PCA student Thomas Loveder takes us on an Urbex journey through an old department store in Plymouth’s city centre.
Through PCA’s creative advertising campaign using the old Derry’s shopping centre window displays, I was granted access into the building for the sole purpose of setting up and making repairs for said displays. From being personally overwhelmed with what was once such a busy and bustling space to this now eerie place, I knew I had to get more time there ‘off the clock’ from my student ambassador duties to look around.
One of the main focuses for my curiosity was an open manhole with a ladder descending into utter darkness. My student ambassador colleagues were also curious but not enough to kill the cat, so this gave me the opportunity to explore and share what others did not have the tenacity to do.
The ladder didn’t have any clear warnings on entry other than the encompassing abyss below, so I made sure to bring a torch along with me on the next visit knowing full well I’d of been kicking myself hard if I hadn’t.
On entering into the hole I found myself in a narrow maintenance shaft below the ground floor that stretched further than my torch beam could light, with sharp turns that only suggested I’d stepped into a horror movie – ‘turn back or face your fears’. One corridor of this shaft was flooded in places higher than my shin – unequipped with my Nike hightops I had to leave the stagnant pool untraversed and turn back to higher ground.
After returning for one final time as a Student Ambassador and hearing that we would no longer be returning back to use the space I decided it was time to act as photographer and explorer, so I put forward the query to the long term security guard as to whether he would grant me access. To my excitement he allowed me the access but under the conditions that I properly arrange a day so not to interfere with any of the undergoing works for the redevelopment. Now filled with ample amounts of excitement with the prospect of fulfilling my curiosities needs I realised that I couldn’t possibly keep this experience all to myself, so with this I contacted a fellow budding photographer, Brett Lockwood, to which the enthusiasm I had felt was instantly reflected back in his response.
Upon arrival at Derry’s we greeted the security guard and briefly discussed the do’s and don’ts of what to do and where to go but this was under the assumption and intention that we were only going to stick to the ground and lower floors. At this point it was made very clear that there was a presence of asbestos and we were advised against continuing on with our plan. However, with already being wholeheartedly focused on returning to the tunnel we expressed our appreciation but ultimately disregard for his warnings and the known potential health implications.
Entering the shaft I was immediately greeted by the familiar musty, stale air along with a new level of caution towards the settled dust. Soon we had found ourselves back at the threshold of murky chemically sheened water and I was quick to discover that my wellingtons weren’t quite as waterproof as I had hoped, with already having an heightened sense of caution towards the asbestos this soggy sock did not bode well for my nerves. As exciting as the shaft was we were quick find that around the sharp bends of mystery there were actually quite abrupt ends of disappointment. This disappointment quelled by the nagging voice wanting to retreat from an enclosed, unventilated and contaminated space led us back out into the vast emptiness of the ground shopping floor.
Step by step we explored, turning objects, opening cupboards and step by step it seemed a strange mix of memory and curiosity had taken over. Not wanting to get into trouble or to cause the security guard any unnecessary grievances we racked our brains for the do’s and don’ts that seem to be left behind down the shaft. Our conclusion was that the utmost rule was to ensure if we open a door we must close it behind us due to the security system not being full circuit when doors get left ajar. Having this new directive we set out into the centre, dubiously opening doors with no noticeable effect we found ourselves within a time capsule, an endless playground of nostalgia and trinquetes from a time in all of our not too distant memory.
We ended up lost in a euphoria of exploration finding some truly stunning areas in both lighting and composition to photograph, going through a two floor hairdressers with equipment still intact giving the feel that people could of been there only yesterday. Other areas were back rooms of shops, staff areas as well as locker rooms and corridors of conference spaces, by this point we had explored way beyond what we had originally intended but without any obvious signs or alarms we continued on.
It wasn’t until we decided to leave and return to the ground floor that we discovered in actual fact we had been going through numerous alarmed doors creating quite a level of mischief for the poor security guard, but assured him that although our memory had lapsed on the parameters of our venture the need for every door to be shut behind us remained a strong a vital engagement with the space.