Security Breach: The London Mail Rail

Posted by Consolidation Crew on Sunday Apr 24, 2011 Under Celebration, Infiltration, Urban Exploration

Every sin is the result of a collaboration.
-Seneca

A Consolidation Crew post by Patch, “Gary”, Statler, Silent Motion, Scott, Winch, Ercle and Goblinmerchant

Holy Grail, photo by "Gary"

The exploration of the London Mail Rail last week was a (re)discovery of the highest order, the pinnacle of a year of heavy exploration for the London Consolidation Crew. Since 2008, myself, Statler, Site, Siologen, Winch, Otter, Snappel, Urban Fox, Silent Motion, Ercle, Scott, “Gary”, Gigi, Cogito, Marc Explo, Neb and Patch have moved through one London Underground station after anotherMark Lane, South Kentish Town, Lords, Swiss Cottage, Aldwych, Holborn, Brompton Road, Marlborough Road, Old King’s Cross, York Road, Down Street, City Road, the list goes on… Night after night, we have stood on the edges of the tracks waiting for the current to shut off on the third rail before we turned the Tube tunnels into our playgrounds of delicious disorder, negotiating the boundary between chaos and order in the nocturnal city. We have done so much work underground and research above that it’s likely at this point we understand the disused parts of the TFL tunnel system better than the workers – as Patch recently said, “if I’d filled my head with knowledge that’s actually useful rather than endless information about the Tube then maybe I’d have come up with an amazing idea or business model and become a millionaire by now.”

City Road infiltration, photo by Silent Motion

Aldwych bitch! photo by "Gary"

Thought you knew, photo by "Gary"

Riding the rails, photo by Silent Motion

Slowly since our humble beginnings as a crew, as our appetite for new experiences grew, the musings of Ninjalicious became increasingly poignant where he said in an interview with Dylan Trigg in 2005 that “I wouldn’t say what [urban explorers] are looking for is the beauty of decay so much as the beauty of authenticity, of which decay is a component.” The authenticity of the explore for us, increasingly, became as much about pushing boundaries as exploring locations; without the boundaries, explorations being nothing more than ruin porn. As the geographer Tim Cresswell writes, we may have to experience geographical transgression before we realize that a boundary even existed and once we realise where the boundaries actually lay (rather than where we are told they lay), we also realise how fluid and porous they are. As Marc Explo has said about our motivations, “I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we have, the boundaries evolve.”

Heightened security, photo by Silent Motion

Rewind six months. As part of our Tube onslaught, we become aware of a separate system of nine stations far below the city historically used by the Post Office to transport letters across London – the first track laid in May 1861 as an experimental 452 yard line. Supposedly, it was now all disused and could somehow be accessed, though we had no idea how. However, on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.

Silent Motion, Winch, Statler and myself were there a day later. Statler and Winch kept watch while Silent Motion and I snuck into the building. It was absolutely ravaged. After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found (I also found a great camouflage Animal jacket someone left behind that I’ve been wearing ever since). We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months. When the MSP crew was out a few months later, we had another look but were again deterred by police wanting to know what we we doing hanging around the area.

I left London for Las Vegas in March of 2011 to go write my thesis, leaving my flat keys with Patch and “Gary” who then converted my flat into a squat for the crew; the Team B war room, the new London secret hideout for explorers from across the world, including the infamous Steve Duncan a few weeks ago. About a month after I was gone, drunk in my thesis document haze, I got a message from Statler that said “I think we found access again mate”. If there is one thing we have learned exploring the London Underground, it is to move fast once entry is found, we have to hit a place hard and document everything we can before the Glitch is sealed. A day later, the first pictures went up.

