Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Bluestone College: Dark Tourism in the Ruins of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison [Australia]

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

Once home to such notorious criminals as Mark "Chopper" Read and Ned Kelly, the abandoned Pentridge Prison now stands in ruins in a northern suburb of Melbourne, Australia. During my time Down Under, I made a day trip up to Coburg to go and see the site for myself... and attempted to break into a building once listed amongst the most secure of Victoria's penal facilities.


HM Prison Pentridge

I first came across mentions of Pentridge Prison during a visit to Old Melbourne Gaol. Pentridge had opened just six years later, located to the north, in Coburg; a district now absorbed within the city's outer suburbs. It was built in 1850 and held inmates right through from 1851 until its closure in 1997. The prison had been nicknamed the "College of Knowledge," or "The Bluestone College".

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

The various divisions of the gaol dealt with a range of different inmate types; including psychiatric cases, young offenders, short term prisoners and those of good behaviour. In 1980, a high security unit known as 'Jika Jika' was added; at a total cost of $7m AUD. Fitted with electronic doors and CCTV, the so-called 'escape-proof' yard was nevertheless beaten in 1983, when four prisoners managed to get lose. Later, in 1987, five prisoners died in a fire; and following a lengthy investigation, the Jika Jika unit was retired from service.

In over a century of use, only 11 inmates were ever executed at Pentridge Prison... a paltry number, when compared to the bloody history of Old Melbourne Gaol. These 11 ran from David Bennett in September 1932, through to Ronald Ryan in February 1967 (the last man ever sentenced to execution in Australia); and included the American GI – and serial killer – Eddie Leonski.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

Other notable inmates at Pentridge included the serial killer Peter Dupas, the hit-man Christopher Dale Flannery (aka 'Mr Rent-a-Kill'), two of the 1986 Russell Street bombers, the gangster Squizzy Taylor, and Keith Faure: convicted of murder during the 1980s Melbourne gangland killings, a violent period of criminal upheaval which formed the premise for the outstanding television series Underbelly. The infamous Mark "Chopper" Read did time at Pentridge too, though perhaps the prison's most notorious resident of all was the bushranger and outlaw, Ned Kelly.


The Quest for Ned's Head

Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880, though later, in 1929, his remains would be disturbed by the construction of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology building. On 12 April that year, the accidental opening of these mass graves would lead to chaos; workmen, schoolboys and even passing pedestrians swooped in to grab themselves grisly souvenirs, and many of the bones have been missing ever since.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

Gaol bosses issued threats of imprisonment through the newspapers, and some of the artefacts were returned... to be buried instead at Pentridge, in a yard within the prison walls.

After the closure of HM Prison Pentridge on 1 May 1997, Heritage Victoria became interested in unearthing the history of these corpses. They began a search for the bodies in 2007, and the next year archaeologists began documenting mass graves situated at the eastern end of Pentridge's F Division.

By 2009, most of the corpses had once again been lain to rest, or in some cases, returned to their surviving families. Ned Kelly was exhumed once again in 2011, to be handed over to his descendants... however, DNA testing soon showed that Kelly's skeleton had been robbed of its skull; buried instead with the severed head of a fellow inmate.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

To this day, the outlaw, bushranger and Australian underdog hero Ned Kelly remains separated from his skull... although every now and again, a new theory (such as this one) will crop up to explain its likely whereabouts.


Attempted Jailbreak

During its time in service, Pentridge Prison witnessed a total of 31 successful escapes. I was intrigued then, by the notion of attempting a break-in at the Pentridge site; although as it turned out, there wasn't exactly much of the prison left worth breaking into... and what did still remain of those high security wards, was not only well secured but also crawling with new residents.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

Following the closure of the Coburg prison in 1997, the site was divided into two; the northern half being developed by the Valad Property Group, the rest falling under a development plan known as 'Pentridge Village'. A number of buildings have already popped up between the old bluestone walls, including residential sites and shops, as well as a car park now surrounded by the imposing Pentridge battlements. A proposed 16-floor high rise, meanwhile, has been met with stern disproval from the National Trust.

