After gaining notoriety for scaling the Shard, now Europe’s tallest building, we now present a selection of alternative views from within the city’s structure. The results of our nocturnal urban adventures, these beautiful and unique perspectives showcase the many sights of their infiltrations, the curiosities of a complex and growing organism.
Please come along for the opening night on the 10th of May with free drinks from Jeremiah Weed! Chaos will surely follow. If you can’t make the opener then you still have a chance to catch us – we’ll be on display until the 27th.The Facebook page is located here.
“The sensual mysticism of entire vertical being.” -E.E. Cummings
As of December 2011, the Shard claimed the title of ‘tallest building in the European Union’, stretching 310 meters into the clouds from London Bridge. It has also been said that is it the most secure site in the city outside of the 2012 Olympic Park. I have never measured the building so I can’t testify to the validity of the first claim but I’m happy to respond to the second, as usual.
It was a crisp night outside London Bridge station. It was still but our breath curled in the 2am air. Marc Explo and I were standing on a temporary wooden walkway looking through a viewing window into the ground level construction yard of the largest skyscraper in Europe. “Gary” walked up behind us and, with a hand on each of our shoulders, also peered through. “One security guard looking after the Shard huh?” We chuckled. We waited for the guard to finish his current round and go into his hut. It took a few minutes of lingering before the walkway was clear of people – we grabbed onto the scaffolding pipes and swung off the bridge. Hanging on the freezing pipes, we pulled ourselves on top of the walkway and laid down out of view, waiting for a reaction in case anyone had seen or heard us. It didn’t seem so.
Staying low, we then descended the other side of the scaffolding, right behind the security hut where we could see the guard watching TV, not the cameras. Quickly, we scampered across the yard and found the central stair case, again pausing to see if there was any reaction from the yard, phones ringing or doors opening. It was silent.
First we took the stairs two at a time. All three of us were in pretty good shape and could do 25 or 30 floors like that. But by the 31st floor, I was sweating heavily. Knowing that the sweat would sting when we emerged onto the roof, I tried to pace myself and breathe. By floor 50, my calves burned horribly and I was having to stop every once and a while to let them pulse a bit and untighten.
At floor 70 the cement stairs turned into metal ones, indicating we were near the top. I was ecstatic. A final burst of enthusiasm took us from metal stairs to wooden ladders. We threw open one last hatch and found ourselves on top of the Shard at 76 stories.
As I climbed up on the counterweight of the crane, my breath caught. It was a combination of the icy wind and the sheer scale of the endeavor that shocked me. Marc was looking down at London Bridge station and whispered, “the train lines going into London Bridge look like the Thames, it’s all flow.” Slowly, I pulled myself to the end of the counter weight and peered over the edge. Indeed, we were so high, I couldn’t see anything moving at street level. No buses, no cars, just rows of lights and train lines that looked like converging river systems, a giant urban circuit board.
We found the cab of the crane open and slipped inside. “Gary” pointed to a green button on the control panel and said “watch this, I’m going to build the Shard!” pretending to press the button.
We only lasted about half an hour on top before our muscles were seizing up and we were actually yearning for the stair climb down. Which is always much easier than coming up.
Later, standing next to the Thames, staring up at the little red light blinking on top of the crane, it seemed unimaginable that I had my hands on it just hours earlier. Ever after, whenever I see the Shard from anywhere in the city, I can’t help but smile. Unlike when I was up there, shaking with fear taking this self-portrait. You’ve got two months to get yours before the tower tops out. Act before you think.
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” -Jack Kerouac
I have never been able to stay still for very long. For some reason in the west we are supposed to feel guilty about experiencing perpetual wanderlust. The underlying intimation is that human mobility is threatening to modern society. But it would be naive to assume that is purely a present-day tension. Looking back the the tramps of 1920s America, the Beats of the 1950s or indigenous communities to whom modern national borders are conceptually irrelevant (even if often practically unavoidable), being nomadic is clearly a common human desire suppressed by the suspicions of the sedentary.
