St Mary’s Lodge – A real blast from the past

Whilst perusing a well-known (well, to those ‘in the know’) urban exploration online forum, I came across a comment about a St Mary’s Lodge in North London. The name rang a bell, and I couldn’t quite work out why. A quick google search informed me that this was the name of the boarded up house which I had walked past everyday on my way to school. I hadn’t really ever considered going inside as a kid. This was mainly because, although it was boarded up, it wasn’t disused.

In fact, as I looked into it I found that there was a local campaign to save the building. The story of St Mary’s Lodge is fascinating, from its construction as a country house in 1843 by the architect John Young and its various uses, including as a hostel in the 1960s for unwed young mothers. The story concludes with a dodgy Council deal in which the property was sold, under questionable circumstances, for £400,000 below the market value of the land alone.

The buyers have disregarded local planning permission rules, as well as the implications of Lordship Park becoming a designated conservation area in 2004. Thus when I was walking past the blue hoardings as a child, the site was in fact being used as a tyre tip, and later for dumping and burning construction waste.

Its a story which highlights the unspoken, underlying tensions between the different communities living here now, and it demonstrates how one building can tell us so much – and for the residents here this is a story and a building worth saving.

So naturally I had to go and have a look for myself…

 

St Mary's Lodge

St Mary’s Lodge today, a shell of a building

 

I think I’ll ‘Go Along’

So having finally forced myself to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard?) I have started to write the methods section of my dissertation. Only three months behind schedule!

Interviewing was an obvious choice of research method for my study,  in order to get a sense of my participants’ attitudes and thoughts on urban exploration. Rather than conducting conventional ‘sit-down’ interviews, I have opted to use a ‘go-along’ interview method. The go-along method a bit of a mixture between participant observation and semi-structured interviewing. As the researcher, I am required to engage with the environment as well as my research participant. I take cues from my participants’ reactions to our surroundings and from the surrounding space itself.

Go-along interviews are popular in numerous disciplines including health studies, anthropology, sociology, and geography. This popularity stems from the increasing attention in research to that all important C-word (“context” that is) – and to acknowledging the positionality and experiences of the researcher as well as the participants.

‘Go-alongs’ are particularly suited to this project as urban exploration is a so-called ’embodied practice’, in the sense that urban explorers are consciously interacting with their surroundings, both physically and imaginatively. I can get stuck in as the researcher and really experience (or try to) the places in a similar way to my participants.

Situating Urban Exploration

Amid the proliferation of blogs, website and forums dedicated to urbex which inspire claims that urban exploration is having its “cultural moment“, the activity itself is really nothing new. People have explored cities as long as they have existed, and today’s urban exploration ‘scene’ or ‘movement’  is simply one moment in a long tradition of poking around in cities.

Bradley Garrett's 'hero shot' atop the Forth Rail Bridge

Bradley Garrett’s ‘hero shot’ atop the Forth Rail Bridge. Image Credit Verso Publishing 

In a timeline of urban exploration, published by the Zine ‘Infiltration’, the first date is November 1793 when Philibert Aspairt, the “first cataphile”, becomes lost while exploring the Parisian catacombs by candlelight. His body is found 11 years later. Whether or not Aspairt’s ventures into the Paris catacombs were the first of their kind, it is clear that city dwellers have long been fascinated by hidden and ‘off-limits’ spaces.

Perhaps urban explorers can be seen as a modern incarnation of the flâneur, a symbol of the urban experience in the early twentieth century. The flâneur employed playful constructive behaviours such as dérive and détournement  which allowed them to fully experience and rethink urban space.

Those writing about urban exploration today (Garrett, 2012; Pinder, 2005) have traced the appropriation of the term ‘exploration’ back to the work of the Situationists International (SI) and the ‘urban expeditions’ of Bill Bunge in 1960s.  Bunge’s radical work in Detroit and Toronto eventually lead to him being literally blacklisted within US Academia.  Whilst academics today, Bradley Garrett being case in point, seem to be able to build a successful academic career off the back of urban exploration, in the 1960s the same activities put a stop to Bunge’s career. So what has changed?

Bunge’s expeditions were designed to be ‘contributive’ and ‘collaborative’. He wanted to ‘give back’ from academic geography and set up free university outreach programmes on cartography and urban planning for Detroit’s black residents. Bunge’s expeditions were about getting out into the city to understand and experience the views of those who live there. Urban exploration today tends to seek out places that are devoid of other human beings, it is an individualistic, even narcissistic pursuit which has little in common with Bunge’s concerns about the politics of urban social justice.

Of course not all urban explorers are simply after a ‘hero shot’, but the egotistical portraiture which adorns blogs, facebook pages and instagram accounts seems to hark back to portraits from the age of exploration. Bunge’s ironic usage of the  label “expedition” in an attempt to subvert the exploration practices of the nineteenth century, is perhaps not quite so ironic in the case of urban exploration.