Subterranean departure, photo by Silent Motion

And sneakily, photo by Silent Motion

We're in! photo by Scott

Like win, photo by Statler

So let this begin! Photo by "Gary"

Framed in terms of increasingly vertical movement above and below “street level”, our explorations have become an extravagant passage of surreal encounter and discovery through the city in an attempt to discover and remake it in an image not mediated by corporate sponsors and bureaucrats but by bands of friends doing epic shit together. Similarly, in the 1960s, the Situationist International in Paris also sought to counter the contemplative and non-interventionist power of “the spectacle” by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators.  Part of this process of intervention, for us, required letting go of the social constraints that were binding even our exploration of the city. In effect, we had to become more criminal minded to get where we needed to be. We don’t apologize for that, that’s how we do it in the Proleague.

In this spot, photo by Statler

"Gary" hits the jackpot, photo by Patch

The sociologist Stephen Lyng writes that some criminal actions are experienced as almost magical events that involve distinctive ‘sensual dynamics’. These criminal pursuits often take on a transcendent appeal, offering the criminal an opportunity for a passionate, intensely authentic experience. Although urban exploration may be, as Siologen contends, a “victimless crime”, at some point we all have to admit that in order to obtain a Holy Grail, boundaries have to be pushed hard, if not necessarily broken, though the politic behind this is more subtle than assertive, more subversive than transgressive.

Level up, photo by Silent Motion

Filthy, photo by Statler

Little, photo by Lucida Grange

One, photo by "Gary"

The Consolidation Crew found a complete system of nine Mail Rail stations underneath London, full of small trains or “mini yorks” used to move mail around the city. Statler wrote later that “it’s unreal how this hadn’t been done before, I mean all the access info was online via sub-brit (Subterranea Britannica) and all it involved was a little bit of climbing!” It just went to prove that as much as urban exploration is about skill, it is also about luck and persistence.

Ninja skillz?

The crew made multiple trips into Mail Rail. “Gary” writes that himself, Otter, and Site made the journey from Paddington to Whitechapel. Including the journey back, they walked roughly 8 miles of tunnel. He continues,

The tunnels become tighter approaching the stations, meaning stooping was required at regular intervals throughout the trip. Towards the eastern end of the line, calcium stalactites were more abundant, hanging from the tunnel ceilings, and gleaming under the fluorescent light. This produced a very real feeling of adventure, like we were in an Indiana Jones movie, in some kind of mine or cave system with wooden carts and the smell of damp throughout. During this first of my two trips, the feeling of  surreal adventure was most prominent and the constant reminder that this incredible piece of infrastructure was indeed underneath the centre of London was a bizarre realisation. The stations themselves had an air of secrecy to them. Hearing the distant echoes from some of the live sorting offices above (particularly Rathbone) was exciting yet comforting (though others found it rather unsettling; it’s funny how different sounds/situations provoke different reactions when exploring) and emphasised the fact that we really had wiggled our dirty little fingers into one of the myths of subterranean London, peeling it back for all to see.

Otter on the rails, photo by "Gary"

Photographing grails, photo by Ercle

Inside the Mail Rail, Ercle writes that it was almost comical, “it felt like we were inside a model railway (with it bearing a striking resemblance to the full sized tube)”. Statler adds,

it was hot, sweaty, dank, wet…. it smelt like a mouldering hospital in parts and was pretty cramped in the tunnels. The stretch between Liverpool Street to Whitechapel was a real neck breaker in places and a long walk probably around 45 minutes. There were also a lot of calcium stalactites that would snap off in your face and hair it was obvious that people hadn’t been in the tunnels for a very long time. The same goes for the stretch between Bird street and Paddington which was also another long walk of small diameter tunnels.

Breaker, photo by Silent Motion

Breaker 1-2, photo by Statler

You're breaking up! Photo by Statler

Although accessing the system was no easy feat, like many place, once inside Ercle writes that “the threat of security felt a very long way off for all but one of the stations”, even whilst dodging CCTV cameras, highlighting the fact that once past the liminal zone of cameras, motions sensors and security guards, we are relatively free to do as we please in derelict infrastructural urban spaces. Scott describes how “unlike the usual stress of Tube exploration, we were all totally relaxed, free to chat and enjoy ourselves as it got later and later into the night. It was a luxurious experience and was reminiscent of the feeling of exploration when I first began; pure admiration of my surroundings.”