For many people, experiencing movement, change, precarity, cultural encounter and exchange is vital to their wellbeing. I am one of those people. As are most geographers, anthropologists and explorers I have met. So when Dsankt from Sleepy City and Otter from Silent UK sent me a message asking if I was interested in spending a weekend in Barcelona living out of our backpacks and sneaking into the metro system, I couldn’t refuse. It proved to be a powerful collaboration. Within hours of arriving, we were running down the tracks dodging trains.
The journey to get to Bifurcació-Vilanova abandoned station required a dodgy climb past a number of security cameras. The station itself was massive, desolate and beautiful. But our greatest surprise was not to be found on the platforms. Deep in the station, we ran into a homeless encampment. The occupant had clearly died some time ago. His possessions, including loose change, were laid out on the side table as if he had just gone out to get snacks or smack and never returned. In all the places I have seen in my time exploring dereliction, nothing had prepared me for this – the place was thickly haunted. We challenged those ghosts, and our fears, by opening the treasure boxes there and discovered an ID. It made it more deeply terrifying to see the name and photo of the spectre.
Earlier whilst walking around the city, we had spied a cableway system supported by tall pylons near the port. We decided to see if we could sneak past the security guard and fences to get up top. It took us hours to scope the patrol and I fell asleep in a stairwell waiting, awoken by Otter shaking my shoulder saying ‘it’s time man’. When we finally ran low toward the tower and went for it, it was very late and very cold. But the views were worth every tribulation.
Put into practice
At the bottom of the pylon, the police drove by just as we were climbing around the chained-up door to the stairwell. We hid low and luckily they kept driving. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone has seen us up top and called them. In any case, they clearly sucked at their job. Later, we found an unlocked public bike, stole it, and did our best to break it doing skids across intersections and riding down stairs. After trying to sleep in a construction site only to be chased out by an intimidating dude wielding a sharp stick (and realising our stolen bike had been stolen by someone else while we were up there), we climbed the iron gate over somebody’s front door and passed out in a derelict patio garden as the sun was coming up.
We were awoken by another angry guy with a shovel at 7am later who spoke unintelligible Spanish. Luckily he also spoke French and Dsankt deduced it was time to leave or battle him and his scrubby friend. We wanted to finish up the rest of the metro stations on our list anyway so we headed out. We knew Correos and Gaudi seemed likely and window shopping whilst riding the metro revealed Banc and Travessera stations be either too small to be of interest or gone. With some work, we found a way into Correos (cheers Silent Motion!) and were rewarded with a beautiful crumbling platform and some old signage.
But not dead
Gaudi station ended up being the most beautiful of the set with lush marble floors and walls shockingly untouched by graffiti. If it wasn’t for the trains flying through every two minutes, you would think it was 1968, the day after the station closed. As we left, we turned the lights on, realised they would not turn off and ran like hell. Gaudi reminded me why I love exploring metro so much – big risk for big reward.
I never want to stop travelling. But more than that, I never want to stop travelling the way we do. There is nothing more exciting than living out of your backpack, sleeping in derelict rooftop gardens and construction sites, getting people to buy you free drinks for telling adventure stories covered in metro dust in a mall bar and making sandwiches on the beach from random supermarket deals. This isn’t about not having money, it’s about choosing to take a risk and seeing what happens. Sometimes the payoff for that risk is getting chased with a shovel, other times it’s getting right in close to the life of a stranger you never expected to meet (dead or not). What it always is is new and that’s why I need to travel. Experiences like these renew my hope in the world, seeing that one can still pack a camera, some maps and a sleeping bag and just roam. And if one day in the distant future taking this sort of trip is a thing of the past, I will always know that spirit didn’t die with us. We are the tramps and Beats of our age; we are urban explorers. Carry on adventuring until further notice people.
“Well, if it were easy kid, everybody would do it.”
–James Coughlin, The Town (2010)
When I returned to London after a summer in the US filming Crack the Surface II, the rules of the game had changed. TfL had decided to take a hard line against the LCC following up arrests, house raids, equipment confiscation and cautions with an ASBO (Antisocial Behavior Order) against the Aldwych Four. Everyone could smell blood in the air. However, as I recently pointed out in an article for the Guardian, TfL took the wrong tack trying to take down the LCC by force. A community of people who don’t follow rules are hardly going to be deterred by creating additional rules, especially when they’re singled out for persecution over taking photographs while criminals robbing the country of billions walk free.
