Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Confectioner's Dungeon: A Brief History of the King's Cross Ice Well

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

London is a city with many hidden depths; and, pry as one might, most of those subterranean realms remain resolutely closed to the casual investigator. In a recent post I wrote about the challenges of exploring cable runs beneath London, for example, while more daring adventurers have risked life, limb and legal fallout in their quest for gaining entry into the London Underground’s legendary Ghost Stations.

It was somewhat unprecedented then, when I got the call about a largely-unknown subterranean space in London that was literally crying out to be explored.

The invite came via Bradley L. Garrett, an explorer and ‘experimental geographer’ who holds a research post at Oxford University. And the location in question? A beautifully preserved Victorian ice well, situated beneath King’s Cross in central London.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

Before the dawn of artificial ice production, frozen water was actually something of a prized commodity in Britain. Ice was far too expensive for regular folk to have access to at home, but would find high demand in the industry of food retail; in particular those merchants dealing in meat, fish and dairy products. At a time when anaesthetics were not widely available, ice would also sometimes be used to dull the pain of surgery, amputations and dentistry.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

Given the high value placed on it by Victorian society, ice would also come to stand as a symbol of class distinction. It became very fashionable to serve ice cubes in a drink, while ice cream was for many years a decadently exclusive luxury.

In Victorian Britain, naturally formed ice would be harvested during the winter and stored in dark, circular pits beneath the ground. Many such wells were dug beneath large country houses and private estates, but the capacity – and shelf life – of such reserves were limited. Increasing demand for natural ice prompted the excavation of commercial-scale ice cellars, to be filled with tightly packed blocks imported from colder climates.

The London location I had been invited to tour was just such a site; consisting of two conjoined wells situated beneath the London Canal Museum at King’s Cross.

This building had once belonged to Carlo Gatti, an Italian-Swiss immigrant and entrepreneur whose name would become famous in Victorian society as one of the nation's leading manufacturers of ice cream. Gatti arrived in England in 1847, and built his first ice well at King's Cross one decade later. A second well joined it in 1862, by which time he had come to be the largest ice importer in London.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

In the early 19th century, ice had generally been shipped over from the US; Gatti instead chose to use ice harvested from the mountain lakes of Norway, which he imported by ship and canal boat into the heart of London. At the height of Gatti's empire his King's Cross "Ice House" was capable of storing tons of the frozen material, which would reach clients via his own fleet of delivery carts.

Carlo Gatti, the man credited with first making ice cream available to the general public, died a millionaire in 1878. His ice wells at King’s Cross were in use up until 1904; after which point, new technology allowed for the artificial freezing of water and the warehouse was converted into a depot for horses and carts.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

For many years, Gatti's wells were covered and forgotten. More recently however, the old warehouse at King's Cross has been taken over by the London Canal Museum. Now opened, excavated, cleaned and fully lit, the wells beneath the museum are believed to be Europe’s only commercial-scale ice wells that remain preserved and open to the public.

From the museum, an observation port gapes open onto the deep well beneath; allowing visitors to peer down inside the confectioner's dungeon. Now lit by atmospheric lamps in shades of red and yellow, the brick-lined wells descend to a depth of forty-two feet beneath the city’s crust and measure thirty feet in diameter.

The second well is positioned adjacent to the first, and can be reached by stepping through an aged wooden doorway that joins the two. While this second space remains invisible from the viewing platform up above, the installation of a web-controlled camera allows users to take a tour of Gatti's ice cellars from the comfort of their own Internet browser.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London

As guests of the London Canal Museum, Bradley and myself were invited to descend into the wells and tour the history of commercial ice storage up close. The place was fascinating, and sensorily rich; the cold, damp rungs of the ladder down into the cool pit, the bare soil underfoot. The coloured lamps, a modern addition, threw the old Victorian stonework, the rotted wooden beams, into sharp and textured focus – a history once dead and buried, now jolted by electric light into a state of fresh reanimation.


Visit the Ice Wells at the London Canal Museum

While most of my reports on this site come with the implied disclaimer of "Don't try this at home" (or perhaps, more accurately, "Do try this at home; just don't hold me accountable"), the ice wells at King's Cross are eagerly awaiting your visit. The London Canal Museum is located behind King's Cross Station, and in addition to a range of exhibitions on the history of the canalboat industry, visitors to the museum will be able to peer down into the previously hidden depths of the Victorian ice trade.

For those interested in a hands-on experience, the museum also offers annual open days on which the public is invited to descend into the wells beneath. The next one of those is coming up soon – so pay a visit to the London Canal Museum on Sunday 20th July, and you'll be able to tour Carlo Gatti's ice house for yourself.

