Long term urban explorer, computer programmer and Simple Minds fanatic, Simon Cornwell, September 2009

Author sophos9 - Last updated: 11.09.2009

September’s interview is with a long term urban explorer, computer programmer and Simple Minds fanatic, Simon Cornwell takes the chair with the Talk Urbex interview.

So strap up, grab a brew and get ready for Septembers GOTM!

So Simon, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself (career, interests etc)

I was a computer programmer for many years (I have a degree in Computer Science) but I became utterly disinterested and disheartened by the work: I was always creating novel and intelligent solutions to other people’s piss-poor decisions. So, rather than becoming an embittered coder, I gave up that career path. I’m now a freelance computer contractor and I’ve been working on a book about early video game technology. I hope to get the book published next year.
I’m also a huge fan of the band Simple Minds and have a website devoted to them. You can indirectly tell when the band is active (either through touring or a new album campaign) as urbex|uk will go quiet!
Because I’m older than the majority of urban explorers (I’m 40) then professional, domestic and family obligations mean I can’t explore as much as I’d like. I try to get out once a month but that’s proving difficult; it may herald a change in my explorations where I’ll do a limited number of sites in detail rather than a large number of sites fleetingly.

Your site has lots of writeups, can you share your best urban exploration experience and let us know why?

Cane Hill on the 13th July 2002. It was my first time inside an asylum and no pictures had been published of the Chapel, Administration and various wards. It really was groundbreaking. Andrew Tierney’s the_one website had been a huge influence, but his explorations had been more fleeting; the “Grand Tour” (as I published the exploration on my website) was far more methodical.

Special mention should also to my return to Cane Hill in 2008 where we finally got up the water tower. At that point, I felt I’d finally finished what I started; although it took five years of patient waiting!

What do you shoot and what’s your typical urbex lens selection?

My interest is the documentation of the buildings, so that requires a set of exterior shots and interior shots. I’m not a photographer nor artist, so I’m not really interested in macro photography, the contents of the buildings or the beauty of decay. I also believe for pictures to be of historical use they have to be well labeled; too many urban exploration sites are just collection of random, unlabelled shots. Time will tell if those collections are going to be of use in the future.

My manager used to work for a digital camera company and therefore got freebies from the firm. So I used to borrow the camera when urbexing. This was the early days of digital photography, and small memory cards, so the resolution of the early shots on the website is particularly bad. But that’s how it was back then.

I’ve been using an Olympus C8080 for several years; this was purchased before SLR digital cameras became the vogue. It does the job and is rugged enough to survive the various times I’ve dropped it or knocked it against things. Again, I’m not interested in the artistic side, and just need a shot to adequately show what a location looks like.

Do you prefer derelict hospitals/asylums or industrial and why?

Anything derelict interests me. I got the “asylum specialist” label as I realised this set of buildings were disappearing fast and they needed to be photographed. Once they’re gone, I’ll move onto something else. But, if you look at my website, there’s a wide range of buildings including military and industrial; and I hope to add some recreational sites to that list.

What got you into urban exploration?

It’s something I did as a child: exploring the local bomb shelters, wading up and down culverts and disappearing into tunnels. As I got older, I never lost my interest, but didn’t do much exploring in my teens and twenties: in those pre-Internet days, it was difficult finding anyone with a similar interest (if such people existed).

By the late 1990s, I discovered the vibrant scene in the USA on the Internet but there was very little devoted to the UK. I’d missed The Milk Crate Gang’s site (the first UK urbex site and shut down after a derogatory article in the local rag) but soon picked up on “the_one” (the seminal Cane Hill urban exploration site) and “The Shrine” (a celebration of the former Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital and a group of friends who used to explore it).

I was hooked again so published a tentative photographic walk around the perimeter of Cane Hill on my fledgling urban exploration website. That brought other explorers out of the woodwork, and my second phase of urban exploration began.

What’s the craziest/scariest experience when on a mission and what was it that spooked you?

Nothing really stands out. There’s always a moment during most explorations where a noise suddenly alarms you and everything changes. But I’ve tended to stick to sites with limited security so I’ve never had any problems with anyone, access etc.

So, what location is coming up on your next mission

That would be telling! But I’ve got lots to publish from my archive: the Warley photographs will be published soon (along with historical information about the hospital); a new Hellingly section will start documenting that asylum in detail; and the Cane Hill section will be rewritten, updated and improved.

The Hellingly section was prompted by a historian / urban explorer called Peter who’s collected a huge amount of information about various asylums. He’s got maps, plans, unpublished histories of the institution, photographs and the notes of the visiting committee (who originally specified the asylum). So I thought it’d be good to publish that.

But I’m aware that the website has an asylum bias and I hope to explore different genres this year. The next three explorations (“The Goldilocks Triumvitre” on the website) is the start and deals with greyhound racing tracks, old railway stations, derelict railway lines and deserted swimming pools.

Whats your recommendation on equipment to take on a mission?

I usually take two torches, water, something to eat, mobile phone, maps (if visiting a new location) and a digital camera; clothing includes old rough gear you don’t mind getting torn/dirty and big heavy boots. Never, ever take any tools, otherwise you could be charged with being equipped.

Finally, what is your recommendations to someone wanting to start urban exploring?

The first is “carpe diem” or “seize the day.” The locations we explore are in transition and will be demolished, vandalised or redeveloped; it will happen and it could happen tomorrow. So if you find yourself thinking “I’ve got to do that” or posting “I’ve got to get there” on a forum then stop and actually get out there and do it. Otherwise, you’ll miss the chance and you’ll always be kicking yourself.
As soon as Marlon (a fellow explorer) phoned me from the water tower at Cane Hill (a location which had been locked up for years), I was making arrangements to be there the next weekend. And I’m so pleased I did.

Just grab the opportunity and do it.

I would also urge anyone new to urban exploring to hook up with an experienced explorer for their first explorations. There are certain tricks of the trade (such as knowing where the joists are, keeping to the edges of rooms, noting where water drips through the ceiling and not standing under smashed skylights) which can be passed on quickly by an experienced urbexer.

And keep to the spirit of the motto: Leave only footprints, take only photographs. That one succinct phrase can keep you out of lots of trouble.

I would like to take a minute to thank Simon for the awesome interview and for sharing his experiences/thoughts with the Talk Urbex community

If you wish to contact Simon, you can do so through urbex:uk

Simon Cornwell was interviewed by sophos9, for more information please contact sophos9@talkurbex.com. No replication without prior permission.

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