For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep fascination with abandoned buildings. We even got married in an empty shell of a once grand stately home, with exposed brick, no electricity and crumbling floors. To many, it would have seemed like a nightmare venue, cold and unaccommodating. To us, it was an incredible blank canvas, ready to be dressed, lit and furnished however we liked. It was a bit like being little kids again, hiding under a blanket fort, inviting our own narratives.
I think that’s the thing about abandoned buildings, they’re a bit of a mystery. There’s a history to them, but they are open to interpretation. Your mind’s eye can drift over the crumbling stone and dark crevices and invent stories of how it may once have been lived in and loved.
I love how quickly nature swoops in and reclaims its territory once a building has been abandoned. It only takes a couple of years for ivy and lichens to form in the cracks and creep along the bricks and stones. Birds begin to nest, and small mammals might take refuge in the crevices. Some of us already witness this in still lived-in homes, with mice making homes under floorboards, and birds bringing up their young under our roof edges. They’re poised and ready, waiting for us to outgrow our architecture and move on to something new.
Abandoned spaces invoke a sense of fear in many, so it’s no great surprise that they are often the setting for horror movies or ghost walks. Peer into the windows of an abandoned hotel, or visit a long lost abbey after dark, and even the most rational amongst us might feel a little uneasy.
These places offer us a glimpse into another time, another world. With a world so saturated with cynicism and many things being firmly parked in one camp or another, these abandoned sites offer a fantasy space for us to fill in the gaps with our imagination. Sometimes, a bit of backstory can help to spur our fascination. Take for example, an abandoned hospital or psychiatric clinic. Just the knowledge of the types of events that would have previously taken place in this building will be enough to encourage us to invite wild narratives of the tortured souls who once inhabited these walls.
Tyneham Village in the county of Dorset was one of the most fascinating places we’ve visited, as this was not somewhere that people had chosen to abandon, and had wilted over time. Instead, the villagers of Tyneham were forced to leave their homes during WWII for the military to set up base.
The church and the school, two of the village’s main social gathering places, have been maintained as they were left when the villagers evacuated. A plea left on the church door in the form of a note asking the military to take care of the village as the inhabitants will return one day is all the more saddening. Other buildings have been stripped, damaged and left to decay.
Knowing that the people for whom these buildings were home were forced to leave against their will, for the sake of something as violent and brutal as war, only makes the ruins that much more poignant.
We find ourselves, when we visit ruined castles and homes, pointing out the old floor levels, and inventing stories of the servants and cooks who lived in the lower quarters. Images whirl around our mind, like a scene from a Disney film, turning back the clocks and rebuilding the bricks, breathing life back into the stones. Whilst I enjoy reading about the history of these old spaces, I often prefer to not know all of the detail. I prefer to leave some mystery intact so that I may invent my own history based on the shape of the doorways, or the colour of the stones.
That’s why I’m quite envious of people living in America. Out there, whilst driving for hours between states, we saw all kinds of abandoned farms, towns and barns, just left to rot where they stood. Here in the UK, where space is a premium, that is a rare sight.
The buildings that we tend to leave abandoned, without knocking them down, are the castles and stately homes, many of which too famous to be able to guess at any of the goings-on within them – we already know it all. I’d love to discover more of the smaller abandoned spaces, the ones that are a total mystery, so that I may dream up my own histories.
So next time you come across an abandoned space, enjoy the moment that you have in it, and invent those stories. Live like a child in a blanket fort again.
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