The open day – billed 'Ice Sunday' – includes a guided tour of the wells in addition to demonstrations of Victorian ice cream making... with a subsequent tasting session that seems almost inevitable.

The Kings Cross Ice Well, London The Kings Cross Ice Well, London
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Sunday, 6 July 2014

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

During my last trip to the unrecognised Soviet socialist republic of Transnistria, I couldn't resist the urge to engage in a little recreational trespassing; and amidst these grim tower blocks and the hulks of failed Soviet industry, it's hard to imagine a more desolate and post-apocalyptic setting for it.

As Russian military strength continues to manifest itself more markedly in the east of Ukraine, there are many left speculating as to when and where Putin’s influence will eventually rest. In a recent speech he gave in Moscow’s Red Square, the Russian president spoke about the Crimea… but he also defended Russia’s prerogative to fight for the rights of ethnic Russians, in whatever country they might find themselves residing.

This raises serious questions for all those neighbouring former Soviet states, in which a large number of citizens still identify according to their Russian heritage; Kazakhstan and Belarus, the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Perhaps most pressing, however, and certainly the least discussed of these Russian enclaves is the narrow strip of land known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic; or, Transnistria.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

It’s rare enough for Transnistria to be given the spotlight, perhaps because this would-be socialist republic remains largely unrecognised by the rest of the world. The self-styled ‘Soviet Socialist Republic’ has continued to celebrate strong ties with Russia, ever since its violent break from Moldova following the fall of the USSR. Their flag features a golden hammer and sickle, Russian serves as the de-facto language and the streets of Transnistria are littered with Soviet symbology and vast busts of Lenin.

But, perhaps most telling, Transnistria’s unrecognised borders are guarded against its neighbours courtesy of tanks, artillery, ammo reserves and at present, around 2,000 troops on loan from the Russian Federation.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

According to Russia, this involvement in Transnistria is motivated by a desire to protect the local way of life. To defend Transnistrians’ right to speak Russian, and to help preserve their unique culture; in fact, the whole place feels a little like entering a pocket universe in which the Soviet Union never ended.

However, many observers cite other, more nefarious motives behind Russia’s military investment in this seemingly insignificant strip of land. Geographically, it provides a strong foothold into Eastern Europe; when added to pro-Russian Belarus in the north, and the recently acquired Crimea to the south, Transnistria forms the fourth wall in a ring of Russian influence which almost perfectly surrounds the troubled nation of Ukraine.

Other commentators talk of illicit trade and industry – of the Soviet munitions plants which were historically situated in the Transnistrian region, the booming weapons trade and large-scale money laundering which many will tell you still goes on in this secretive ‘puppet republic’.

When I took a trip to Transnistria towards the end of last year, not only did I make a tour of Tiraspol, the capital, but I also spent over a week exploring the outlaying towns and villages of this peculiar region.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

In a village south of Tiraspol, myself and a couple of companions entered an old theatre building where a vast bust of Lenin stood watch over a front courtyard. The place seemed unused at first glance, its pompous neo-classical facade beginning to crack, the communist symbols in its stonework faded and worn with age.

Once you've spent a bit of time exploring remnants of the former USSR, it becomes easy to read Soviet symbology as a sign of abandonment. In Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine for example, a hammer and sickle carved in stone, a bust of a former leader, is often an indicator of state facilities long-since disused. Here in Transnistria though – where President Shevchuk still holds parliament in the Dom Sovetov (‘House of the Soviets’) – these rules are reversed.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

Inside the theatre, we stepped into a large, open hall dominated by an antique mural. It was a typical socialist affair, all scenes of harvests and happy workers beneath feel-good slogans stencilled in Cyrillic.

Then a door opened, quite suddenly, and a man stepped through to join us. Before the door closed I glimpsed what appeared to be a ballet class in the next room. This man – presumably a parent of one of the young girls dancing – eyed us suspiciously as we took photos of the mural, of the faded grandiosity that surrounded us in this dusty space.

“Krasivoye zdaniye,” I said to him in Russian, by way of explanation. Beautiful building.

The man gave a slow half-nod, but continued to eye us suspiciously until we left.

While little enough is known to either confirm or deny the allegedly large-scale manufacture of Russian weapons in present-day Transnistria, the signs of heavy industry in general, however, are rife. Beside the train station in Tiraspol for example, a large factory site is hidden behind eight-foot concrete walls topped in razor wire, while stern guards stand watch at the entrance. Given the high visibility of this central location, I’d guess there’s nothing untoward going on behind those walls… but in an authoritative nation filled to the brim with concrete, barbed wire and road blocks manned by Russian tanks, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to hide a weapons factory.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

On another occasion I followed a tip-off from Timoti at the Tiraspol Hostel, and headed out of the capital in search of a large, abandoned industrial complex.

