I would never claim to be an urban explorer. The thrill seeker end of the spectrum looks terrifying but the questing historian version seems deeply admirable. My dabbling tended to towards the latter, though in a rather unfocussed way.

 

On my recent wander around Crystal Palace, the story of kids climbing inside the dinosaurs and my chat with a leaf blower prompted some memories. I had asked the leaf-blowing team whether I could peer into the tunnel that once connected the old railway station with the palace. They said no and it made me a little sad. The leaf-blowers didn’t really have a choice and I certainly don’t blame them.

My dabbling dates back to the 80s and 90s. A cousin and I were quite keen if not very successful trespassers. We got into the one of the buildings in The Temple, for a nose around and there will be some decades old CCTV footage of us trying to find a way into the Lloyds Building. This silliness was an extension of that childish interest in tunnels, cellars and lofts and rather pointless.

One night, we walked through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, getting more and more anxious at the warnings about fumes. We got even more worried when a figure appeared in the distance, carrying a crow bar and walking towards us. He just walked past us of course, so we could get back to worrying about the fumes.

Best of all, on a narrow boat holiday, in Hertfordshire I think, we moored by the side of a derelict factory. The canal side wasn’t fenced and we were able to roam around freely. There wasn’t a lot to see but there was atmosphere to soak up.

I had more interesting experiences in other countries. Trips have thrown up various abandoned houses to enjoy. Most evocative have been ones with crumbling wattle and daub walls in villages in Colombia and Venezuela. Seeing the fabric of the buildings stirred romantic and wistful feelings.

On the waterfront in Guayaquil in Ecuador, is a splendid, Moorish style clock tower. It’s recently been restored and a bit of web searching shows that it open to the public sometimes. In 1990, it was in need of a bit of care. The ground floor housed a small office and the door being open, I popped in to ask whether I could go up. The answer was yes, so I climbed the flight of stone steps and several flights of metal steps until I was in amongst the clock workings.

guayaquil clock tower

A few months earlier, I had been in Berlin. The wall had been breached but this was pre-unification. A West German friend and I stayed with friends in East Berlin. In the evening, we went to West Berlin, through separate check points, returning at dawn. As I made my way to Checkpoint Charlie, I passed a hole in the wall and, perhaps foolishly, squeezed through. Watched by an East German border guard, I filled an M&S bag with pieces of the wall before climbing back and continuing on to the checkpoint.

hole in the berlin wall

inside the berlin wall

Nearby Potsdam was beautiful but some of the buildings were in a terrible state. The Belvedere in Sanssouci Palace has been completely restored but twenty seven years ago was a ruin that begged to be explored.

belvedere potsdam sanssouci palace

inside sanssouci belvedere 1990

By the lake I found a pair of already, abandoned watch towers to climb, one concrete and one metal. There was nothing in them but the being there had weight.

watch tower in potsdam

inside potsdam watch tower

A few years later, I climbed another watchtower on the Hong Kong / China border.

In the late 1990s, I hitchhiked round Japan. In Hiroshima, I found my way into the Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball ground by way of a shopping centre, following corridors to see where they led.

hiroshima carp baseball ground

In a junk yard in Trelew in Argentina, I found the top halves of three statues of Jesus. I don’t know what they were for. As you’ll deduce from these little anecdotes, I haven’t made contributions to human knowledge but I have had some little adventures and soaked up that atmosphere.

Here in South London, I am lucky enough to work in an old stable block. I’m paying rent for a desk space rather than trespassing but it still comes with the twin gifts of history and, that word again, atmosphere.