Admiration, photo by Silent Motion

Shock, photo by Ercle

For four days, the crew went back again and again, hitting the system hard right in front of the cameras, running longer down the lines to more stations, occasionally setting of alarms and then scurrying out of the system before anybody official arrived. Every night was a new bout of edgework, a dance with subterranean London where the mundane everyday world provides the boundaries and edges that are approached. And it is the very approach to the edge that provides a heightened state of excitement and adrenaline rush. The thrill is in being able to come as close as possible to the edge without detection… Finally on the 5th night, luck broke and Statler, Patch and Winch were approached by police and a Post Office employee on the street as they were exiting the system who told them they “had been watching them run around in here for days now on CCTV”.  Winch tells the story:

After enduring a tense period on the street waiting for a period of inactivity both within the large building, the three of us swiftly made our way to our access point at Paddington, pleased with ourselves for such a well executed entry having continually checked for unwanted attention and seeing nobody, we assumed we were safely in.

“Right lads, stay where you are. The police are on their way. You’re fucked”. Postman Pat was bellowing down the shaft at us. In a second we froze, before hastily dropping down ladders and finding a bolted door, a ladder that had previously assisted access to other parties now nowhere to be seen.

The door seemed impenetrable, nothing there to assist the 20ft climb. The frame being metal it flexed enough to squeeze a hand through and unbolt the door. We ran to the tunnels. Entering the pitch black we stopped for a second to take stock, aware that going down the wrong tunnels could take us away from our intended destination where we had a car parked.

We trod quickly and carefully through to our exit station with no time to hang around and take pictures, just an opportunity to exit through a door onto the street and away from the now screaming alarm (Which had been switched off on previous visits, but was now fully armed), away from the Mail Rail that would no doubt be crawling with police soon.

Back at the car, we packed our kit away and headed back to collect our other vehicle. A Police van flew past, sirens blazing, blue lights on. We breathed a sigh of relief. We could have been fucked. Postman Pat could have been right.

By our access point was 3 police cars. We collected the other car and departed, having arranged to meet Gary at a nearby station for some other activities in the area.

An hour or so later, the city was crawling. Police cars bolted up and down side streets, combing the area for those they’d assumedly seen on CCTV. We met with Otter and Siologen too, and congregated on a non-descript street to arrange ourselves.

Sirens blazed. A van buzzed down the street. The siren stopped. The van stopped. The questions started. Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins arrived. I’ve seen him on CCTV. And him. And him. Arrest them all, we’ve got all of them.

It was Siolo’s smooth talking to the police that ultimately saved us a night in the cells – by the end Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins were annoying the police more than we were and we were told to leave and not come back, having been searched.

Otter was the first to post the story of the Mail Rail infiltration on his blog. It hit a number of major news providers within hours and went viral, crashing the Silent UK website and the hosting provider’s server two days ago, causing cheers of utter delight from all of us in the background.

Cheers all around, photo by Scott

Accessing Mail Rail was, and is, something to be proud of, but it also led to dejection among the crew in the post-explore comedown. Otter wrote on Silent UK that in a way, its with a bit of sadness I write this, when your group has conquered the best location a city or country has to offer, those remaining will often seem tame by comparison. Many of the crew commented that “London was done now” and there was “nothing left” while Urbanity decreed on 28 Days Later the “end of exploration” (admittedly tongue-in-cheek), while Patch and Winch contended that “there will always be more to explore.”

Always, photo by Silent Motion

More to explore, photo by Silent Motion

As Speed, an explorer from another crew on wrote on 28 Days Later,

I think most people could see it coming… the whole scene in London is really on its toes right now. You have a large group of very capable [people] who are not afraid to take big risks and push into stuff people have previously only skimmed the surface of. It was only a year or so ago one of the main protagonists was telling me how he was moving to London and was going to ‘batter the tube’ and things to that effect. A year on and he’s done exactly what he said with success even an ‘optimist’ such as myself didn’t really see coming. That’s the sort of thing I’ve got a lot of respect for.