Along with another backpacker from the hostel, I hopped on a marshrutka bus that was heading north and east from the city, in the direction of the border with Ukraine. We saw the turning easily enough, marked by an otherworldly obelisk of rusted steel pipes, broken Cyrillic characters.

The factory was located beside a small residential estate just outside the city limits. Behind the bland apartment blocks, set back from a patch of muddy grass that served the role of a village square, a four-storey shell reared up to cast its grim industrial shadow across the landscape.

A handful of residents floated about the apartment buildings, but no one seemed to care when two foreigners strode past and wandered straight inside the nearest open doorway of the old factory.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

Inside, the place was a wreck. A shell. A series of gutted concrete chambers sprinkled with shattered tiles, twisted metal and tangled up in a decade's growth of vines and creepers. The extent of the damage, the methodical destruction combined with names scratched deep into what vestigial clumps of plaster still remained, suggested that the place had long since served as a popular spot amongst local kids, graffiti artists. Reaching the fourth floor, we drew level with the top of a nearby tree – where tossed clumps of plaster hung from the branches like some kind of grim, industrial Christmas tree.

We'd spend the next few hours in that complex, hopping over bricks and girders, poring through the faded manuscripts that lay torn across the attic floor. As we moved from one building to the next, sometimes we'd pass outside... sometimes we'd move through the gaze of locals as they flitted from one grey building in the village to the next.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria

But nobody cared.

The only pair of eyes that ever rose to meet our own, were those of an elderly woman who stooped as she shuffled from one metal skip to the next. I think she was mostly concerned that we might be rival foragers moving into her territory.

Our illicit tour took us from the attic of one building, down into the musty basement of another. We explored factory loading bays, engine rooms and storage vaults whose thick steel doors hung heavy and wide open.

In a country still frozen in conflict, an anti-nation full of secrets and steeped in authority, where Russian tanks and soldiers prowl ceaselessly along heavily militarised borders, it was amazing quite how much uninterrupted trespassing two foreign backpackers were able to get up to.

I could only conclude that if the government of Transnistria were hiding a full-scale arms manufacturing ring somewhere in this small strip of land, then it certainly wasn't hidden anywhere near here.

Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria Welcome to No Man's Land: Urban Exploration in Transnistria More Urban Exploration...

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Monday, 9 June 2014

London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Of all the cities in which I’ve had the pleasure to trespass, infiltrate and explore, London remains one of the most challenging; and yet, its heightened security systems – its cameras and guards – combined with a wealth of iconic monuments, both historic and contemporary, serve to make the British capital an incredibly rewarding target for urban infiltration.

This post represents just a few days spent in London; a collection of vignettes illustrating a sample of the city’s hidden wonders. The focus here is on infrastructure: spaces that lie both above and below the city streets, regions which are either deemed off-limits, or in some cases, exist wholly unknown to the population.

In keeping with my usual philosophy on the subject, all of these sites were accessed without resorting to forced entry… and, as it turned out, occasionally using nothing more sinister than a word or a silly hat.


Cable Run

For the first of these expeditions, I met with Keïteï outside a tube station near the Thames bank. She had brought another friend with her, illustrator and photographer Rob MacIver, who was similarly keen to get out and see the city from some new angles.

Introductions out of the way, we made our way along the waterfront until we reached a heavy wooden door set into the stonework. A flock of tourists lingered nearby, eagerly snapping photographs of the river and the bright city lights reflected therein.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

“Give it a minute,” said Keïteï, waiting as the last of them drifted past and out of sight. We paused, sat on a stone step and made conversation until the last of them was gone – upon which point she moved swiftly to the door, turning its heavy handle. It swung open immediately, revealing a dark and musty space inside the embankment itself.

“This one’s been open for weeks,” she told us, a faint note of surprise in her voice. “I can’t believe they still haven’t gotten around to locking it.”

The three of us stepped quickly through the door, closing it behind us. It was surreal – here we were in central London, beneath the towering forms of Big Ben on one side, the London Eye on the other; stepping through a secret door, a door passed each day by thousands of tourists and yet noticed by not one of them. It had a ring of the fantastical about it.

We flicked on our torches to reveal a small, stone chamber, from which a rusted ladder descended to reach the unseen depths beneath. We clambered down in single file, perhaps a distance of 20 feet, before reconnecting with solid ground once more.

Ahead of us, a narrow tube disappeared into the distance; dim electric lights set into the ceiling at regular intervals revealing a mass of snaking cables, stray wires and heavy, metal gas pipes.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

London is a complex and many-layered hive. Beneath its city streets lay sewers and drains, the underground train network and the new bore of the Crossrail project; deep level storage and former air raid shelters; and, perforating the spaces in between like a nest of drunken termites, mile upon mile of cable runs like this one.