“Hero shot” of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth.

 

 

References
Garrett, B. (2012 ) “Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Royal Holloway University of London
Pinder, D. (2005) Arts of urban exploration. Cultural Geographies 12(4):383–411

Exploring East Fortune

So I finally ventured out on my first explore to East Fortune Hospital in East Lothian.

I always intended to get involved in urbexing myself as part of my research. It was the excitement and thrill of ‘having a go’ which drew me to this research topic in the first place. Participating in urban exploration will help me build authenticity and credibility as a researcher, as well as giving me a better understanding of the emotional and visceral experiences the practice entails.  Embodied fieldwork is particularly important in this case, as Garrett explains

“Claiming to be able to write knowledgeably about urban exploration having never gone out and done it just seems wholly disingenuous to me. If you don’t get involved, it’s just idle speculation and academic wankerism.”

East Fortune originally opened as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1922 with 210 beds for men and women and special wards for children. The site had first been developed as a naval air station during WWI , and during peace time it was adopted for Sanatorium use. During WWII the Sanatorium was taken over by the RAF as an airfield. In the post-war years the hospital was re-purposed as a psychiatric facility, East Fortune hospital closed in 1997 and has been derelict ever since.

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East Fortune is typical of early 20th century hospitals in that it looks more like a collection of barracks at an army camp, rather than an actual hospital. There is a main “street” lined with single storey wards and other buildings. The ward buildings are fronted with open air verandas, as “fresh air” treatment for TB was very much in vogue. Having been closed for almost 2 decades the place has been properly stripped and decay has set in well, although the buildings all seem structurally sound. The main problem for ‘visitors’ is asbestos, and there are plenty of warning signs about.

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Unofficial looking warning signs “If you are here to see ghosts you have been scammed!”

My exploring buddies and I found our way into the site very easily, and wandered about for several hours. The place has a very eerie, post-apocalyptic feel to it, like an abandoned town from a zombie film.

Zombies?

Trespassers will be eaten

We visited the Superintendent’s house, which had been completely stripped except the toilet, an old pram and half a bed. As well as the wards there are several larger building including some sort of recreation room or waiting room.  A pool table and other furniture lay in pieces on the floor, as well as the slightly creepy remains of several prams.

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The 'lone chair shot'

The obligatory ‘lone chair’ shot

So with my first explore under my belt I’m looking forward to getting out to some more sites nearby, the list of possible destinations seems to be growing by the day!

Quest for a question

Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning

This video was simultaneously posted on my wall and shown in my UG lecture on the same day, its obviously doing the rounds in the geography department at the moment!

A very interesting review of scholarly work relating to Urban Exploration featuring Alastair Bonnett, Tim Edensor, Caitlin DeSilvey, Hayden Lorimer and David Pinder. They discuss the various theories and practices in which Urban Exploration is rooted; psychogeography, material culture, nostalgia, hauntings and spectres, artistic expression, and heritage management.

I’m still in the process of trying to nail down a specific research question, and I’m not sure how useful this video actually is in terms of narrowing my focus!

Let the reading commence

After my interest was piqued by hearing stories of a friend-of-a-friend visiting St Peter’s Seminary, I came across Bradley Garrett’s book Explore Everything. I pretty much consumed the book in a day, scribbling and underlining as I went. If I’m going to spend the next year of my life constantly thinking, stressing and blabbering on about my research topic, it might as well be something interesting. Something that people may actually want to listen to? I’ve found it makes pretty good pub chat so far, so I can’t be going too far wrong.

A tour of online journals such as Environment and Planning D, Geography Compass, Transactions, and Progress in Human Geography revealed a modest (in size that is) but blossoming field of research. Within the handful of academic papers published, many are responses and rebuttals to each other. The healthy, and sometimes fiery, debate between those who are defining this emergent field of research is a jolly good read, and for me adds to the attraction of Urban Exploration as a research topic.

The study of Urban Exploration fits particularly well within the discipline of geography, not only for the historic associations with the term ‘exploration’. The use of embodied fieldwork to examine our relationships with space, and the sub-discipline of psychogeography both lend themselves to scrutinising the practice of urban exploration and more generally how people interact with liminal spaces within the city. This led me to the work of Ian Sinclair, which I will admit now that I couldn’t finish.

Bennett makes the distinction between Sinclair’s literary psychogeography,and the political psychogeography of Guy Debord and the Situationist International whose use of tactics such as dérive and détournement allowed them to ‘defamiliarise’ the heavily regulated experience of the city.

A far easier read was the coffee table esque ‘Beauty in Decay’ – a birthday present from my flatmates. The striking (perhaps over-edited) photographs are accompanied by possible motivations behind urban exploration. The ideas of risk and empowerment, the symbolism of ruins and the concept of abandoned spaces as a place for contemplation and catharsis are all possible reasons to reconsider ones interactions with the overstimulating yet highly regulated urban environment.