The Winchester

"Not all those who wander are lost" – Tolkien

Prohobohemia 3.4

with one comment

August 2010

One more left, then I’ll finally stop writing about this trip! Again, written from the road. The best bits are fueled by some 500ml bottles of Becks. Happy days. I write a lot because I think the trip was significant in a number of ways in terms of how I view ‘Urbex’ and the lifestyles we adopt to fulfil our aspirations within our means. Hopefully this will make sense.

[At ETAP, 2nd August 2010]

Against our original aspirations, we’ve finally checked into a hotel out of choice, not neccesity. The weather today was hot enough to make us sweat profusely in Kaserne Krampnitz, but as night fell, the heavens opened. When we left the roadside café at half-eleven, it was unrelenting. We’d discussed several options for sleeping arrangements, which included sleeping under a motorway bridge or finding a forest deep enough for the canopy to protect us from rainfall, but obviously none of them yielded. We’re close to the city of Dessau, and Etap provided us with somewhere to charge our camera batteries and those metaphorical ones powering ourselves on this inescapably long trip.

‘Kaserne Krampnitz’

I feel we’re almost becoming more interested in the experience of living on the road than we are the ‘exploring’, per se. We have a pre-prescribed list of destinations and a rough route. Our carelessly prepared itinerary has a plan for each day, which we have rarely deviated from. Our printed maps are assisted by access to online services such as Google Earth and maps, and when we couldn’t access these services due to the networks, we skipped sites. Again I feel my planning and preparation has fallen short, but also our diligence and rigidity has removed us from the carefree travel we aspire to. Perhaps arriving on the continent with no sites in mind, and just visiting several major cities to genuinely explore would produce a more ‘valid’ experience.

‘Searching for Something’

Our first real deviation from the usual ‘prohobo’ of a room in a derelict structure was a clearing in the forests of Poland. The following night we crossed the border back into Germany and slept on a hill at a rasthof on the autobahn. We all slept well on the grass, and woke with the sunrise. The following night we slept at Vogelsang, and the night after this we slept in another roadside ditch. I’ve wondered about how to hone this experience down to basics and feel that we could take a kit of a sleeping bag and camera (just to record the journey), and use our wits to keep us going for whatever duration we chose. Upon discussion with Brad, the idea of an Iphone to take video and photos, and submit directly from public wifi access is a better one, although how many tramps have you seen with an Iphone?

[Etap is of course a step back from these ideologies; the weather is an obstacle that we often ignore in our centrally heated homes and it has been easy to forget on this trip. Sweaty and humid days have given us the freedom to sleep with the stars – this trip in the winter would be much harder.]

‘Einslife Bedroom

In December we ventured on a trip which became to be known within the group as Einslife. For 6 nights we slept in a variety of derelict rooms, twice in hospitals, and once each in a hotel, exhibition centre, cinema and a school. The majority of nights were uncomfortable but I feel now that the duration of the trip combined with the bitter cold weather made it more of an achievement, if we’re talking in those terms.

This trip is an endurance mission. We listed close on 50 sites to visit, traveling across 7 countries. The tripometer sits at about 2,500km and we’re still in the east of Germany. Just to get home is roughly another 1000. The vast majority of hot food has been prepared on open fires which have served to provide evening warmth when the sun goes down. On Einslife we made regular stops at service stations to eat hot meals.

I think we’ve hit a wall of some kind. The last 9 days have been a great adventure, deviating from ‘trad’ urbex, towards legend tripping into an alternative lifestyle aspiration. We’ve stopped at riverbanks to swim and wash ourselves, we’ve tramped to a certain degree and we’ve settled into an irregular routine. We’ve visited a number of closed Soviet bases (the number escapes me at the time of writing) and the Cyrillic newspapers lining the walls have become almost as much part of the furniture as the peeling paint and smashed windows.

‘Part of the Wallpaper’

Without really planning to, this trip appears to have become a mission to delve into the remains of the Soviet occupation of both Poland and East Germany. We’ve seen so many bases that they seem to blend into one. Gotha was the first base, and we spent maybe an hour wandering the corridors, photographing the newspaper linings on the walls, the stark corridors and the gated doorways. By the time we hit Sperenberg, this design of building was so commonplace that we ignored many like these, as well as other things to see that might attract attention in the UK.

‘More of the same’

After waking up at the services on the E28 motorway, we got going again to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp north of Berlin that had had 130,000 women passed through it, of which 40,000 survived. There’s not a great deal left of Ravensbruck, but a memorial is in place, with the date of the Soviet Liberation.

‘Glory. on 28th April 1945, concentration camp Ravensbruck was liberated by soldiers and officers of the Red Army

‘Accommodation’

Having seen what there was to see at this rather sobering site, we left for Vogelsang, driving through the town of Havel on the way. We saw a chateau sat in a state and investigated, finding something under renovation.