Many of these tunnels were constructed in Victorian times – red brick passages that follow the path of streets and avenues, or cross deep beneath the Thames, linking one bank to the other. Now largely repurposed, the ancient arteries of London town have been clogged with broadband Internet cables, with fibre optics and telephone exchanges, conduits for gas and electricity.

We walked on into the dusty darkness, beneath surface shafts that rang with disembodied voices, with the metallic clang of footsteps high above.

A little further along, we passed a sign on the wall that read ‘Horse Guards Avenue’. The name was familiar – and then it clicked. I realised we were somewhere beneath Whitehall, and the Ministry of Defence building. Not immediately beneath, I hasten to add… but nevertheless I felt a thrill at the notion of following this secret route through the heart of the capital, beneath its monuments and security institutions; a hidden reflection of the iconic riverside walk above.

It reminded me of a story I’d once heard from another London explorer.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

This city is riddled with subterranean rivers, and there is one whose path flows directly beneath the grounds of Buckingham Palace. As the story goes, this friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had been walking the course of that river when he decided to pop up and take a look at the surface. He'd lifted a drain lid, heaving it open from beneath, only to find himself face-to-face with the muzzle of an assault rifle; as it transpired he had emerged, quite by accident, within the palace grounds.

Back beneath the embankment, we dared not lift the lids above us. The tunnels echoed with the sounds of human traffic at street level, while we, like rats, made our way silently along the riverbank beneath them, never more than a few feet away.

We walked for perhaps half an hour through the dank and dusty brickwork, occasionally hopping over the loose cables which trailed like severed nerves from wall-mounted synapses. The tunnel gave no sign of ending: it simply burrowed on ahead, a purgatory of iron, brick and plastic tubes. In time the novelty was beginning to wear thin, and we decided to return to our point of entry.

Peeking through the grating set into the wood, we waited for a gang of tourists to pass by – before bursting out of the wall of the embankment, stepping from the impossible and the unknown, over the threshold into mundane reality.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

It was a mild evening and after our foray into the tunnels, Keïteï, Rob and myself – still high on secret geography – took a leisurely stroll along the side of the Thames. Not far on, we stopped to pay tribute to the Father of London Below: Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

The much overlooked memorial gazes out from the shadow of the Golden Jubilee Bridges, bearing witness to the man who designed this very embankment. In the second half of the 19th century, Bazalgette served as chief engineer to London's Metropolitan Board of Works; and in that time, he battled the 'Great Stink' of 1858 – and the cholera epidemic that followed in its wake – with the design of London’s complex network of sewers.

Bazalgette oversaw the construction of almost 1,200 miles of underground passages beneath the capital; a colossal undertaking which transformed the River Thames from an a open sewer, to the proud waterway we know today. Meanwhile, his subterranean legacy lives on in the form of the Fleet, the Effra, the Tyburn, the many 'secret rivers' that exist beneath London's crust. We paid our respects to the King of the London Underworld, before moving off in search of our next target.


Crow's Nest

We arrived at one of the city's most iconic monuments: the Cathedral Church of St Paul the Apostle, in all its baroque glory. It was not the cathedral itself we planned to infiltrate though, but rather, our destination lay just across the road. Beside the St. Paul’s Underground station, a building site rose to stand in silence above the bustling street; out of its midst meanwhile, a crane reared up and above us, the furthest end of its arm disappearing into the darkness of night.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

We waited for a gap in the traffic, for the milling crowds to clear, before gaining access to the construction site; where we ducked beneath the temporary wooden barrier, jumped a turnstile and stepped into the unfinished shell of a building.

Lights had been left burning around the site to illuminate dusty, concrete floors beneath a bare metal framework and discarded tools. We took the stairs, climbing six or so floors in a creaking scaffold cage. Through the thin fabric sheets that hung around the structure, we could see the bright lights of traffic, hear the passing pedestrians down below. For all the noise our progress was making – groaning metal, footsteps on hard wooden planks – I kept expecting someone to hear us, to look up; but they never did.

As we reached the top of the unfinished building, we cut across to the crane; a vast red tower rising up out of a well at the heart of the construction. Hopping across the gap, from concrete to girders, we ducked inside the frame and kept on climbing – this time hand-over-hand as we made our way up a series of ladders attached to the inside of the shaft.

Eventually we reached the top; clambering past the winch mechanism to pass through a metal hatch, and emerge, at last, onto a small metal platform high above the city. We were eye level with the dome of St Paul’s, and from here the cathedral felt close enough to reach out and touch. Above us meanwhile, the crane’s jib extended up and away at a 45-degree angle to the crow's nest above. There was a small ladder attached to the top of the arm, and my gaze lingered on those narrow rungs with a mixture of terror and curiosity.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

It was my first crane climb, and I found myself looking down to street level – painfully aware of how conspicuous we must have appeared, three dark figures clinging to a red frame, high above the streets and visible for miles in all directions.

