I lay awake last night, staring through my skylight at Shrewsbury chimney pots. I’d been shown some photos the evening before, and my head was still full of them. At the beginning of the year I said I wanted to get behind Shrewsbury’s closed doors and find the town that many of us don’t see. Well those photographs were that, writ large.
If you google ‘urban exploring’ you’ll discover how those photographs were taken. There are urban explorers all over the world in all its major cities and, yes, they’re here in Shrewsbury too. We might think Papua New Guinea is the zenith of what exploring is all about, but to an urban explorer Shrewsbury’s rooftops and undercrofts are as exciting as any jungle.
I know this because one of them came to see me a few weeks ago. It was he who came back last night to show me his photographs. He’d heard about my blog, especially my interest in the town’s history, and wanted to talk about the lives that had been lived here before us. The way he saw it, Shrewsbury was a succession of secret worlds whose remains had been left behind, and were out there still waiting to be discovered.
Those rumours of passageways I’d mentioned, for example, in the ‘My Enid Blyton Moment In A Carpet Shop’ post – did I reckon they were still there, running between the castle and the old school? And that archway in the sandwich shop, which had once been called the Jersey Gate - what was that all about? And look at this photo of a plaque, which had been found at the bottom of a flight of steps, half-hidden underground. A beautiful thing like that – where did it come from, and what was it doing down there out of sight? And that bird-scarer on top of Princess House where nobody could see it but a passing urban explorer – who had put it there? And what about the owl on top of the Music Hall – it might be in plain view, but who in Shrewsbury ever looked up and saw it?
In fact, who in Shrewsbury ever looked up?
By coincidence, I'm currently reading the science fiction crime novel, ‘The City & the City’, by author China Mieville. Its two separate cities, trained to unseeingly inhabit the same space, seem in certain aspects not unlike my visitor’s Shrewsbury. What in our Shrewsbury is the High Street, in his townscape is simply 'the practice run'. And what he and other urban explorers might refer to as ‘the rat run’ the rest of us know as Pride Hill.
All Shrewsbury’s public buildings have been scaled apparently - and not only under cloak of darkness, as last night’s photographs attest. Of course this is total craziness. A health & safety nightmare at the very least. Just because I’m writing about this, don’t for one minute think I reckon it’s a good idea. And don’t – MOST DEFINITELY - try this yourselves.
Why would anybody want to scale drainpipes, traverse rooftops or head into the darkness underground? I put this to my visitor last night. ‘Most people’s lives are lived inside a box,’ he said. ‘For them, a drainpipe is for channeling rainwater, not scaling. But if they lived outside the box, they’d see a drainpipe as an opportunity. There’d be no barriers in their brains.’ It was back to China Mieville again.
Never mind the barriers, I thought - what about the ethics of scaling other people’s buildings as a form of recreation? Urban exploring, it seemed, took living outside the box into some tricky areas. There was a distinct code, my visitor insisted - one that every true urban explorer adhered to rigorously. No domestic buildings [so your houses are safe]. No break-ins [so your shops are safe]. No taking anything [so we’re all safe]. Move in silence. Leave as you find. Or, as he put it, quoting a well-worn slogan: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints behind.
My visitor came across as a thoughtful, intelligent and serious-minded man. In his spare time he was writing, acting in and shooting films. He wanted to make something of his life, he said. He didn’t want to waste it. He was full of curiosity, and a strange sort of courage. Whatever I might think of the wisdom of streaming over rooftops unharnessed and uncrash-helmeted, and creeping underground, I have to admire the courage, tenacity and sheer spirit of adventure that this enterprise entailed. This is my town as much as anybody else's, my visitor seemed to say [which is why he deserves his place in this blog], but it’s mine in my own particular way.
Look out for him tonight - not on the rooftops or underground, but in the Yorkshire House or one of Shrewsbury’s other pubs celebrating Verbantine’s [no, not Valentine’s] Day. Verbantine’s Day is for people who aren’t afraid to be alone. ‘We as individuals have the power to decide whether or not our lives are enjoyable,’ said my visitor, who’d been celebrating on this date since 2009 when Verbantine’s Day was inaugerated. ‘Any love interest is just a bonus. The 14th February shouldn’t just be amazing for lovers. It should be amazing for everybody.’