Some of the more secure units of the prison remained (apparently) untouched at the time of my visit, surrounded by security cameras and chain link fences. We had a little look at climbing in - the fence was slack and in places it swayed at a touch, though that wouldn't necessarily make it any easier to get over. I was still eyeing it up when a pedestrian came around the corner, nodding at us, although not without a certain note of suspicion.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

That was the problem with infiltrating Pentridge – even before the advertised CCTV cameras, before the eight-foot climb over the wobbly fence, before the rumoured PIRs and motion tracking devices inside; this area in the process of evolving into Pentridge Village was already alive with passers-by, dog walkers and nosy neighbours. If it was going to be done, it'd need to be a night mission... and my time in Australia was already drawing to a close.

I did, however, manage to climb a watchtower.

Perched at the end of a crumbling outer wall, the solemn edifice rose up alongside a new road; while looking out, from its inner side, across the black tarmac of the car park. I made it up the bricks easily enough, which had eroded to a form a natural sort of stair. Then, pulling myself up and over an old drainpipe, I clambered into the watchtower itself.

Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Reverse Jailbreak | An Attempted Exploration of Australia's Pentridge Prison

The bare chamber at the top of the tower looked out over the suburbs, clean brick houses rising from a sea of green leaves. I was able to open a wooden trapdoor set into the floor, beneath which a stone staircase spiralled down and out of sight. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was hoping it might open onto a long-forgotten basement level... though as I followed it down, the passage culminated abruptly at a heavy wooden door leading back out to the road.

Hardly urban exploration then, this trip was more a pleasant mooch through history... although, that's not to say there aren't those who've successfully infiltrated the site. You'll find some great images detailing the interior of this abandoned prison over on Forbidden Places, in a post dating from 2004. More recently, an events group have started running tours of Pentridge's D Division - once a home to some of the prison's most notorious inmates.

Urban Exploration | The Bluestone College | Dark Tourism in the Ruins of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison Urban Exploration | The Bluestone College | Dark Tourism in the Ruins of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison

Australia, with its booming property market, is one of those places where abandonments rarely stay abandoned for long. Much of the old Pentridge Prison has already been demolished, to make way for new, designer neighbourhoods... I just hope enough of the old Bluestone College remains then, to justify a closer look the next time I'm in town.


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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Is this Abandoned Sports Hall the Olympic Venue that History Forgot? [Bulgaria]

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

In the early 1990s, Bulgaria made a number of bids to host the Winter Olympics. Around the same time, this vast arena popped up beside Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Coincidence? Perhaps - but rumour has it that this unfinished sports hall was built to host the Olympic Games that never came to be.

In this report I'll take you on a tour through every inch of the vast, abandoned sports venue... from the roof of the arena, down to the service tunnels deep beneath its pitch.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

This building is something of an enigma.

First of all, it's massive... easily one of the largest abandonments that I've found in such a central, urban location. You would think that a plot of prime real estate, a facility of this size, would struggle to simply vanish.

And yet, that's exactly what this abandoned sports venue seems to have done. Try as I might, I simply can't find any information about it. The site goes unmarked on almost every map, with only one exception – where it was vaguely labelled, "Gymnastics Hall."

Most local people I spoke to had no idea it even existed.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

Despite the impressive size of the arena, it has been hidden surprisingly well; set right back from the main road, flanked by trees and long submerged beneath a sea of thick, green vegetation. Each summer, thousands of tourists will pass it by unnoticed as they make their way to holiday resorts along the Black Sea coast.

I asked a local photographer if he knew anything about the place; he had a passion for shooting abandoned buildings, which made him a likely resource.

"Oh, you mean the Olympic place," he said. I wondered if I did.

When I asked him where he'd heard that from, he couldn't remember; he'd just heard sometime that the hall had something to do with the Olympics.

A few weeks later I had a similar experience.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

"It was built as a swimming pool for the Olympics," another friend told me with confidence. Looking at the size of the place, at the shallow arenas between the rows of tiered seating, there was just no way this building had been designed as a swimming pool; but still, here was that reference to the Olympics again.

It wasn't the last time I'd hear it, either - and so I began investigating whether it was possible that these rumours were based in truth; if this abandoned venue had really once been designed to host the Olympic Games.


Bulgaria and The Olympics

Remember that time when Bulgaria hosted the Olympics?

I'm guessing you probably don't, and with good reason. Despite putting their bid in as potential hosts for the Winter Olympics in 1992, in 1994, and once again in 2014, Bulgaria is yet to be selected for that honour.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

That's not to say, of course, that this Eastern European nation wouldn't make a fine choice for the event. Bulgaria boasts some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Europe, with a number of well-developed ski resorts within close reach of the capital at Sofia: chiefly those at Bansko and Borovets.

