In January, Transport for London applied for anti-social behaviour orders to be issued against four unnamed young men. Under the terms of the ASBO, they are prohibited from speaking to one another for ten years, carrying equipment that may be used for exploring after dark or blogging about ‘urban exploration’. Their crime: in the early hours of Easter Monday last year, as ever-tightening security encircled London ahead of the royal wedding, the group entered Russell Square tube station, and walked along the deserted train tracks and closed tunnels to the abandoned station at Aldwych.
The four men are members of the London Consolidation Crew (LCC), the most active (and prominent) urban exploring team in the capital. Between 2008 and 2011, LCC climbed, clamoured or blagged their way into places including Heron Tower, Strata Tower, New Court, Eagle House, Temple Court, 100 Middlesex Street and the Shard.
People have been sneaking into places they are not supposed to since time immemorial, but urban exploration – with its emphasis on fresh sites, photographic evidence and blogging – is a more recent phenomenon. The late Jeff Chapman, better known as Ninjalicious, is widely credited with coining the term. In Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration (2005), he defined urban exploration as ‘“infiltrating” or entering into otherwise restricted or off bounds areas or spaces’, including sewers, drains, towers, churches, quarries, disused tunnels, towers, prisons, military sites, asylums, mines, theatres, factories and train stations.
Bradley Garrett, a member of the LCC who recently finished a PhD on urban exploration, estimates that there are up to 3000 urban explorers in the UK. ‘For some people it’s about getting in touch with history and ruins,’ he says. ‘For others it’s the rush of being somewhere you shouldn’t be.’ Urban explorers typically work in small, tight-knit groups with active online presences. Garrett attributes the increased interest in urban exploring (he calls it ‘place hacking’) to the growth in surveillance technology and the shrinking of public space.
The spaces accessible to urban explorers seem set to shrink further, however. A review of vulnerable access points on the London Underground system concluded that £240,000 should be spent on reinforcing steel gates and installing new fire doors at 16 stations including Tower Hill, Mansion House and Warren Street. Meanwhile, a ‘terrorism/extremism update for the City of London business community’ distributed by City of London Police at the end of last year warned that urban explorers, along with Occupy protesters and squatters, could be carrying out ‘hostile reconnaissance’. After also warning of an electricians’ strike, the briefing concluded: ‘Ensure that your own security arrangements are adequate and robust at all times. Report any suspicious activity to Police immediately.’