“Don’t worry about it,“ Keïteï said. “Nobody ever looks up.” A police car drove past, late night drinkers ambled about in the street below. Across the road, the Underground station had just closed up for the night and a gaggle of track workers – dressed in matching high-visibility jackets – stood outside on the street, smoking cigarettes and waiting for lifts.

It was absolutely true. Though we could have been – should have been – visible to the dozens of people currently sharing this particular stretch of central London, not one of them bothered to raise their eyes above head level. Up here in the ether, clinging to the cold scaffold high above them, we may as well have been invisible.

Even the sounds of traffic were muted from such a height, the constant hum of the capital drowned out by a mournful wind. We couldn’t have been closer to the city, lit by its glow, hemmed in by its steel and concrete monuments; and yet, I felt displaced somehow. As if the world about us had been placed on pause, a distant diorama taking place behind thick glass.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

I tried the door of the cab, and found it unlocked… swinging open to reveal a battered chair surrounded by buttons, levers and lights. The temptation was impossible to resist.

Sat in the operator’s throne, I gazed out at the London skyline. St Paul’s rose dramatically at my right hand, while immediately ahead, the Heron Tower, the Gherkin, the Leadenhall Building, pierced the horizon like a mismatched set of neon teeth. Suddenly, I felt an appreciation for London that I hadn’t known before. From this height, everything just made sense… I saw shapes, themes, laid out by 17th century hands – and then echoed, mirrored, strangely complemented by the design of 21st century skyscrapers.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

As I got up to leave the operator's cab, squeezing back around the bucket chair to the door, I accidentally knocked my foot against a lever… and to my horror, a motor somewhere beneath me began to hum. I glanced across at the dome of the cathedral, at the extended arm of the crane that balanced dangerously nearby, and I wondered exactly what the penalty would be for demolishing a 300-year-old national treasure. But then, just as suddenly, the humming ceased (although it was a little longer still, before my heart rate returned to normal).

Before we left, I found myself once again eyeing the crow’s nest up above.

“It’s the fear that’ll get you,” Keïteï had told me; and she was right. The ladder which stretched up the topside of the jib was not a difficult climb, by any means: solid metal rungs, an easy angle. Had it been at ground level, I might have walked it… balancing on my toes, hopping from rung to rung. Place that same structure a dozen storeys up in the air, however, and the fear of falling transformed it into something else altogether.

I have no fear of heights, but I’m terrified of falling. For me, it’s about control – and a large part of that is the ability to control my own responses. To overcome the fear.

Nothing to fear but fear itself, I thought, and I resolved to make the climb.

The ladder itself was reassuringly sturdy. It was clean, smooth and secure, the red paint fresh and even, without rust or dents. I took my time, climbing slowly up the narrow arm towards a smaller platform at its highest point. I scrambled over a loose cable, which lay entwined across the rungs; a startled pigeon flapped into life somewhere beneath me, but I didn’t flinch. To the exclusion of all else, I focussed on the climb – one rung after another, never once looking down, never giving power to the fear.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Pulling myself slowly from the top of the ladder onto a narrow steel pulpit, I gazed out at the city around me… the city beneath me. By now I was well over 100 metres high, nothing but rivets and thin plate metal between myself and the road below. Outside St Paul’s station, the same group of track workers scattered the pavement like paint specks. Looking back down the jib I saw my friends; themselves now reduced to tiny figurines in the darkness. A wind came up, my fragile platform swayed, and suddenly I saw the height for what it was. For just a moment I came very close to panicking.

I managed to fight it, though – I took a deep breath, and forced myself to stop admiring the view. I grounded myself once more in solid steel and sound engineering, my climbing gloves squeaking on the ladder as I began the slow descent.


Trespass in Plain Sight

It is not unusual for urban explorers to kit themselves out with trade tools in order to access off-limits areas. Sometimes it’s a skeleton key, other times a handle for lifting heavy manhole covers. In Moscow, I’ve even seen explorers use crowbars, angle grinders and battering rams to get to places where they're not supposed to be.

On this occasion however, just a few nights after the crane climb, we used nothing more than a well-deployed disguise.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

I was meeting with an urban explorer who went by the online handle of BauhausGirl; we’d previously toured a few sites together in Bulgaria, and now that I was in England she’d offered to show me some hidden treasures in her home city. Once again, we’d be heading underground – but this time there was no hope of being discreet. Rather, the plan was to hide in plain sight as we attempted the most conspicuous infiltration I’ve ever been a part of.

