Photo Essay

Urban Exploration: Digging up the Past

Normansfield Mental Institution, Surrey 7

First of all, some might argue that urban exploration is criminal, dangerous, perhaps anti-social. Even as a fledgling, I can still guarantee that's not how it's seen from within the community.

Packing our bags first thing in the morning and loading up the car - on a first time explore - was exciting. Making sure batteries are all charged, memory cards emptied, lenses in various pockets, we set off, discussing how we were going to get over the construction fencing that had been put up outside the institution. Hearing stories from other 'Urbex' fans, we decided to park a few streets away and go for a little walk, check out the area, decide our best point of entry.

It's worth knowing a bit of the history of history surrounding the place, it started as a small private holding that grew over time to accommodate more patients. John Langdon Down founded it as a hospital to further research into what later became Down's Syndrome. For more in-depth information Google "miriam-may Normansfield".

After walking round the enclosure four or five times - waiting for traffic to die down, looking as conspicuous as possible - we vaulted the least daunting fence and got into the rather serene garden area. Unaware if there were any security we were cautious in the front courtyard and quickly went to the nearest building looking for entrance inside.

Getting in was tricky, there was the option of climbing a rotting old door frame above a 15 foot drop to get in a window, or an ominous looking black hole in the basement. As we were pondering, three local kids came out from the bushes, relieved that neither party was the law, we got chatting. It turned out these kids visited regularly and knew the best way to get in; for them it was up the rotting door frame, onto the roof and in through a window, however, my companions and I (being older and heavier) decided it was in through the dark hole in the basement.

Luckily we had come prepared with flashlights and my camera flash provided bizarre strobe lighting during shooting. The place is huge inside, with multiple floors and rooms leading off the long hallways. Some of the staircases had rotted due to weather so we chose to go up and down via the concrete set that hadn't been affected. Walls were coated in graffiti, floors had been pulled up, and there were various other indicators that people had been in before us intent on causing damage.

Most of the windows are boarded up – especially on the front facing side – leaving little to no light coming in, we ascended to the top floor to see the clock tower mechanism looking worse for wear and covered in pigeon droppings, ducking out of sight of the nearby new-build housing estate where a resident was sunbathing in his garden. Then we descended into the basement stopping at each floor on the way down.

The basement area is eerily quiet except for a strange noise coming from a particularly dark and dank corridor, sadly there is a burst pipe and it's spraying water causing further damage to the foundation. The basement reminded me of the last scene in the Blair Witch Project, so much so that I didn't want to be there for long, I took a couple of long exposure shots of the corridor beyond the fine mist of spray the burst pipe was producing.

It's both sad and joyous that this building has been left to fend for itself against nature, there's clear evidence of nature winning the battle – tendrils of one of the exterior plants had worked in through one of the walls and crumbled the plaster inside, floorboards bent and warped from the weather. The sadness stems from the human interaction and destruction evident throughout, the joy from being able to see this complex before it finally gives way to the forces of nature.

As an urban explorer, sticking to the motto of "take only photographs and leave only footprints" wasn't difficult at all, we were extremely careful in our looking around – if only to be wary of falling through the floor in places. It was also interesting to have read the history of the institution before visiting. There's a certain stigma attached to the past time, and some will tell you stories of security guards and police chases, we were lucky to encounter neither – even after climbing nonchalantly over the fence on the way out and towards home.

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1 response

  • Chris Jennings

    Chris Jennings said (31 Mar 2011):

    This is a very good story that I really enjoyed. The photographs and the text go together very well. Congratulations.

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