Sofia came second choice in 1992, third place in 1994... but hadn't even been accepted as a candidate, before Sochi snatched up the 2014 Winter Games. Nevertheless, a 2005 report on Bulgaria Ski detailed just how much the country was prepared to invest into hosting the event: a total of €1.33 million according to Tseko Minev (chairman of the Bulgarian Ski Federation), that would be raised chiefly through commercial ads and sponsorship.

Would it be so hard to imagine then, that this mysterious, unfinished sports hall had once been intended to play a role in the Games?

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

The building features three gymnastics courts on separate levels, suggesting an ongoing series of games or tournaments. I would estimate the seating capacity at somewhere around one thousand, with an additional VIP booth looking down from the top end of the auditorium. Not only that, but the south side of the building is flanked by three floors of hotel-style accommodation; these unfinished rooms each feature a private south-facing balcony and en-suite washroom. On the ground floor meanwhile, a large series of chambers and corridors could easily have been imagined for a block of showers and changing rooms.

It's not just the size of this place, but also the design that sets it apart as something special... or at least, something that could have been special. The fine geometry of its construction, the sweeping rows of seats that angle down towards the coastline; everything about the hall seems geared up towards spectacle, and if ever it were finished this would surely have been an impressive sporting venue.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

The age of the site looks about right, too. Around the halls, shrubs and vegetation have had time to push their way up through the concrete while the brickwork is beginning to suffer from exposure to the elements. However, it's not quite so old that the concrete itself is decaying. Woodwork around the building features only surface rot while the structure as a whole remains stable. If I had to guess, I would place it at around 20 years post-abandonment; which would be a good fit for Bulgaria's Olympic bids in the early 1990s.

There's still one problem with this theory, however: and that's location.

In preparation for Bulgaria's 2014 Olympic bid, Tseko Minev proposed facilities for ice skating and bobsleigh, sledge and curling, to be catered for at an Olympic village on the plains of Sofia's Mount Vitosha. A further two multifunctional sports halls would be built in the southern part of the capital, while the existing ski villages at Borovets and Bansko would play host to the slope and alpine events.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

Why, then, the need for a further sporting venue on the country's Black Sea coast – a six-hour journey from the rest of the Olympic facilities?

I've dug and dug for more information about this venue, searching the web for hours in English, in Bulgarian, even in Russian; but nothing. It's as if the building never existed.

Rather than theorise any longer then, it only remains for me to offer you the guided tour around this peculiar, abandoned sports hall... and let you decide for yourself whether you're looking at an Olympic ghost.


A Tour of the Gymnastics Hall

I first visited the building with a Bulgarian friend, on one of the hottest days of last summer. He had been before, and refused to tell me anything about our destination... only that he was confident I'd like it.

He wasn't wrong.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

We came in through the top end of the venue. The building is set back from the road and on a lower level, so there's literally no clue what you're walking into - until you turn around the last corner of broken bricks, corrugated tin sheet, and suddenly an unexpected arena falls away beneath your feet.

My first look at the hall, from up here in the broken, windowless VIP booth, took my breath away. It wasn't just the size of the place, but also its stark, undeniable beauty: the shifting geometric forms made up from a crisscrossing network of whitewashed scaffold poles; the ferns and creepers and ivy that took a hold of those shapes, blurring the mathematical lines into a tangled spectrum of yellows and greens; the Black Sea beyond that, an endless expanse of water, stretched tight beneath a deep, cloudless sky.

Along the south side of the arena, the tiered seating reached a height of three floors. Corridors hidden behind the stalls lead past door after door, the entrances to a series of guest rooms stacked into a concrete block like cells in a prison ward. We headed that way next, dodging deep concrete pits that opened up in the floor, as we skirted around the outer edge of the arena; and into the stairwells and corridors that stretched along its southern side.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

On the higher levels, these rooms – presumably once intended to host visiting athletes – were no more than bare, brick shells. The interiors had been left unfinished, mere outlines that hinted at the original design. Out the far side, a series of balconies linked each room to the next; their bare metal frames beginning to grow over, wherever they sagged within reach of the creepers and vines below.