I met with BG and her friend – a Manchester-based explorer going by the nickname ‘Fudge’ – outside an Underground station in the city centre. BG arrived by car, already high on energy drinks and cursing the awful London traffic. She offered us both beers, pulling them from a plastic bag on the passenger seat.

“The lid was still open last night,” she told us, referring to our selected point of entry. “I just hope they haven’t realised yet.”

We parked on a quiet backstreet, where BG popped the boot open and started dishing out our uniforms. She passed me a hard white hat, and a luminous orange waistcoat with the words ‘Fire Steward’ plastered across the back in bold white lettering.

“You can hide that with your backpack,” she suggested as I eyed the title on the vest with suspicion. “Just make sure you look confident.”

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Confidence was the last thing I felt, as I stood there in the street pulling on an oversized, neon jacket. Up until this point, most of my experience of urban infiltration had involved skulking in the shadows; doing my best impersonation of a ninja as I attempted to evade cameras, dogs or security guards. It felt counterintuitive to be stood in plain sight, donning a uniform designed for heightened visibility.

Within minutes however, I was already discovering the startling effect of such a get-up.

This being a Saturday night in the heart of London, the city’s populace were out in force; turning a corner onto a main pedestrian street, we were suddenly plunged into a sea of high heels and Ben Sherman shirts, girls in eye liner and cocktail dresses, men in hip tweed suits. As we shuffled through the throng in the livery of lowly street workers, not one of them could meet our gaze.

I became aware of a real and poignant class divide, a social bubble that separated us from London’s young and fashionable socialites. It was as if we were simply invisible; as if no one could bring themselves to form any kind of connection with us menial workers, as if merely acknowledging our presence would somehow cast a dirty stain across their evening’s frivolities.

And it was a good thing, too – for despite our outfits, the three of us couldn’t have looked any less convincing as maintenance workers.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

We reached our entry point at last, a metal hatch set into the pavement at a busy intersection. Crowds of people stood around – and on top of – the panel, waiting for the crossing lights or spilling out of the crowded coffee shop behind. I found myself feeling insanely nervous, and deeply uncomfortable about what we were about to attempt.

BauhausGirl plunged straight into the fray, however: pushing bodies aside, and clearing a space around the hatch with as much authority as a petit woman in a poorly-fitted hard hat could muster. Luckily for us, the entrance had indeed been left unlocked. Myself and Fudge helped as BG heaved up a corner of the metal panel, then pulled aside the heavy grill that lay beneath.

“Unbelievable!” boomed the African-flavoured voice of a drunken passer-by, who had stopped to watch the drama unfolding at his feet. Most of the others around us were simply making space however, curving their paths to avoid us without so much as acknowledging the disruption. A police car drove by, but didn’t even slow its pace.

Hatch open, we plunged headlong into the dark chasm beneath, shimmying down the ladder as fast as we could manage. I was the last one in, and as I fumbled with the lid I realised it was stuck upright.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

“Unbelievable!” the man exclaimed once more, swaying on the spot, as I hopped down into the darkness to fetch help. BG was already rummaging through her bag for a torch, when I caught up to tell her the top was still open.

“Shit,” she muttered, before springing back up the ladder to play with the catch. The mechanism obeyed her at last, letting in just one more unbelievable before it closed on us with a resounding clang.

We waited a moment, a moment more, in silence. The voices above continued their self-involved babble, as people came and went, laughing, bickering, drifting off to be drowned by the low-level hum of traffic. Within minutes our disruption had been forgotten altogether.

While the cable run I visited with Keïteï and Rob had been smooth, round, and straight as an arrow, the network we now stood in was a maze; a grid of passages and open spaces, some curved, others square, with walkways and ladders that veered upwards to the surface, or down to access lower levels beneath us.

BG had been before, and she led the way – her luminous orange jacket floating up ahead on the brink of darkness.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

And that was the way of things, for the next few hours. We drank beers as we wandered through the subterranean labyrinth, never more than a few feet from the sounds of a Saturday night up above. Occasionally we’d pass beneath a manhole cover in the road; the tunnels would boom with a resounding double-clunk whenever a car passed over, and eventually that sound became a comfort. It marked time like a grandfather clock, in this twilight world that was otherwise detached altogether from the reality we had come from.

By the time we left the burrow, the same way we came in, the street had grown much quieter. It was some time in the early hours of the morning when we finally heaved the lid open, stumbling one and then another into the streetlight. Cars passed us by without slowing, and only one solitary drunk – staggering as he made his way back home – turned to regard the three unlikely maintenance workers crawling out of an invisible portal from nowhere. He watched us wide-eyed at first, until I glanced back and he shied away from my gaze, returning to the unfinished drink in his hand.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Behind us, the staff in the coffee shop were closing for the night. One of them looked up from wiping a table, and watched us intently while we closed the lid, dusted ourselves off. She knew. It was painfully clear that she could see straight through our disguise, as if it took the eyes of one worker to recognise the lie told by another – and yet, she didn’t say a word as we turned to go, melting back into the city streets we’d come from.