Faded grandeur

Chateaux

Vogelsang was a site that we’d visited in December. On a whim, we followed some co-ordinates passed on by CmdrCord, which led to a vast Soviet base with large murals and reliefs depicting various Soviet symbols and characters. We spent no more than an hour here before the sun fell, but saw a cultural centre, a school, a gymnasium and several accommodation blocks. Having looked at a map of the site we realised we only tickled the site in terms of the buildings we could visit and as such, we factored in a visit on this trip too.


‘Meeting Needs’

We arrived early afternoon, our heavy rucksacks containing sleeping gear, grills to cook on, beers, food and a bottle of port. We spent a couple of hours exploring, then sat on the balcony of the cultural centre drinking beer and discussing various obscure scenarios relating to the future of the site. In one building we were bemused to find a team of geo-cachers going about their business, our conversation consisting only of how odd both our activities can appear.

[“You come to derelict buildings to take photos?!”]

Soon after we resurrected a previously used fire circle and built a large fire using wood found in the forests; supports for the grill came from tumbled masonry. The hot food was both welcome and excellent, and as the sun came down the fire was fed with more wood to keep it burning. The alcohol ran out and we went to sleep in a room above.

Parched and exhausted

When we awoke we were parched and the remaining water was guzzled like vultures attack a corpse. We set off across the site only to find much of the northern side demolished. The other accommodation blocks were largely bare, only the odd item of interest remained. We were all disappointed and returned to our bedroom. The rains came down heavily; we ventured on. A carton of orange juice was rapidly devoured at the car; the geo-cachers had written their name in the dirt on our rear windscreen.

We moved on to central Berlin, with an old swimming pool in mind. It was being squatted, as far as we could tell: Still totally derelict, bedraggled Germans came and went, acting suspiciously. We chose not to interrupt, respecting their occupancy of the premises in the way we would hope to be treated should our accommodation be uncovered one night.

KGB

KGB Karlshorst was being stripped, the former HQ of the secret police also being the largest intelligence centre in Germany during Soviet occupation. Dissapointingly familiar [How many rooms can you see on a tour of decay?], the best bit of this site was the former auditorium, and interview rooms where suspects were no doubt tortured [not looking to glorify the activities of the KGB. Throughout history the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ switch sides. History is written by the victors, our view of history is found through the remains we see]

‘More Stairs and corridors’

More visitors came and went while we were there, again a sign of ‘casual urbex’, or ‘walking around derelictions without giving it a faddish name or partaking in online communities’

“Documenting Decay”

Falkenhagen was a great site that had a lot of promise. We arrived at dusk and caught the last few rays of light, parking outside the entrance. It looked as if the grounds were in use, but as it was late on a Sunday it just didn’t matter. Firstly the gymnasium was decorated with more motivational murals.

‘Something Bunkery’

Falkenhagen had a complex of bunkers built to develop chemical weapons during the run-up to the Second World War. We didn’t see many of these, instead delving around in the twilight in the surface structures. Despite the promise we had for Falkenhagen, it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. We entered several staircases that led down, but we didn’t see the huge chambers we were expecting. Part of the problem with a massive tour of decay is that you reach saturation point; essentially, we got a little bored. We spent too much time looking for derelictions, went in a large number of buildings that were very similar, and ended up really just enjoying each others company and the experience of travel.

Berlin Roofers

An excellent night’s sleep in a ditch awaited us; a trucker came by to take a shit next to us soon after we bedded down, but departed when he saw we were there. we moved on to the Barenquell brewery and took some photos of this distinctly average site, after bumping into some gents on the way out. Breakfast was a feast of bread rolls, cake and beer, one stoned old German boy making bizarre conversations with Brad about LA.

Missed

We took the 45 minute drive out to The Olympic Village, as touristy urbex as you can get. The swimming pool celebrated in pics by others was undergoing renovation and we crept in, only getting bellowed at by some guard on a bicycle, who didn’t appreciate us having a long jump competition in the training pit either. We dispersed and made our own way around the site, the giant blocks of flats at the far end a remain of the days of Soviet occupation.

Tourist

Following Krampnitz, we moved to Sperenberg, another base we chose on the back of a small image of a MIG on Panoramo, an invaluable source. Once over the fence and along the long path, we heard dogs barking angrily and decided to go up one of the buildings to see what we could see. Given the overgrown nature of the site and the conifers hiding everything, we just pushed on. The light was fading and the air moist, the best thing about Sperenberg was the sheer atmosphere. Germany is rife with ruins like these, not just individual, but small military towns hidden down muddy tracks, behind gates chained long ago. These will fade.