We took the stairs, heading to the next level down.

Behind the arena seating, the next corridor lay in shadows. While the passage above had been bare concrete, this one was scattered with a range of debris... plastic water bottles, broken glass and items of clothing lay strewn from door to door.

Then I spotted the security system. It took me a while to guess the purpose of the device, the exhaust pipe from a car tied upright against a metal beam, and attached to it a broken hubcap fitted with a dirty slice of mirrored glass. I moved around, from side to side, as I checked the image in the mirror - positioned at this angle, it would allow someone inside the empty rooms to glance out at the reflection in the glass, and see immediately down the full length of the corridor.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

I couldn't resist but to have a look inside the rooms - knocking first, just in case they were occupied. Whereas the floor above had been empty and unfinished, this level of rooms featured carpets, furniture, tired old mattresses. A few rooms were sealed against the elements, with plastic sheets pinned up across empty window spaces.

It was clear that some of these rooms had been recently lived in. I didn't want to pry too far into someone else's space, but I stayed just long enough to get a feel for the homestead: the dishevelled blankets on the bed, the orthodox icons pinned to the wall; the calendars with their days ticked off in black pen.

Compared to being homeless during the bitter Bulgarian winter, this place was a palace. I guessed it hadn't been occupied for at least three or four months... the thick layers of dust attested to as much. Perhaps the tenants only return when the snows begin to fall. Either way, they had really hit the hobo jackpot with this location.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

After that, our tour took us up.

We followed the staircase up to its highest level, where we walked past the row of doors until we came out beyond; stepping onto a flat roof overlooking the Black Sea. At the far end, the platform crumbled away to disintegrate into the bushes beneath. We were careful to watch our step, as we peered out over the arena below.

There was one final level to climb, though. At the end of the row of guest rooms, the exterior wall had crumbled under the elements so that gaping holes appeared here and there in the place of bricks. It made for the perfect climbing wall, and pretty soon we had both made it up on top.

A few moments later we were sat up on the highest point of the arena, overlooking the main road; and regretting that we hadn't brought any beers along. It was coming on for 40 °C, and climbing over and through the dusty ruins had left me with a dry mouth and parching thirst.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

As we made our way back down the wall, onto the staircase and then duking beneath the level of the arena's steel-framed roof, I spotted a raised walkway hanging amongst the beams. A couple of rusted steps led from one of the higher corridors, reaching the end of the gantry – which then ran out to the centre of the hall before turning, to stretch the length of the building's roof.

I hopped up onto the rickety beams and crawled carefully out into the centre of the ceiling. The walkway seemed to sway, moving slightly from side to side as I climbed along it. It was a long way to fall – and so I kept my arms spread wide, to catch hold of the crisscrossing bars beneath in case the gantry should give way at any point.

I made it to the end, where, crawling up between the girders of the roof I was rewarded with an excellent view of the coastline. I'll admit, though: when I did finally make it back the way I had come, planting my feet once again onto hard, unyielding concrete, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

From up in the rafters of the hall, I had spotted something below – a cluster of plastic plant pots, arranged into a miniature glade at the centre of the arena. I followed the stairs down, before leaping across from the walkway to the highest row of seating, and then down through the rows and onto the sports ground.

The arena was divided across three levels, each with a drop of roughly eight feet to the next; I climbed down one, jumped another. Barriers around the outside edge rose to roughly waist height, while the levels of seating could be traversed to cut around and down to lower levels. The place was an obstacle course, and I found myself trying out some basic parkour techniques as I navigated my way from one level to the next.

Best of all, the sports hall was surrounded on all sides by a lattice of metal bars; and over the decades of disuse, these had provided the perfect frame for the vegetation that grew up thick on all sides. It gave the impression of a hybrid; not just a human ruin, but also a place of nature. The undergrowth erupted thick and green into the arena from all sides, vines growing all the way to the ceiling in order to encase the arena in a veil of invisibility.

The result was an unlikely combination of space and privacy, the illusion of a forest temple secreted away within the city suburbs.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

If the sports hall were a temple to nature, then the altar was its garden.

Granted, this pile of dirt, the haphazard collection of broken plastic bottles filled with soil and tangled vines, wasn't really much of a garden; but on inspecting the installation, it soon became apparent that whoever had once lived here, had also made attempts at self-sufficiency.

