It was a dark and rainy day
No seriously, it really was a dark and rainy day, a Sunday to be exact, and I had just arrived at Glasgow Queen Street train station, getting picked up by my two friends D and P.
I grabbed a coffee from the station’s Costa coffee shop and made my way to the parking lot were D and P were waiting. The sight of D’s old, red, battered car sent butterflies flying in my belly. Finally another week was gone and we were going exploring again!
Our destination for that day was an infamous castle in South Lanarkshire in Scotland. The name of the castle, Birkwood and exploring this abandoned place was going to be one of the most memorable explorations and experiences of my life.
I sat at the back of the car and we started our typical banter, looking outside at the city of Glasgow that was not even remotely starting to wake up.
As usual, the alarm clock that day had been set at 5 a.m., as I had to make the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow, plus we were always starting early, urban explorers always do for a number of reasons.
a) You need to hit that first stop of the day quite early to make the most of the day;
b) Hitting a location early means you don’t risk being seen;
c) Who in their right mind can sleep until late on a day of exploring?
So there we were, driving outside Glasgow headed to Lesmahagow, a small town where Birkwood was located and as I looked outside the car window, as the city gave way to the beautiful Scottish countryside, I started thinking of how this all had started. It was early days of March of 2014 and I had been actively involved with urban exploration for about two months.
Hold on a second there, I have to ask. You keep saying explore, explore, explore. You were going to explore an abandoned castle. Are you mad? What is this exploring you were doing? Because I can tell you that it sounds dodgy, it sounds childish, it sounds like something normal people don’t do. Especially on a Sunday.
You are probably right. Let’s pause this for a minute and let’s turn back the clock quite a bit.
I grew up in Athens, Greece. Growing up in an apartment, regardless of what your neighborhood looks like, whether you live in a city of 400,000 people, or 5 million, regardless of the greatness in size that surrounds you, the big buildings, big roads, big cars, the people and the noise, you are stripped of the actual wander that one enjoys when they are able to roam freely and explore their surroundings.
So for me all of my adventure seeking pursuits were taking place during the summer months at my grandparents’ little town, in villages of rural Greece, places where my parents grew up, and places we would spend our summers by the sea.
These places were magical in my eyes. They represented something that my daily life in the big city was lacking, the mythical elements of the unknown. Not that I knew Athens, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to experience it as I would perhaps want to, being a child. And frankly I didn’t really care about doing so. It didn’t seem mystical for the most part and provided no concept of escapism from my daily routines.
But these old villages and places gave me all that during the summers of my youth. Also, my parents would for some reason feel a lot more relaxed, allowing me and my brother to be outside their usual protective barriers and experience the world with a more hands-on approach than usual.
Finally, what I would watch on TV, the Goonies and the Indiana Jones, I could somehow relive myself, or pretend to. We would find rail tracks to walk on, bushes to hide into, dirt paths to ride our bikes through, old boats by the sea to use as fortresses, and of course, abandoned houses, haunted places, forbidden places.
That house at the end of the street…you know the one
An abandoned house, big or small, has always been the epicenter of every kid’s imagination. To stumble upon one would make our hair stand on the back of our necks, drawing us in, while at the same time forcing us to run away. It would be a place we would dare each other to enter, or hide during a game of hide and seek. Abandoned places were also the focus point of most movies, horror of course, the kind of movies as children we would always seek to watch and somehow manage to despite not being allowed to.
To be abandoned means that grownups don’t go there anymore. Every kid wants to experience that which grownups don’t. To go where nobody is going. To feel they’re doing something dangerous, something worth telling others, something they can dress up in their imagination as much as they want to, as any abandoned place is fair game to the imagination. It lacks context, especially when were children. It was the stuff of dreams.
“All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan
Let’s be honest, Peter Pan does not exist, and all children grow up. And growing up we obviously go through many changes, physical, emotional, mental. Pretty soon, in what could seem in the blink of an eye, we forget how it felt to be children, and sadly we are conditioned to think of our childhood as something that has nothing to do with our adulthood. “A kid would do that” or “What are you, five?” is a common way to belittle someone’s ideas and/or actions when they don’t fit in our established way of living as adults.
It is as if there was a great conspiracy that we all somehow willingly joined to convince ourselves that a 30 year old, 40 year old, or 50 year old dad, working at a bank or doctor, a research assistant at a university or a school teacher, a shoe salesman or a bus driver, is impossible to enjoy running around the city or the country side, jumping over fences, crawling under half-broken walls, avoiding security and death traps, in order to have a look at what exists inside an abandoned location. But before you start making excuses of the sometimes physical barriers, like “I seriously can’t jump over a wall anymore, or I am worried of tearing up my new pair of jeans, or I don’t have shoes for that”, I can tell you there are plenty of abandoned places that we call “walk-ins”, places that require no effort at all to enter. Would you enter these then if you were standing right in front of them? Probably not.
So what is urbex?
Urban exploration, or Urbex, is exploring the urban landscape (not exclusively) that most people don’t get to.
Urban exploration is an interior tourism that allows the curious-minded to discover a world ob behind-the-scenes sights. – Ninjalicious
Instead of going to the museum, we go to an abandoned hospital, instead of admiring the statues at the big plaza, we admire the personal remains of a family that lived in a house decades ago and now is forgotten, instead of riding bikes through fields of daisies, we scale fences to see the inner workings of an old factory where hundreds of workers gave sometimes their lives to produce all sorts of things. We just venture out into the unknown, with only compass our desire to step outside normalcy.
It is exactly what we’ve been doing as kids, we are basically returning to our childhood, revisiting the same feelings we had as kids around these places, but taking it of course several steps further. As we now can contextualize our actions, and our desires. We have a better understanding of why we are doing it. And how to do it.
At least most of the time.
Urban exploration and everything else that relates to it, from rural exploration to infiltration, rooftopping, draining etc helps you to freely explore your environment, and provides you with a greater understanding of your city, your country, the world even, as most explorers step outside their region more often than not.
What I love the most about urban exploration is that it feeds our desire to look behind the closed doors that modern civilization created, sometimes for no real good reason, and also to feel alive again, and separate ourselves from the routine of daily life and its sometimes trivial pursuits. A feeling of knowing that behind these manmade construction that you are now standing against, or just over your head on street level, there are people going about their business, completely unaware of the world you have minutes before immersed yourself into.
A world we are allowed to make our own for a few hours.
Back to the Future
As D parked the car by the side of the road, we jumped out, grabbed our backpacks and tripods and headed out towards the wooded area surrounding Birkwood. These walks to an abandoned location, through a forest, up a hill, alongside a high brick wall, provide such an adrenaline rush. The anticipation is high and the moment you finally reach the destination, when that “holy grail” reveals itself in all its mighty glory, is the second best part of an exploration.
The best part is when you do actually get inside.