ signs and barrels of what might be chemicals of some kind, leads back into the large, naturally lit hall we were in a few minutes » ago, and we’re starting to think we’ve see everything this building can offer us – we’ve certainly got a taste for the drama of an ‘explore’.
But turning around, our guide hasn’t stuck with us. He’s off on his own somewhere. It seems pretty important that we stay close to him – for a little experienced assurance, if nothing else – so we turn back to locate him in the maze of lightless hallways.
Coming back around the corner, we see the dim light of his touch in a room we didn’t venture in before, and as we cautiously enter, sticking together like all those kids in horror films should, but never do, we find him squatted on the floor of an office, surrounded by log books, appointment books and all manner of bits of paper.
He looks at us a little glee-fully – we’ve found what could be something really interesting. Flicking through some of the pages of the logs, however, it starts to become clear that there’s a reason these documents are kept private. There are names here. Names with notes directly describing patents behaviour. ‘Explore attitude towards self and children’ could mean a whole lot of things, but it’s probably not something you’d want left next to your name in a place that’s (reasonably) accessible to anyone who cares to take a look. After all, St. Clements hasn’t been empty all that long, these records are not that old. The people to whom they relate are no doubt still alive, quite possibly still in the area, most likely visiting patients at Mile End Hospital, where this unit was moved to. It’s all, quite literally, a bit too close to home.
We search through the endless paper for a while, but more noises close by – inside or out it’s hard to tell – motivate a move, and we’re soon on the homestretch, back through the bright hall, the blackened, dusty rooms, and finally the asbestos tunnel which for which we again don our masks. Clambering out into the light, the feeling of accomplishment, of freedom, is almost upon us. As through our hushed, elated conversation however, there’s a noise, just barely audible. It’s a high-pitched bleeping, followed by a solid mosquito tone: we’ve tripped the alarm.
Reckless speed is suddenly in our best interests, but a short climb up and out, and we’re outside the building, almost free. Just a wall to get back over and we’re back on the street, successful, so long as there’s no one there waiting for us.
Our guide and the taller of our number boost themselves up between the wall and an adjacent building effortlessly and we’re nearly out.
A pipe lends it’s helpful metal handle to allow a somewhat ramshackle escape, but two jumps later, and we’re all on the ground. A quick look around – no one’s been watching – and we’re safe, if a little (embarrassingly) out of breath. We made it, and with all the evidence we need.