There were herbs and carrot leaves, not much, but perhaps enough to subsidise a life of begging and searching through bins for food. Nearby, where a tangle of brambles burst out through cracks in the concrete, I looked closer to find hops growing wild across the arena floor. Beside that, blackberries sprouted bulbous and juicy from a trailing bush.

Not for the last time, I began thinking about the potential of this place. The huge amounts of space, the insulated rooms, lookout devices, a sea view and the potential for growing all manner of plants and produce... or even to brew beer using freshly harvested hops.

It was tragic, in some ways, to see such a fine and majestic building go to waste – but I found myself in admiration of whatever tramp, gypsy or vagrant had decided to move in here, to build a home and grow their own garden out of the crumbling ruins.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

Next we headed underground, beneath the VIP booth that hung from the top end of the arena. Here a passage led into an unfinished corridor, a dark walkway lined with pipes and creeping vines. At the far end, sunlight shone in through cracks between the brickwork, the light fracturing into a glowing tracery of lines that lit the space beneath.

As I wandered through the various different chambers in this section, climbing through holes in walls to reach further passages, I realised that this would probably have been changing rooms. Much of the metal had been stripped away by looters, but the pipes that remained suggested large-scale plumbing, sewage outflows or water pipes that would have fed into shower systems.

Back in the main arena, I climbed into an opening at the side of a court; a tunnel that dropped away and down, into a deep passage running beneath the ground. Similar tunnels ran beneath each level, dark pits lined with pipes and cobwebs. I dropped into the tunnel on the highest level, to crawl out level onto the second... I descended beneath the second, to walk out from a hidden passage onto the third.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

Eventually we reached the far end of the arena, where the structure was just about giving up: to fall, vanquished, beneath the oncoming tide of vegetation. This last concrete block looked as though it could once have featured a reception desk, ticket office, cloakrooms... in this decayed state though, the ceiling falling through as roots and vines tore the concrete apart, it was impossible to know for sure.

In one of the back rooms – a shadowy chamber tucked away behind my presumed cloakroom – a brick shaft funnelled light in from high above. I had already seen the broken staircase heading up top, but I decided it'd be much more fun to climb the chimney.

A few minutes later I emerged, pulling myself out onto the roof of the entrance building: the first floor of guest rooms spreading out to my left, the VIP area at the far end, and looking down across the wide expanse of the arena at my feet.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

It had taken the two of us perhaps four-and-a-half hours in total, to explore the gymnastics hall in full; from the VIP gallery to the athletes' rooms, from the rooftops to the shower block and the subterranean tunnels below that. Not only was this one of the largest urban abandonments I've seen, but it was also one of the most enjoyable to navigate – thanks to the venue's many steel ladders and walkways, its climbable walls and vault-worthy barriers.

To return to my initial question: is this abandoned sports hall the Olympic venue that history forgot?

I've tried and failed to find evidence in the real world, that either confirms or denies the assertion; only vague talk of an Olympic association, mostly inherited through second- or third-hand rumours.

The venue is certainly large enough to serve such a purpose; it has the space, the seating, the facilities to cater to visiting athletes and important spectators. Clearly the construction was abandoned long before completion, and the apparent age of the building would tie neatly with Bulgaria's bids for hosting the Olympic Games in the early 1990s.

Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria Urban Exploration | The Abandoned Olympic Venue That Never Was | Bulgaria

It seems a likely bet then, though perhaps I'll never know for sure.



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Do you know anything about this building?

If you've been inside or heard stories about its original purpose... I'd love to hear your theories / information in the comments below!

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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Urban Exploration: London's Dark Satanic Mills [UK]

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

London's Royal Victoria Dock was once a hotbed of industry and commerce. In particular, this waterfront location was home to some of the nation's leading flour mills: namely the Rank Hovis Premier Mill, and that vast behemoth of the industrial revolution known as Millennium Mills.

Now abandoned for more than three decades, these rotting mills stand in stark contrast to a district fast developing. Heading down to the docks, I decided to pay them a visit – tackling the tight site security to get a look inside these last vestigial skeletons of early Edwardian industry.


