“You know what you need to fight the demons in your head? A haircut!”
As we faced the dark corridors, we decided to have a quick look around, torches at hand (one of the absolutely mandatory tools one needs while exploring) and try and locate the staircase that would take us one level up, at ground floor.
Exploring alone is fun and has some really neat advantages (to be discussed in due course), but exploring in pairs or larger groups (not TOO large though) also removes several headaches you might have had to endure doing this solo. One of these is being scared. Okay, okay, I say scared, you think scared shitless. I just mean…a bit worried…a bit you know…jumpy. Not that this fear factor cannot add to the experience of exploring, but it does save you some time knowing you are with others and therefore being able to move swiftly and freely around a place. After all, what you want is see these places, not play hide and seek with your fears and nightmares.
We didn’t linger long down at the basement and I can only imagine the reason was it was too dark to really enjoy anything down there. In hindsight, we should have probably spent a bit more time to explore, but sometimes you go with the current flow and there is a certain level of urgency that takes hold and you find yourself rushing for no apparent reason.
What we did see were a few empty rooms that were probably storage places, and the only photos I took using my torch was of the hair salon. Yes. Hair salon. Apparently, hair salons in hospitals and mental institutions was a thing (is it still a thing?). The room was actually in pretty good shape and I wish I had the patience back then to properly light it up and take with me a better photo.
Stepping outside the hair salon we eventually found the narrow staircase leading straight up to the hospital’s main floor. The door at the top had been removed or broken through in the past, and planks of wood had been used to barricade the way in. The lower part was open, probably from previous “visitors”.
Getting through was not as easy, as the floor boards were missing and the drop would be enough to cause pain we wanted to avoid. We also had to tackle the several fire extinguishers (!) that someone had put up against the wall, meaning that we had to really bend down to get past the barricaded opening, and at the same time take a huge step across the gapping. Holding on to the door frame and helping each other by ways of support and of course, taking care of our backpacks and stuff. It was fun.
What to see, what to do
The first room we found ourselves into on the main hospital floor laid in front of us now and it was clear the building was suffering from high levels of decay. But it was also a very beautiful building.
A recurring theme in abandoned buildings in the UK that I quickly found while exploring for just a few weeks was how unsafe floors are. Even though while I lived in the UK I never really cared for the weather, and often said it wasn’t exactly as miserable as people would usually make it out to be, walking around abandoned places showed me what the constant humidity does to buildings left unattended when the elements can roam free through their every pore.
In most, if not all, old buildings I ever walked into in the UK wooden floors and wooden staircases were the norm. Sorry, I meant carpeted floors and staircases. So most of the times you can’t really tell what it is you’re stepping on. Could be a rotten board ready to disintegrate the moment you put any weight on it, or something super solid. Imagine walking on a waterbed. This is how it felt walking on most floors in Birkwood and abandoned buildings in general.
But as we are not building inspectors, we give way to safety worries (sometimes to the extreme) and let our passion guide us through every room, opening every door, looking around every corner.
Birkwood was of course completely stripped of any furniture, equipment etc. Not that we had hopes of finding anything. Nevertheless, the beautiful features made up for the lack of “props” that could somehow enhance the visual experience. The gloomy day outside also added to our walk around inside the hospital’s main building. Hearing the slow dripping of rain drops in a completely silent environment is something quite calming.
We mostly explored the building on our own, each taking his own pace, choosing what to shoot depending on our likes and aesthetics. The one thing we knew we had to find and shoot was the spiral staircase we had seen from photos of previous explorers.
The first floor was more of the same, with several very big, high ceiling rooms, each with its own unique wallpaper (of course).
Another common theme in abandoned buildings is chairs. One of the sayings that go around our community is “there’s always a chair”. So Many Chairs!
Eventually the spiral staircase was located, can’t really remember if it was D or P who found it first, but when I heard the good news I was super excited. It was at the time the first spiral staircase I would see from up close in an abandoned place. For some reason staircases had always been my favorite feature of a building to shoot. Spiral staircases can give you some amazing photo opportunities and allow you to play around quite a lot with their geometry and symmetry, whether you are shooting from up looking down, or the other way around.
I also took the time to head up the turret and enjoy the view of the Scottish countryside.
We then wrapped up our main building self-guided tour, wanting to head back out and expore the rest of the hospital buildings we knew were located near the castle.
Going out the way we came in we made sure nobody had turned up while we were freely roaming inside the building. Feeling we were all alone we moved to the front of Birkwood castle to take a few quick snaps of the building.
Looking back at a building after you have spent some time inside it is always so much different than looking at it before you enter. Knowing what the inside looks like, having just been there carrying on you its very essence, is quite beautiful.
Now it was time to explore the rest of the site as there have been many extensions built through the years. All of these buildings were for the most part completely open, some victims of arson, so obviously the level of decay was huge. Still, some pretty interesting bits and pieces here and there.
The building that housed the baths was quite eerie. Remember, this was a children’s hospital and for some reason anything that relates to children in abandoned locations is weirder than usual, and makes a scene more intense.
Then I found one of my favorite rooms ever, perfectly lit, with what else, a chair, that I knew where to position exactly.
Finally, we spent a few minutes looking around the empty restaurant and nearby utility houses.
Eventually we decided to call it a day. We headed back up to the castle and the path at the back we had come up hours earlier.
Message of the day
Visiting Birkwood is to this day one of my favorite explores. The history of Birkwood, the location, the weather on that day, the way in, the beautiful features, the spiral staircase, the fun we had as a group, everything added up making the day not just a success in exploration terms, but also as a life experience.
Hospitals and asylums remain my favorite locations to explore. Their history is sad and sometimes very tragic, and it is not something you really want to have in your head especially when you are there in person, but it is one of the reasons I do this. In a way it feels like a museum visit, an archaeological site visit, something of the sort.
The adrenaline rush of the risks involved, the creativity involved when framing the perfect shots, the jokes shared, the smells and sounds that are like nothing you experience in your everyday life, the feeling of isolation from the outside world and noise, what’s not to love about urbex?
As mentioned on the previous post, in 2015 part of the castle collapsed, as seen below from a photo published online at the time.
I felt many different things seeing this, like happy to have been inside and seen it before the collapse, and also relieved this happened while I, nor anyone else, was inside exploring. But first and foremost I felt sadness for the realization that nobody would be able to experience ever again what all of us who had explored Birkwood had.