Focus gets you a long way.

The Mail Rail was the most significant achievement by far of the Consolidation Crew, the discovery, exploration and leak of what urban explorers call a Holy Grail – a site of utter historic impotence, unrivalled beauty and “authentic” discovery built on the back of skill, luck and research. It was the pinnacle of everything we had built up to together. Although I wasn’t there for the Mail Rail, I was honoured when the crew asked me to post the collected photos from the trip.

So long, photo by Patch

Mail Rail, photo by Scott

While urban exploration can be seen as an material investigation of informal spaces or liminal zones, it can also be viewed as a process that melds the zones of in-between into the fabric of the rest of the city by dulling the boundaries of can and can’t, seen and unseen, imagined and experienced, done and not done. The Consolidation Crew, in the last year and especially since the IDM last January, has accomplished more than I’ve ever thought possible and whatever the future of the UK urban Exploration scene may be, 2008-2011 will always be remembered as a Golden Age of London infiltration.

And with that…

Explore Everything, photo by Silent Motion

_____________________

A huge thanks to everyone in the Consolidation Crew for keep me in the loop while I hide away writing our stories. Shouts to Statler, Siologen, Urban Fox, Winch, Snappel, Silent Motion, Patch, Ercle, “Gary”, Otter and Scott for accomplishing what few thought possible.

 

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Without contraries, there is no progression.
– William Blake

Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.
The Coming Insurrection

Implosion

A lot of ink is spilled over urban exploration’s relationship to the past and I have previously written about how the anticipated transience of places, the act of bearing witness to their inevitable death, adds to our experience of exploring them in the present. These geographic imaginations of unrealized temporal iterations positively reinforce our notions of place in the world, giving us a sense of agency as we realise that in the midst of all of the endless death and decay, we live, even as we are reminded our time here is limited. This notion has guided historical attractions to ruination for centuries, stretching back to ancient Rome when Livy explored the Cloaca Maxima sewer. The nostalgic lust for derelict and crumbling spaces has never left us for as Alan Rapp writes ‘the metaphorical power of ruination is as relevant today as it was in an ostensibly more Romantic era’. Our love for things of the past, the nostalgia that Nietzsche found so crippling, is described by G.M. Trevelian who writes:

The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone…

The nature of Post

Ruins, like dreams, pull us, in one direction, toward our innermost yearnings and, in another, towards a life beyond the constraints of the real; the romantic accounts of ruin exploration in the last 2000 years abound. But clearly part of our attraction to derelict space also has a darker component of an imagined ruined future that has not been written about nearly as much, a Ballardian formulation of urban apocalypse.

Crumble

Recently, Paul Dobraszczyk wrote a wonderful paper in the journal City where he describes his trip the to exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl which ‘incorporated elements of both dark tourism and urban exploration’ as he searched for what Susan Sontag referred to confrontations with ‘inconceivable terror’. Just a few years previous, Tom Vanderbilt penned the book Survival City in which he explores the ruins of atomic America and in the new book Ruins of Modernity (my review in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space forthcoming), Jonathan Veitch tours the Nevada Atomic Test Site where he finds not the expected response of melancholy or nostalgia upon entering the ruins but Baudelaire’s Satanic laughter, a terror that is so visceral the only possible response humour, as if the emotions have been short-wired by the horror.

People as numbers

And so we come to the thesis. Part of the reason we enjoy exploring decaying architecture is rooted in an imagination of a post-apocalyptic future. These places are viscerally enticing in their wretchedness, in part, because imagining ourselves in a future where we populate them during imagined use-lives filled with heroism and adventure is so improbable that it forces one to meditate on the surreal nature of the past that had led us to this most improbable junction in time. Writing of Pripyat, one contributor to the new book Beauty in Decay which represents these sites with burning gothic intensity notes the Pripyat “continues to whisper of a ‘post-human’ earth which, in the end, may be the strongest fascination of them all.”

More than human?