The Royal Victoria Dock

Millennium Mills rises out of a corner of the Thames, down at London's Royal Victoria Dock. The facility first operated towards the start of the 20th century, when this Docklands site served as Britain's largest centre for flour milling. Sat on the Thames bank, it was well connected with both water and rail routes, which allowed the site to thrive for many years.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

The Silvertown Confectionary Mill was the first at this location, built in 1901, and followed soon after when Joseph Rank Limited opened their Premier Mill in 1904. The third and largest installation would follow in 1905: Millennium Mills itself, a vast facility built by the company Vernon & Sons.

Between them, these three mills represented the largest milling companies in the nation; the largest in the empire, no less. Grain was shipped from foreign ports to be unloaded at the Royal Docks, before being processed to flour by these three giants.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

In its heyday, Millennium Mills was able to process 100 sacks per hour in a vast, double-plant which W. A. Vernon once boasted as "palatial." Vernon, whose award-winning 'Millennium Flour' was already a palpable success in the mining districts of Northern England, now began to saturate the London and Southern markets as well.

In 1917 however, a disaster struck which would ultimately help to put Vernon out of business. The nearby Brunner Mond's munitions factory, situated on North Woolwich Road, had been sequestered for the mass production of explosives as a part of Britain's war effort. An accident at the factory caused a large explosion, just 100 yards from the Millennium Mills building. The mill's grain stores and silos were badly hit, sending burning chaff high up into the air.

According to the Port of London Authority, an estimated 17 acres were affected by the blast. JJ Betts, a fireman on the scene, described: "flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent," adding, "It was like a golden rainstorm."

The accident crippled Vernon & Sons, who in 1920 were taken over by Spillers Limited. Millennium Mills was rebuilt in 1933, into a 10-storey art deco building, and in this form it enjoyed a brief return to form... until the bombing raids of WWII, that is.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

During the war, London's docks became a prime target for air attacks. Both Millennium Mills and Rank's Premier Mill were struck, suffering large-scale destruction to the buildings and facilities.

Once again, the docks were rebuilt. From 1945-50, the Royal Victoria Dock area underwent its largest reconstruction project yet; finally, in September 1953, the mills were put back into action. They would serve like this for another three decades, until the Royal Docks were eventually closed for good in 1981. This put an end to the local milling industry... and since then, both the Premier Mill and Millennium Mills have stood abandoned.


Exploring The Rank Hovis Premier Mill

We had set out to explore Millennium Mills; though getting inside would prove harder than I'd anticipated. I had local explorer Keïteï as my guide, and she'd made vague hints about some leap of faith – the only way of crossing from the shell of the Rank Hovis building, across to the far more secure (and infinitely more interesting) Millennium Mills.

Fine, I thought. We'll deal with that when we get there.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Sat in West Silvertown on the southern side of the Royal Victoria Docks, it's hard to miss the Millennium Mills building. Judging by the cameras, guards' vans and spike-tipped barriers, security around the site seemed to be pretty tight – though not tight enough, of course, to keep the two of us out.

I'm not going to go into details, but it definitely wasn't the easiest site to infiltrate; by the time I finally wriggled through a tiny gap and into the basement of the Rank Hovis Premier Mill building, I had a jagged tear running the length of my trouser leg, while my shirt was stained in blood, sweat and dirt. I'd managed to twist my ankle as well, as I hopped down over a barrier. For now the pain was drowned out by a surge of adrenaline, after a tense game of cat and mouse with the guards; this anaesthetic would wear off soon enough, though.

But for now, at least, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief; due to health and safety regulations, security guards at UK sites such as this are rarely allowed to enter their own buildings.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Inside, the place was a wreck; 32 years of abandonment had not been kind to the mill. We made our way up the splintered stairs, the wet wood mixing with a slurry of bird shit and rust to fill the dank air with a pungent, warm front of iron and mildew. As we climbed higher, following the staircases that spiralled up through level after level of rotten floors, we were careful to walk only on the beams – there were places where a foot could easily go straight through the soggy floors, with nothing on the other side but a three-story drop. We climbed higher, and that deadly fall became a four-storey drop, a five-storey drop, and so on.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Christian Koch described Millennium Mills as, "a decaying industrial anachronism standing defiant and alone in the surrounding subtopia". He also quoted another voice, calling this place a "death trap".

