English Urban Explorer, Phill Davison.
Urban Exploration (Urbex), stretches back about twenty years in its current form. With the aid of photo-sharing sites like Flickr, a whole generation of intrepid Urban Explorers are uncovering corners of history in our cities and sharing them with us. They enter sealed properties, abandoned locations, forgotten dwellings, shut up institutions, and closed industrial sites; they photograph neglected infrastructure and crumbling transportation networks.
In Britain, this is a movement that recalls amateur exploration of municipal development in the nineteenth century, which became the founding inspiration for many important charitable organizations, such as the Fabians and the Salvation Army. Today’s explorers are not driven explicitly by politics and religion, as their nineteenth century forebears were. Some Urban Explorers are interested primarily in the aesthetics of abandoned places, others show civic devotion to their own municipalities. Still, their work provides a key to new sensibilities. They reject the ‘throwaway’ mentality of rampant urbanization. They are witnesses of recent urban developments that are undocumented in the archives – and largely unexamined by the universities. Of course, urban decay is a trend that, for the most part, civil and institutional authorities are not keen to share. Urbex covers the ‘secret history’ of our cities over the past few decades and show the end results of recent municipal policy-making. The decline of old institutions, schools, railways, barracks, asylums and many other public buildings and structures is a trend that few people grasp as a general phenomenon. Yet Urbex is a growing pastime in many developed countries precisely because that decline is a general problem.
Deserted Yorkshire village (2008).
When Urbex images appear in Survival Horror videogames and movies such as Silent Hill, younger gamers likely don’t realize that they are looking at images taken from reality, not fantasy. Their games transmit a grim, largely unacknowledged problem in many cities.
Leeds York Road Library now (2008).
Leeds York Road Library then.
Today, I’m privileged to interview Urban Explorer Phill Davison, who hails from Leeds and who has devoted his considerable talents as a photographer to capturing the concealed areas of that city and abandoned parts of Northern England. Phill has already enjoyed press coverage by the BBC; in the Yorkshire Evening Post (see the story online here) and at the blog The Post Hole.
Phill has over 1,800 photos posted on his website at Flickr here; his My Space page is here, with his main explorations listed here.
Abandoned WWII Air Raid Shelter, West Leeds woodland (2009).
ToB: How long have you been doing urban exploration, and how did you first get into it?
Phill.d: I first started urbex in 2006 after seeing a website about these underground, and hidden places. I had no idea where to start etc.
ToB: So where and how did you start?
Phill.d: I took my first tentative steps into the world of exploration photographing a disused railway viaduct in Leeds. Only half of it still stands, the rest was knocked down in the 1970s. It wasn't the most dangerous of places I've been to. But it was certainly out of bounds regarding the way you had to access it. I remember my heart was thumping like mad at the time.
ToB: I get the impression it’s not something someone should do alone?
Phill.d: Urbex is best done with 2 or 3 people in my opinion, should you get into any difficuilty, or get hurt you will be stuck. The places can be dangerous, falling through decayed floors, meeting unsavoury characters. Scrap metal thieves, druggies and the homeless etc. Solo exploration isn't recommended in my opinion.
ToB: It looks like there is a growing Urbex community – especially online. Have you heard from other Urbex groups in England and abroad? Or is Urbex intensively local? Or both?
Phill.d: Yes, Urbex is very much a growing trend, sometimes this isn't always a positive thing. Still if people (including myself) post these images, and places on the internet, you can safely expect other people will feel inspired to follow footsteps. It's very much swings and roundabouts. We all started out somewhere.
I was quite fortunate that the Urbex community around Yorkshire was basically non-existent when I started. Now it runs into the hundreds, and with it some silly politics, rules, regulations and egos sadly. The Urbex trend has spread not only across the U.K but globally too. The U.E. fraternity is well-catered-for regarding specialist forums etc.
A Leeds bus now and a tram then: “56 years seperate these two shots near Kirkgate market.”
ToB: You have a lot of historical background and old photos on your myspace page that give context to your pictures. How do you pick your locations and research an area prior to exploring it? I assume some tricks of the trade, and access points to some locations, are not really shared?
