Hidden London: place hacking and the city’s vanishing points

A talk about urban exploration makes me want to look for the secret entry points into the city.

How many times have I looked out of the train window on the way into London and wondered about the backyards and the bedrooms, the garages under the arches, the tower blocks in the distance, the tracks that curve away?

Palm tree off Sutherland Square

On a surprisingly warm day in early March, I took the bike out for the first time this year and explored some of the streets that run off the Walworth Road. I wanted to explore the tapering Victorian facades that I usually glimpse from the number 12 bus or from the train through Elephant & Castle.

On that bright afternoon in Walworth, the lowering sun reduced market-goers to silhouettes on East Street and illuminated the oasis of Sutherland Square with its well-kept townhouses, hawthorn-lined garden and occasional palm tree. In contrast to my working week, which flashes by like the view from the train, I was able to explore these quiet, hidden areas at a slower, dreamier pace.

Looking for loopholes

Not long before that I was at the wonderful ‘London at the Library’ salon in Westminster Reference Library, where ‘place hacker’ and ‘Explore Everything’ author, Bradley Garrett, gave a talk on secret London. In his adventures as part of a crew of urban explorers, he has “snuck into” Victorian sewers, derelict factories and half-built skyscrapers like the Shard.

Garrett talked about the “existential freedom” of accessing these urban spaces, which are hidden just outside of the boundaries of most city-dwellers’ daily experience. For place hackers, like computer hackers, the aim is more than just the discovery of areas that are off the beaten track – it’s about finding “loopholes” in the system, the thrill and the challenge of sneaking past security.

Both in his book and in person, Garrett is eloquent on the rationale behind the mucky and dangerous pursuit of seeing the rarely seen, under the pavements and behind the hoardings. He said it’s as simple as lifting up a manhole cover.

Imagining the place hacker

There is something thrilling and romantic in imagining these bands of restless adventurers scouring maps and building plans, dodging past surveillance cameras and night watchmen, squeezing through shafts and running along Tube tracks to find entombed Underground stations and bring back brilliant photographs like the treasures of the Pharaohs.

Derelict Alcatel building by Enderby's Wharf, Greenwich, 2014
Derelict Alcatel building by Enderby’s Wharf, Greenwich, 2014

From a story-telling point of view, there’s lots to explore in the place hacker’s commitment to their crew, to physical danger and to the avoidance of criminal damage. I can imagine how this largely nocturnal pursuit would erode and undermine the routine world of the day, making the urban explorer feel distant from the rest of society and, at the same time, close to his gang. He has to make breathless ethical decisions about whether to pick a lock or force entry, tantalised beyond mere trespassing by what he might find behind that bolted door. He sees the city horizontally and vertically, with ledges, drainpipes and manholes as his natural terrain. He looks for cracks and ‘vanishing points’ to navigate his way into the undiscovered city. To the place hacker, London is a platform game.

Taking risks

Whether these explorers who resist the permitted pathways of the city can be seen as champions of the public’s right to access, or whether they are too secretive for that, the political can arise when curiosity leads us into private places – and in London it’s easy enough to stray without even realising. Try looking at a Canary Wharf skyscraper while writing in a notebook – in my experience, security guards are unsympathetic if you tell them you’re taking notes for a short story. And so, when it’s in the street, a playful, creative or imaginative activity can become an act of disobedience.

The Heygate Estate in Walworth, now demolished
The Heygate Estate in Walworth, now demolished

It’s the place hackers’ willingness to take great risks with the city’s structure that sets these explorers of London’s secret spaces and passageways apart from the rest of its inhabitants. But we can take more gentle risks to find our way into hidden, half-glimpsed or dimly perceived physical spaces in London – we just have to risk our imagination.

Read some more city questing with this post on how looking for the city’s past can become a search through your own archive.

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