Granted, the building was a rotten shell; but the term death trap hardly seemed fair. Dangerous as it might be, there was still nothing in this derelict mill that one couldn't prepare for. The wooden floors were rotted through: so you walked on the beams. The only thing that was going to get you killed here was carelessness... and carelessness can be fatal anywhere.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Most of the machinery had been ripped out of the Rank building long ago. In places, it left nothing more than gaping chasms in a wooden floor. In other rooms, the mechanisms had simply been abandoned to rust into oblivion. Fuse boxes clung to the walls with their last strength, rusted chains hung from girders above. An elevator cage sat rotting in a shaft on the fifth floor, its control panel adorned with operation instructions painted in bold, art deco characters.

We passed rows of metal chutes, red-rusted slides that cut down through the levels like demonic corkscrews. These dead, rotten drills had the look of bacteria cells, an army of contagions tearing the host body to shreds and splinters.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Soon enough we came upon the leap of faith that Keïteï had mentioned.

In the angle between this building and the next, a ledge extending from the Premier Mill seemed almost to brush a mirror platform on Millennium Mills. The physics of the crossing were simple enough: climb out of this window, leap from one sill across to the other – an easy distance – and then straight in through a window on the far side.

On closer inspection however, there were other factors to consider. For a start, there was no way of telling how stable the far platform was, until one landed on it. Besides, the window on this side had been tightly secured; the only way out was by squeezing through the space left by a broken pane of glass, lowering head-first down to the narrow ledge beneath, then making a blind jump from one building to the next, at a height of three floors above a hard concrete forecourt.

It could be done, I decided. Probably. To be honest though, I just didn't fancy the gamble.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Instead, we headed up to the roof.

There was almost nothing left of the final flight of steps. Positioned directly beneath the leaking roof door, these wooden stairs had rotted away to a pulpy mush over the decades. Climbing carefully up the parallel supports that had once held the steps, we clambered out at last onto the asphalt roof.

The view from the top was fantastic, a dramatic perch from where we watched the Thames curve gracefully through the docklands and out of sight. We looked out over the river, at the security hut far beneath us, watched as planes came in low above our heads to touch down on a nearby runway. Of course, it wasn't perfect though – for even at this height, we were dwarfed by the neighbouring bulk of Millennium Mills.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

There was a sense of achievement to having got this far, to have evaded security and made it all the way to the roof. And yet, caught in the shadow of this larger, more impressive building, it was impossible to shake off the feeling of having earned the silver medal; not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a reminder that there's always something bigger and better out there to be explored.


The Fate of Millennium Mills

The Royal Docks were officially closed in 1981, and by the 1990s many of the local businesses had relocated to Tilbury. Much of the remaining buildings, Rank Hovis and CWS Mills, were demolished by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Millennium Mills lost its B and C silos, leaving only the Grade II listed D silo intact.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

A massive redevelopment project was proposed in 2001, supported by Silvertown Quays Limited, the London Development Agency and a major Japanese development firm. In 2007 it was approved, with a plan to transform these 59 acres into a new urban centre; the older mills would be demolished as the Millennium building was converted into a block of 400 luxury flats. The plan promised 4,900 new waterfront homes, 2,000 new jobs and even a new London aquarium.

By 2009 however, there was still no sign of any progress. The LDA demanded proof of funds from Silvertown Quays; and when SQA failed to impress, the project was officially cancelled in February 2010.

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

Since then, Millennium Mills and its sibling, the Rank Hovis Premier Mill building, have remained derelict. Even in their decayed state however, the abandoned mills at the Royal Victoria Dock have become a familiar backdrop in the popular media. Millennium Mills became the setting for the Kafkan 'Department of Records' in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, as well as appearing as a recurring set in the television series Ashes to Ashes.

The site has seen concerts from Jean-Michel Jarre and The Arctic Monkeys, and even appeared as a mission in the video game Splinter Cell. When director Derek Jarman used Millennium Mills as a backdrop for his film The Last of England, the writer Iain Sinclair described the mill as having been, "christened by William Blake and delivered by Albert Speer".

Urban Exploration: Rank Hovis Premier Mill, London, UK

The Millennium Mills building certainly shares something of Speer's plan for brutal efficiency; but while this hulking brick mass may well serve as an apt illustration for Blake's dark satanic mills, it nevertheless stands for something more than that: for once this ruin was a symbol of progress. After all, the Premier Mill, Millennium Mills, these churning wheels that pulsated with the heartbeat of London's famous dockyards, were themselves once emblematic of an empire.


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