Battersea Tunnels

On a tip-off from BauhausGirl, Fudge and myself finished the night with another attempt at subterranean infiltration.

I had heard of the Battersea Steam Tunnels before; a series of deep conduits which pass beneath the Thames, once used to pump hot steam from Battersea Power Station to the council estates on the opposite bank. Some have even claimed that these tunnels still provide back-door access to the abandoned power station itself, though reports would suggest that any surface access on the Battersea side, has long-since been sealed off.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Getting inside these conduits, nevertheless, was far easier – and yet more unpleasant – than I’d anticipated.

We circled the fence for a while, until we spotted a section where the railings had been damaged. A missing spike atop the barrier left just enough space for a foothold, and we waited until the traffic had cleared before making a break for it. A short scramble, a swift vault later, and Fudge and myself were ducking down inside the enclosure, hiding from the road as we ran towards our entry point: an inconspicuous gutter, into which we rolled sideways before dropping down to a lower level.

The bricks here were old, ruddy red and powdered white with dust and webs. From the opening we crawled forward into a small, square space, where the passage was funnelled into a narrow shaft.

I went in first – more of a wriggle than a crawl, with barely enough space to move my arms. Instead I was forced to keep them by my sides, moving like a caterpillar while using my compressed shoulders, my elbows and knees, to push myself along the restrictive passage. There was no space to carry my camera beside me, and so instead I hooked the bag around one foot to drag it behind.

“What’s it like in there?” I heard Fudge calling, from somewhere behind me in the tight darkness.

“Umph,” I said, spitting out a mouthful of dust. “It’s… it’s okay,” I lied.

This is really not okay, I was thinking to myself, while imagining just how difficult it would be for rescuers to pull me out should I get stuck.

At that rate I covered twenty feet in almost as many minutes, until, reaching the far end at last, I ran up against the bars of a ladder. Here the shaft opened onto a much more spacious tunnel below, which would take us deep down beneath the river. A ladder had been bolted against the opening from the inside, however; and I could get no further from here without squeezing between its rungs, to fall headfirst out of the shaft and onto the damp floor of the main passage.

I tried putting my head through first… which worked just fine, until I reached my shoulders. Twisting this way and that, my chest was simply too broad to fit through the narrow space between the bars. Backing up, I tried again; this time extending my arms ahead of me, trying to bend them through with my shoulders at an angle, in the hope of forming some obscure shape that could pass unhindered through the tightly confined space. For a moment, I found myself remembering a circus contortionist I had seen as a child, who’d been able to fit his whole body through a tennis racquet.

“I… I’m not coming in,” said Fudge’s muffled voice behind me. He was still at the entrance, presumably eyeing the tiny opening with growing horror. “Sorry,” he explained, “but I’m just not comfortable with this.”

Those words hit me as a wave of relief; by that point I was grateful for any excuse to turn back.

“I’m happy to wait here,” Fudge went on. “You can go on ahead, if–“

“No, no, no,” I insisted. “I’m coming out.”

There was no space to turn around by now, which meant crawling back in reverse. It took me what seemed like forever, pushing an inch at a time with my elbows, even using my toes to find leverage against the brickwork. By the time I’d wriggled back out I had dust in my eyes, cobwebs in my mouth, and my clothes were ripped and dishevelled to expose bloody knees and elbows.

Fudge took one look at the state of me, and smiled.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Let’s get out of here.”


Boiler Room

The following night, I met up with an old friend. We had last seen each other in Thailand, where we’d passed many a happy evening antagonising the patrons – and proprietors – of some of Bangkok’s seediest establishments. For the sake of this story, I’m going to call him ‘Mr Farang’.

We spent the night in London’s West End, where we became so lost in catching up that by the time we left our venue of choice, dawn was creeping up over the horizon. We had two options at this stage; go home to sleep, or head into town and cause some mischief. Naturally, we chose the latter.

Five minutes later, we walked by a restaurant where a team of deliverymen were hauling cages off the back end of a truck. A staff member, clipboard tucked beneath the arm of his meticulously ironed shirt, ducked back inside the building as we passed… leaving the door unlocked behind him.

We approached without caution, trying hard not to look like we were trying hard not to look suspicious. Suddenly the door swung open in front of our faces, and, stepping out, another deliveryman turned to give us a long look.

“You going in?” he asked, holding the door open for us.

“Yes…?” we nodded, hesitantly, and that was it – suddenly we were inside.