Phill.d: I get a lot of archive pictures online. I feel using these adds a great context to how the place used to be. Pictures can sometimes tell a better story than words. You get out of urbex what you’re willing to put in. Imagination, research and planning projects is far more creative than copying other people on the 'urbex circuit.' Access to these places is obviously kept to the trusted U.E. guys n gals. Some places are classed as 'elitist' and only the priviliged few ever get to learn the way in to see them.
The Forgemasters (2010).
ToB: On your Flickr site, you mention you’re fascinated by the heavy engineering of the Industrial revolution (as: here). Your recent photo, The Forgemasters, captures a deep tradesman’s culture that’s disappeared. Your blog has several explorations dealing with post-industrial decline, such as the ‘Rise and Fall of Yorkshire Chemicals,’ founded in 1900. How does your interest in failed industries motivate you as a photographer? For example, some photographers are interested in big industry as an aesthetic, but are not really engaging with it directly (I’m thinking of a film like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, where industry is the ‘big background.’). Do you have a deeper interest in these industrial sites – a love for Yorkshire? Looking at your comments about class 40 train engines – “the heavy weight work horses of British rail. Big, noisy and built like battleships. They make the trains of today look like flimsy sardine tins” – is there a lost Britain here that you’re seeking out and preserving?
Phill.d: I generally like all relics, and industries of the past. There's a haunting feel to them when they stand silent, and forgotten. Old gas lamps, the odd one can still be found scattered across the City quiet spot, they still survive 60 years after they were replaced. The faded ghost signs can still be seen on the gable ends of houses and shops, brands that no longer in exist. Biles beans for example.
Old tram lines resurface 60 years later too. It's a kind of defiance that these things may be long gone, but they’re shouting out to be remembered. I particularly like this 'Lost Leeds of yesteryear.' It's not strictly U.E., but I find it just as compelling to record them. The Yorkshire chemicals site has since been flattened, I'm particularly pleased to have captured that place. It had a very long history in Leeds. It was an important influence in the world of textile dyes many years ago.
Old railways too, I really love this subject. I would choose to be able to go back in time to the 50s and 60s to be able to record the last years of steam if I could. I feel the railway of today has lost all its character. Sure the trains are faster, cleaner and more efficient. But there isn't the charm of the old clanky goods wagons, the soot and smoke atmosphere. An atmosphere totally unthinkable of in this eco-friendly climate we live in today.
ToB: Urbex reminds me of something Charles Booth said when he explored London in the nineteenth century – that the poor East End was the dark mirror image of the wealthy streets on the other side of the city. On your Flickr introduction, you mention karma as a ‘reap what you sow’ rule. Is there some karma about these neglected places? Do you get the impression they are a hidden price of tech advancements, so-called ‘progress,’ or innovation?
Phill.d: There certainly is a hidden world out there, a light and dark world. Often just a few feet away from the fashionable High Street. But it's a hidden-away world, unloved, and unwanted. Some places will have ghosts, or events from days gone by etched into them. They’re there just empty.
The Karma is just a personal thing, that's only about going through life and developing through experience, and the hard school of knocks.
Old Grinkle Iron Mine, North Yorkshire (2009): “Ghost rails of the old tram tunnel. The last tram to run through here was in 1916.”
ToB: In your profile, you also say you’ve little time for modernization – that “It is mostly plastic and lacking any real character. It very rarely stands the test of time. I hope some of my photographs will prove to be a positive collection of images for future generations to come.” Do you think many of these abandoned buildings and places will be irretrievably lost – and your and other Urban Explorers’ pictures may be our last records of them?
Phill.d: Sure some of these places will be lost, several on my explores have already gone. Yorkshire Chemicals for one, Wallace Arnold coaches, a company who started out doing charabanc trips years ago no longer exists. Other places like High Royds have been refurbished into upmarket flats. Some dangerous structures like the Grinkle iron mine will eventually collapse. Decay is like a slow cancer in structures, it gradually eats away until it has to cave in one day.