Reclaimed

Altes Lager was another base on the list, but was skipped as it was dark when we would have got there. We contemplated going there to sleep but for some reason left it, instead driving back to the west past Beelitz, which frustrated Gary immensely. That night we checked into Etap, telling the check-in machine that the room was for a sole occupant but cramming 4 people in. The shower and soft bedding that night was a fantastic luxury.

The next morning we awoke with the rain on the windows and left for Magdeberg, to a factory complex we had listed as Schwermaschinenbau, which translates as “Heavy Engineering”. The factory itself no doubt has a sensible name, but we didn’t care. To us, this place was Schwermaschinenbau.

Desolate

Evidently a substantial factory at one point, the remains were vast rooms supported by metal struts, light pouring in from the ceilings. Other buildings on the site had been demolished, and the site was decaying somewhat. As Gary stated, it was similar to the remains pictured in ‘Detroit Disassembled’, a book featuring the famous American automotive city that’s faded in the last 40 years or so. The factory was impressive in it’s size, and would satisfy many a photographer.


Ruins

Motivated by the result a scant piece of research had thrown at us, we moved on eagarly to Hillersleben, the final military base we had to hit. Hot food in foil containers sat in a polystyrene box outside the front gate, and a German flag flew from the gatehouse. We climbed the fence.

Murals

Propaganda

Hillersleben was one of the better bases, the bas relief and murals above just a fraction of what was available. On returning home I discovered there was a hospital as well, which we had missed. The failure to completely explore had perhaps taught us that instead of cramming 50 sites into two weeks, it would be best to concentrate on maybe 2 sites a day and spend longer in each.

The Stubenberg Holiday Home was firmly secured, but from looking through the windows, it wouldn’t have been of great interest anyway. You never know. We drove to Albrechtshaus, a hospital that closed when East and West Germany were re-united.

Another ruin, add to the list.

As impressive this looks from the outside, it’s haunted house chic isn’t replicated within The buildings have been stripped but for a lonely chair residing in a corridor, and the rooms are all empty. The verandah on the second floor offers excellent views of the valleys below, a reminder of a time when medical care was very different, the focus of fresh air being an apparent healer of Tuberculosis.

I think we slept in the ditch this night, a German truck driver came over to have a poo but we caught him, so he stopped and left.

Climb those headstocks!

Headstocks were hunted the next morning and arrived at, some were inaccessible due to workers or no obvious physical access. We did these ones though, which contained some interesting mining paraphenalia. The room below was quite big. We were quite tired.

Dead

We ended the trip as we started it. A high-tempo, more risky explore. No complaints from anybody, but it seemed that we were mentally somewhat less prepared than we would have been had we started the trip with this site. To enter, one must abseil down a 30 metre shaft. To exit, the rope must be ascended. We entered at about 1am, and quickly made our way into the tunnels. Chris had twisted his ankle earlier on the trip and felt this would be a bridge too far, so we agreed we’d spend an hour and a half in the network and then ascend back up.

Finale

We rushed our way around the system, taking in two stations and two sections of tunnel. Antwerp had built an obscure double decker system which served only to confuse. Leaving was difficult, I probably wouldn’t rush back, but I’m glad I did it.

We drove straight to HH3, a hospital named with the usual European trend of withholding information. Unspectacular, modern and largely uninteresting, it made me wonder why such regard was given to it’s secrecy. We were in no mood to take pics of lonely chairs or corridors, so sat down and rested while the ever energetic Gary did.

Tired from 12 days of almost ceaseless tramping, we retired to the car and slept in a supermarket carpark in provincial France, before catching an earlier ferry home.

——————–

Writing 6 months down the line, I look back fondly on this trip for a number of reasons. It’s the longest trip we’ve taken yet, and it was taken at a significant intensity. We ventured to a new country and saw places that we knew nothing about. Essentially, we pushed the boat out and were rewarded through our experiences. The unease of driving into Poland followed by the comfort of hot food on a fire, the isolation of camping in the woods near Kyzneca Lesna, and in Vogelsang, Bumping into Dutch, Belgian and German explorers who were stunned at the scale of our trip, and realising ourselves towards the end the realities of the mission that we’d embarked on

Travel is something I’m aspiring to more and more, but travel on my own terms and not constrained by hotel bookings and car hire. As a group, we want to hitch and tramp more, push ourselves, hop trains, challenge the norms and see how far we go.

As Summer ’11 bears down on us, the plans are coming together for another trip or two, with several countries/regions being considered. We’re looking to go east, meet other explorers in these areas and explore the subterrannea where possible too.  In the meantime, pushing the boat out in London will have to do!

Winch (2011)

Written by Winch

February 9th, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Roadtrips

Tagged with Brad, Chris, Gary

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  1. […] in. As such, I tend to avoid interactions like this, my preferred form of edgework consisting of roughing it round the continent chasing Soviet derps guarded by angry […]

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