Extreme Urban Explorers

Matthew Power profiles the urban explorer movement known as Urbex, whose followers “over several years had infiltrated an astonishing array of off-limits sites above and below London and across Europe: abandoned Tube stations, uncompleted skyscrapers, World War II bomb shelters, derelict submarines, and half-built Olympic stadiums”:

They had commandeered (and accidentally derailed) an underground train of the now defunct Mail Rail, which once delivered the Royal Mail along a 23-mile circuit beneath London. They had pried open the blast doors of the Burlington bunker, a disused 35-acre subterranean Cold War-era complex that was to house the British government in the event of nuclear Armageddon. The London crew’s objective, as much as any of them could agree on one, was to rediscover, reappropriate, and reimagine the urban landscape in what is perhaps the most highly surveilled and tightly controlled city on earth.

Power tagged along with some of them to scale Notre Dame Cathedral in the middle of the night:

I passed so closely by a carved gargoyle I could see the furrows of its brow, could almost smell its breath. Atop the first roof we found ourselves in a long gallery of flying buttresses, which spanned outward like the landing struts of some alien spacecraft. Each buttress framed a fifty-foot arched stained-glass window, darkened from within, and as we climbed to the next level, I pulled myself up next to one. I spun slowly on the rope, and for a heart-stopping instant my shoulder rested gently against the glass. I was so close I could see the seams of lead that connected the thousands of pieces of colored glass, the end result of centuries of labor at the hands of nameless artisans. I felt in that moment I would rather fall than damage it.

(Photo: “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” by Dan Foy)