Of this photo, Phill remarks: “The L.C.T. coat of arms looks very elegant on the side of car 345. I feel it is a real shame that Leeds has lost its individual identity when I see such pride and craftsmanship from days gone by. No matter where you go these days. Bradford, Bristol or Brighton, there is no city identity amongst its transport fleet.”
ToB: Do you know if Urban Exploration has led to towns taking a renewed interest in neglected properties? Or are they doing so already, with or without Urbex? For example, I noticed that parts of the Stockport air raid shelters that you explored are maintained by the city as a tourist attraction. Leeds has preserved some of its tram cars. And there’s an effort to refurbish the Leeds City Varieties Theatre.
Phill.d: I think there is a greater awareness to preserve our past history. There is so very little of it left these days. I think there is a much better attitude to restoring, and preserving these places for future generations. I have noticed heritage groups like the 'Buildings at risk' register asking permission to use various U.E. shots to highlight their campaigns.
Gildersome Tunnel, Leeds (2007-2008).
Old Grinkle Iron Mine, North Yorkshire – rumbling noises (2009)
Phill remarks on the Grinkle Iron Mine: “Peering into the gloom you could hear faint rumbling noises ahead, bits of debris fell into the water, its noise magnified alarmingly loud underground. The tunnel was getting smaller and more twisted too, serious forces were at work here.”
ToB: Let’s talk about the mood in these locations. Many of the pictures you’ve taken look like they come straight out of a horror movie, for example, the old Grinkle Iron Mine in North Yorkshire. Are these grim places truly frightening in real life? – Everyone expects a “don’t go down there” feeling – but do these places evoke other feelings? Sadness?
Phill.d: You get used to being in these underground places gradually, I would say. It's true some have an uneasy feel to them. I have to say I found the Grinkle iron mine to be the most daunting to be in. It's a sobering thought knowing rusting old props are holding up thousands of tonnes of soil above your head. The underground photographs are long exposure shots, they’re illuminated with high powered search lights. So what you see in the picture isn't what you see in reality. Those places are in total darkness full stop.
Leeds York Road Library (2008).
ToB: Is there any one place you’d pick as most eerie – where you really just wanted to leave? You’ve deliberately sought out that mood, doing a night shoot at Harewood Castle. I’ve seen pictures by several Urban Explorers of closed asylums that are hair-raising and menacing.
Phill.d: I think a lot of it boils down to your mind playing tricks if you let it. I did the mile long Sandsend tunnel on my own. I think it's the fact you know you can't get out of these places fast if you need too. There is always a silent eerie atmosphere in closed places, asylums have an uneasy feel to them. But once again it all depends on how many of these places you have visited previously. You tend to build up higher tolerance levels with experience.
Mount St. Mary’s sealed church, Leeds (2008).
Phill comments on Mount St. Mary's, an abandoned church: “I feel it was important to document such a beautiful building before it is ruined by decay, or the ever increasing threat of demolition. I was pleased when the setting sun created a fantastic light display for me.”
ToB: In contrast to mines, asylums and barracks – that is, public institutions or engineered infrastructure – what about stately homes, churches and the like? I’ve seen your pictures of the derelict Chapel Allerton Hospital which was once a beautiful country house and your exploration of Mount St Mary's church in Leeds. I was surprised at the vandalism in the church. Can you comment on what you called ‘lost grandeur’?
Phill.d: All I can say about lost grandeur in places like Mount St Mary's is it's official vandalism. Someone, whether it be the council, or property owner is responsible for allowing these grand places to fall into disrepair. A building's listed status will often condemn the property. For example, the building will be limited to a specific use, or the cost factor of restoring it to its former glory is too high.
Mount St. Mary’s Presbytery (2008).
ToB: In your exploration of the closed Mayfield railway station in Manchester, you talk about secret places inside the city, filled with silence. Could you comment on that part of Urbex, finding hidden worlds that many people can pass by everyday and never notice?
Phill.d: You could say you feel a little privileged looking at these otherwise out-of-bounds, or hidden places. It does feel like you’re a free spirit to see these secret locations. I'm sure if you put a 'No admittance' sign on a door, then more people would want to see what is in there out of curiosity. It's having a bit of freedom away from the rules and regs of the rat race, and officialdom.