In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe this past summer, we all took guilty pleasure in witnessing the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, reacting, at times, absurdly to it. The experience left us in a distinctly different state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom, the reverence for actual state failure (rather than imagined post-capitalist or “site-specific” failure) making our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden.

Our former 'enemies'

Invoked

By a history

Never witnessed

But felt

If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past but also reminds us that the future may end in ruin, what does the ruin of a failed state say to us?

Get on, I guess

Henry James writes in Italian Hours that “to delight in the aspect of the sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity”. This perversity takes on a different form as you leave “home”, the nostalgia wears a dark mask of exotic fetishism that beckons the days of Empire even as we participate in the beginnings of the failure of capitalism and the nation state at home. Of course, these expeditions are markedly less decadent than those of ages past but even speaking English marks us as a potentially dark and exploitative party even as we seek to avoid being “tourists” by following Steve Pile’s advice that in order to get at some of the real (really operative) processes in city life, attention should be paid to those things that appear marginal, or discarded, or lost, or that have disappeared or are in the process of disappearance.

A rapidly depleting resource

A year ago, we took a trip out to the Mojave Desert in California for a friend’s bachelor party. Our intention was to explore the Calico Mines under the ghost town. Which we did, finding all sort of mysterious chambers, boxes of dynamite, uninvited spectres and endless subterranean playgrounds. But always in the back of our minds, there was a fantasy playing out of someday taking refuge here. Whether that was from drought, famine, nuclear attack or a zombie infestation was never articulated but we all knew it was implied. We were collecting derelict site locations as a post-apocalypse insurance policy. As Susan Buck-Morss wrote in The Dialectics of Seeing, throughout Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the image of the “ruin”, is emblematic not only of the transitoriness and fragility of capitalist culture, but also its destructiveness. Our imaginations were all bolstered by the thought we were seeing ghosts from a future yet to come.

Indeed, as Hell and Schönle write in Ruins of Modernity, ruin exploration can involve “reflections about history: about the nature of the event, the meaning of the past for the present, that nature of history itself as eternal cycle, progress, apocalypse, or murderous dialectic process.” These inevitable intersections took grip firmly as we were leaving the mines. On the way out, we were confronted by survivalists from a militia who had dug into the caves to create desert shelters and were patrolling their territory in a weaponised 4×4 buggy. The father was clearly ex-military, barking orders at his kid to “get on the gun, son” for a photo op. As they sped away, they yelled back at us that the government was collapsing and we would do best to prepare to defend some territory, a new tribalism, they insisted, was on its way.

Apocalypse

These post-apocalyptic imaginaries are evident all over popular culture, from films like Mad Max28 Days Later12 Monkeys or Blade Runner, in books like After London, The World Made by HandThe RoadThe Stand, or The Plague and even in video games like Bioshock and Silent Hill. In all of these depictions, though the future may be bleak and dytopic, there is some underlying euphoria behind the freedom that comes with being released from the state, social life and cultural expectation that has an obvious relationship to the off-the-grid spaces that urban explorers go into. I have to wonder though, as we run into more and more people living this way now (primarily squatters and unsanctioned parties) rather than imagining to live this way in some distant future, what it takes to drive one off the grid like the Dad and son I met in the desert.

Hiding place

For thousands

Of disaffected

It seems to me that the imaginations of these distopic futures become increasingly realistic as our faith in the state to take care of us is eroded; as we see the world collapsing around us politically, environmentally and socially. Now that may be obvious. What isn’t obvious, what no one wants to say, is that we like the idea to some extent. In some part of all of us, we want the society of the spectacle to implode, to see how we would fare in a world not regulated by health and safety, to see what we might achieve when confronted with the most basic challenges of finding food, water and shelter.

Contamination

I argue that the interest in post-apocalyptic futures in nothing less than an interest in trying to get back to what we have lost in late capitalism, a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of self. And although urban exploration passes through places rather than staking them out in any permanent way, urban exploration as a movement is a vital bridge, a gateway, because it finally makes to move from the imagined to the physical. When we explore, we take a step off the grid. It is only one more step to stay off it.

Always almost on the brink

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