Urban exploration (urbex or UE) is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned sites, buildings or rarely-seen components of the man-made environment, such as drains, culverts and tunnels.

UE purists advocate only trespassing, not breaking and entering, which means that using wire cutters to create an opening in a fence, breaking windows or kicking in doors is against the code of ethics. This forces explorers to get creative when finding an entry point into a structure.

The standard code is, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”.

The ethos of UE is extremely important, because although previously a purely civil offence, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 created some circumstances in which trespass can be considered a crime. It should also be said that UE is an extremely dangerous pastime. By their nature, old abandoned buildings are unsafe. They haven’t been maintained or inspected, sometimes for decades. Rotting floorboards, collapsing roofs and unstable staircases can lead to injury or even death.

Due to the inherent dangers of the decaying structures, explorers often wear dust masks to protect themselves against asbestos and dried bird faeces, which can cause a form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Some spaces are used by substance abusers, so care should also be taken to avoid the many syringes that can be found on floors and surfaces.

I started exploring the derelict buildings of Sheffield in 2011 and soon thereafter began photographing these incredible hidden spaces. At this time, there were only a handful of local people visiting them and there was little graffiti to be found. More recently, the forgotten walls have been given new life by some of Sheffield’s incredibly talented street artists, who provide a new and ever-changing experience for the urban explorer.

I’ve seen long-abandoned houses, schools, churches, factories, steelworks, hospitals and vast industrial areas, as well as some rather obscure places, each with its own beauty and fascinating history, often carrying the telltale signs of the people who once occupied them.

Each building is in its own unique state of decay and dereliction, with peeling paint, rusting metal and rotting wood which produce some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The smells you encounter are also quite intoxicating at times, like you get from old books and wooden toys. I’ve often spent hours absorbing the stillness, just meandering through these spaces or sitting reflecting on what once happened within.

My absolute favourite place was occupied from 1849 until it closed in 2003. The slowly decaying and hugely impressive building consists of many varied rooms, seemingly random in position and size, with many still containing traditional wooden cupboards, units and workspaces. Sitting in this space is peaceful yet saddening, that a once thriving company and all of its skilled workforce are gone. The place is now frozen in time, yet the busy work lives of the many employees seem to somehow echo throughout.

Shockingly, some locations have been burnt, plundered, trashed or simply left to deteriorate. Others have thankfully seen regeneration, but there are still too many that have become yet more trendy apartments.

The thoughtless sharing of place names and locations on social media, sometimes picked up by the national press, has had devastating results. These impressive places, once protected by the UE ethic of keeping names and locations out of the public domain, have been looted, vandalised and ultimately destroyed.

Sheffield has lost some magnificent pieces of architecture, as well as the history contained therein. There are still many amazing buildings that are full of charm and character, but they are at great risk of disappearing forever, which weighs heavily on my heart.

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