We followed the staff corridor all the way to the back of the building, striding confidently into the unknown depths. There were cases of stock around us, sacks full of staff uniforms, noticeboards hanging heavy with memos and quarterly reports. The setting was so domestic, so familiar to anyone with experience of the hospitality trade, that it was easy to imagine – and thereby exude – a false sense of belonging.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

At the end of the corridor, a small stepladder disappeared up to higher level. There were pipes visible, industrial debris, and so we swung a hard right to climb up and into the restaurant’s boiler room. Here, a framed print-out on the wall mapped a valve chart. As I ran my eyes over the row upon row of coloured buttons, the lights, the canisters of compressed gas and the low-hanging pipes and cables overhead, I found myself wondering what would happen if I tampered with the controls… turned one of those archaic taps, or hit that big red button.

I controlled my curiosity; we were guests here after all, and I had no intention of inconveniencing the careless souls who had invited us inside.

Turning back, we tried another route; following a corridor then marching boldly through a pair of double doors, only to find ourselves stood in the restaurant proper – where five startled faces suddenly looked up at us in unison. Around the table were seated two deliverymen, two regular staff members and their supervisor, all bleary-eyed and huddled over hot coffees.

The clock was yet to hit seven, and luckily for us not one of them seemed to be fully awake. In a manoeuvre I can only describe as a small feat of genius, Mr Farang seized upon their confusion; compounding it further with a simple, yet impeccably timed question.

“Can I have a sandwich?” he asked.

“Um,” said one of the staff, and then, with some effort, “we’re not supposed to be open yet.”

The exchange was clearly more than any of them were ready for.

“How,” the manager began, slowly stirring himself back towards the duties of leadership.

“Don’t worry,” I finished for him. “We’ll show ourselves out.”


Penthouse

Not far from that restaurant, Mr Farang and myself tried our luck at another establishment; this time, marching through the doors of an exclusive hotel in Mayfair. Guests were congregating on the stairs inside, pooling in the foyer, a slow, drowsy stream that dripped silently from the upper levels, and down into the breakfast hall.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

We dodged through the crowd, reaching the back of the foyer and pushing through a swing door marked: ‘Staff Only’. Here we managed to cover the length of a hall – past stacks of plates and lightbulbs, between cleaning supplies and mountains of crisp, starched shirts – before we were apprehended.

“Can I help you?” the girl asked.

In such a situation those four words – even spoken with the purest of intentions – can often spell disaster. Rather than accept defeat however, we pounced upon the note of uncertainty in her voice.

“I don’t know,” said Mr Farang quickly, “can you? Where’s Henrietta? We’re going to be late, thanks to you.”

I followed his lead, glancing at an imaginary wristwatch and cursing loudly. The poor girl broke immediately.

“I’m sorry,” she blubbed, “it’s my first day. But if you explain what the problem is, maybe I can help…?”

“It’s fine,” I said, “we’ll find it ourselves.”

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

I felt a little guilty as we swung about, and stormed back into the foyer leaving the baffled trainee stood blinking in our wake. We crossed to the other side of the building this time, flitting through the guests to hop swiftly into a waiting elevator. I hit the button for the top floor.

The corridor above was empty, save for a solitary cleaner who pushed her trolley slowly from one penthouse suite to another. The rooms here were vast, lavish apartments branching out from an immaculate corridor of velvet and marble.

“As you were,” muttered Mr Farang, when we sauntered past the cleaner.

Reaching the far end we tried a grand-looking door, and it swung open as if on greased hinges; revealing an extravagant Georgian drawing room, decorated in dark shades of green, with high-backed chairs positioned around an ornate chintz fireplace. The adjacent room held a long oak table laid for dinner. Spaces had been set out for twenty-odd guests, replete with china, silverware and elegantly folded napkins.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Farang and I passed around the table to the back of the room, brushing beneath a pair of heavy velvet drapes to find twin doors that opened out onto a balcony.

Here a fountain bubbled gaily above the surrounding rooftops, filling a basin adorned with cherubim and dolphins. A reclining nude figure enjoyed pride of place, attended by an amorous waterfowl; most likely it was a reference to Greek mythology… the Aetolian princess Leda, seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan.

From here London lay at our feet, stealing fitful sleep in the last hours of dawn. The Shard, the Gherkin, the London Eye and Saint Paul’s – monuments lined the horizon from end to end, iconic shapes that rose like toys from the smoky grey skyline.

UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration UK Urban Exploration: London Asunder: Six Tales of Urban Infiltration

Over the past few nights I had seen these sites from angles unimagined; from above, below, and sometimes from within the very framework of the city. How satisfying then, to finish like this: a step aside from the action and a chance to take in the whole panorama at once, with a private penthouse view.

It had been a good week, all things considered.



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