Leeds trams then (1956).
Phill's remark on the photo above: “A scene now changed beyond all recognition at the Junction hotel on Dewsbury road. A Feltham and Middleton bogie car pass each other in 1956.”
ToB: Further on this ‘secret world inside our world’ aspect, looking at your photos, I notice Urbex isn’t all about going to an obvious, sealed off location like a factory or a school. I’m amazed by your eagle eye for detail, for example, being able to see vestiges of Leeds tramway on the streets now. Do you find that when you know what to look for, you suddenly see the old city that once was there, all around you?
Phill.d: Finding these places is a mix of many things, research, old maps, knowing where to look. After a while you seem to get a nose to find these places. I often get messages from people telling me about things of interest they have seen too. The internet is a great source to pool all this information together.
Read the writing at the top: Air Raid Shelter Hatch, Leeds.
Phill's comment on this photo: "This air raid shelter escape hatch can still be found on a busy Leeds street 64 years after the war ended. The writing has almost rubbed away by passing feet, most people will have walked past this a 100 times without noticing it before.”
ToB: Out in the countryside, your 2009 exploration of the Standedge canal tunnel (you noted: the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain, 3.1 miles long, 640 ft underground, and 640 ft above sea level) includes pictures of brick airshaft vents. I’m sure many people have no idea what they are when they come upon these brick vents in the middle of nowhere. What’s the most startling or arresting thing you’ve come across hiding in plain sight?
Phill.d: I'm not sure if I can say I've seen something that has made me look in awe really. But I can tell you about a nightmare encounter an exploring pal of mine had. He was exploring an underground culvert in Leeds on his own. He was in an outside section about to go under a tunnel in the centre of Leeds.
He saw what he thought was a pile of rags dumped in the water, when he took a closer look, he reeled back when he realised it was a dead body. He was pretty much in a right state. He phoned the Police who were there in minutes, the area was cordoned off while the underwater search teams retrieved the body. It was really quite a horrific experience I'm glad I missed.
Of the photo above, Phill commented: “It's hard to believe these toilets still exist despite been closed since 1967. The Beatles had Sgt Peppers riding high in the charts. Mini skirts were all the rage and it was the summer of love.”
ToB: What’s it like coming through broken down areas of sealed buildings, and then coming across a section that is in relatively good shape? I’m thinking of your exploration of the tunnels under Manchester in 2008. It must give you a feeling of opening a time capsule?
Phill.d: I guess exploring places like the Cathedral steps in Manchester is a bit like going to the movies. You go in there and live out whatever fantasy world is on screen. Then when it's all over, you go back outside to the real world once again.
Ferns grow inside an abandoned train car. Train Graveyard, North Yorkshire (2008).
ToB: In the North Yorkshire train graveyard, you found modern cars still relatively preserved, but surrounded by decay. I’ve seen several Urbex photos that have something new-looking immersed in decay. Is this kind of irony important in Urbex?
Phill.d: Those rail cars did look a little modern to surrounded by decay. But most of them were built during the 1960s and 70s. They've long since been outmoded and replaced. It goes to show how swift the rapid tide of modernisation is.
Bradford Odeon, closed in 2000.
ToB: Your pictures of the Bradford Odeon and Wakefield ABC Cinema are an example of how quickly urban decay can set in after a site is shut – pretty much in 5-10 years. What’s it like seeing decay in a site where there are recent movie posters still on the walls?
Phill.d: Leisure sites like holiday camps, swimming baths, and closed cinemas are especially sad to explore. These kind of places evoke a lot of happy memories for the people who used them.
All in all, Urbex can be rather thought provoking lesson in life. It does make you realise you only have one go at this life. Life is short, and time waits for no man springs to mind.
ToB: Thanks very much, Phill, for generously sharing your experiences in Urbex with me on my blog. Be sure to check out Phill's photos on Flickr (here) and take a peek at unseen corners of England’s history.
Grinkle Iron Mine Culvert, North Yorkshire (December 2009).
All photographs are © Phill.d. Reproduced with kind permission. Please contact Phill at Flickr if you want to reproduce his photos.
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