It’s true a few gave up the game after the busts, but other explorers took a harder line, choosing to go off the grid, stop posting photos, and push back. I of course came along for the renewed forays into the LU whenever I could. We still had one more abandoned station to explore before we had completed every one in the system and a core group of us were dedicated to getting it done. So we did. Ladies and gentleman, British Museum is complete and I’m proud to announce the LCC has accomplished what no one in history ever has – we infiltrated every abandoned station in the London Underground illegally.
The way in
So why aren’t you seeing pictures of British Museum in this post? Well, because although I accompanied the crew on our final adventure into the network, I lost my nerve and never made the line change through Holborn. Despite missing the crown jewel of the system, it was one of the best nights of my life, having never experienced stakes that high. The adrenaline levels were almost debilitating, a near overdose of desire for twelve straight hours. And for that TfL, we thank you. Here are a few digital memory fragments from the night for you, a little reminder that the LCC are still here, rocking the city we love, even if you don’t see blog posts and photos flying around the way you used to. I do hope no one lost their job with the lack of material to rifle through, though I’m sure Bob Crow can find something else for them to do.
Breaking the seal
It was a long walk that night. As Guerrilla Exploring writes on his blog, somewhere near Russell Square on the Piccadilly Line the lights came on, which is never good news. It turns out it had nothing to do with us in the end but I breezed regardless, all the way to Aldwych, taking a few shaky handheld photos before heading to the nearest portal out of the system like there were zombies after me. It was great.
So TfL, for all the hassle, court battles and bad press you can rest assured that now we are finished. We retire from tube not because of you but despite you – we won. And to the next generation of explorers who will take it further than we did, godspeed adventurers, come find us in Cambodia sipping cocktails on the beach and tell us your tales of urban exploration.
Part of the game
In related news, my PhD is now complete and available to read on the new thesis page. This is the complete collection of stories from the rise of London’s most prolific urban exploration crew from 2008 to 2012. Enjoy! Always,
A secondary goal on this project was to hold an exhibit at Royal Holloway during the Creative Campus Initiative garden party in 2010. The exhibit was a huge success and soon after we were contacted by the British Library asking if they could host our film on the Sports and Society page. Then, incredibly, we were contacted by The Archaeology Channel, asking if they could play it during their video news. The number of hits on the video quickly exceeded all expectations (relative to most academic work).
I think everyone on the team, at this point late in 2010, was stunned that the project had taken on such a life of it’s own. We were even more shocked when David Gilbert, the Head of Department at Royal Holloway (who initially alerted us to the competition), asked us if he could contribute departmental funds to help develop the research project into a school module with a lesson plan and DVDs. These were eventually sent out to 500 schools across the UK. Then, in one final chapter, we were invited to author an article about the project for the International Journal of Heritage Studies be be included in a special issue about the 2012 olympics which we have been working on for over a year now (yeah I know, academia is slow!). So, with all that said, I am proud to announce the release of London’s Olympic Waterscape: Capturing Transition by Michael Anton, myself, Alison Hess, Ellie Miles and terri moreau.
I wanted to relay the whole story of this project for two reasons. First, I want to encourage budding researchers to write proposals for projects like this when the opportunity arises. Yes, they are a pain and yes, you don’t really have the time, but often these things can spin off into all sorts of wonderful directions you can’t imagine. You also often get to meet a lot of great people who can teach you unexpected things and may one day become collaborators on other projects. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to relay to the wider geography community the power of new media. The way this project took off was a result of our combined use of photography, video and text, mashed up in different ways, some of which we didn’t plan or intend. The end result can be a project imbued with far more gravitas than an article alone.
I would just like to end this post with a thank you to Alison Hess, Ellie Miles, Michael Anton and terri moreau for their wonderful collaboration (and friendship!) throughout this process. This was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a research project. I’d also like to thank Amy Cutler and Elisabeth Guthrie for their valuable contributions and Iain Sinclair, Toby Butler, Rob McCarthy, Nick Bateman, Nathalie Cohen, Alex Werner and William Raban for agreeing to be interviewed for the film. Thanks as well to David Gilbert, Tim Cresswell and Phil Crang at Royal Holloway for the support and, of course, to the London Creative Campus Initiative for the funding the work.