Of the whole European road-trip, there was one site in particular I was ridiculously excited to see. In terms of exploring a building that you would not normally get to see, it does not get much better than a full-blown prison. The irony of spending weeks researching and planning how we were to get into the place was also beautifully ironic.
Right up until the night before, we were weighing up the viability of driving to France and using up a valuable (in urban exploring terms) early morning for this place. Our local contacts gave conflicting reports regarding the current state of play here and, while we were immensely grateful to have such information, we saw it as a gamble. Would we get inside? Would we get there and find it sealed? Would we bump into unfriendly locals? Sometimes, when the prize is grand enough, it’s worth taking the gamble.
And, so, we got up early in the morning after not nearly enough sleep and set off towards France. As we did an initial drive past the grounds surrounding the prison we saw our biggest potential problem – a camp (or should I say, shanty town) of literally hundreds of caravans, tents and tarpaulins. Right at the front gates of the prison – a giant mass of travellers. When I say that they posed a potential problem, rest assured this is not some hasty generalisation. Far from it. As I say, we had been doing quite a bit of research about this place and there were numerous accounts explorers being confronted by those from the camp who were liberating the valuable material throughout the prison.
On top of all this, there were also reports that the prison was frequented by the local police for live firearms training! If nothing else, this was to be a little more exciting than your average Sunday morning.
We parked up and met up with a couple of explorers who had travelled down from Holland to spend the day exploring with us. In such a niche pastime it’s always nice to meet like-minded folk to share stories and tips. It’s also very nice indeed when they bring a massive delicious apricot pie to share amongst the group. I fully support this becoming a regular form of exchange when meeting up! Anyhow, we all exchanged greetings and introductions and set off into the unknown.
As it happened, our worst fears were thankfully unfounded. Making our way inside, we soon found ourselves in the grand dechagonal central hall. Looking up, the ceiling was surprisingly grand for such a utilitarian building. Squint and you could almost have been in a cathedral – albeit a high-security cathedral with one of the country’s most dangerous congregations.
Leaving the central hall, I ventured out into one of the large wings of cells. Despite the decay and the graffiti there was no mistaking what this place was for. Few buildings are as instantly recognisable. The rows of closely spaced, heavy metal doors with the tiny viewing windows. The railings and, looking down past them, the netting stretching across the central gap – to catch any thrown projectiles, I would assume. There really was no mistaking where we were and what this building was only a few short years ago.
Little clues as to the lives of those incarcerated here were dotted about the place. Walls were decorated with magazine cut-outs of fast cars and bikini-clad women. It only takes small details such as this to pull you straight into the world of the cell’s final occupant. As I examined the pictures and stared out the small window at the bleak view outside, I was met with a strange kind of empathy for the unknown occupant. It was futile, I know, but I wanted to know more. What was his name? His crime? Did his family visit him often? How did he feel to be waking up inside this room day after day? I would never have my answers but just immersing myself in his cell brought these questions into sharp focus.
As I explored further into the prison, I found myself moving away from the rest of the group exploring on my own along corridors which had the sunlight boarded out. I made my way carefully through pitch black jungles of uprooted cables and collapsed ceiling supports. Once I found the sanctuary of sunlight I gathered myself and gauged where about I was. I looked around and peered out the window.
I had been happily ambling along towards the very front of the prison. Meaning I now found myself, alone and out of earshot, right next to Traveller City and with a load of valuable equipment. This was not at all part of the plan. I don’t usually worry too much about the ever-present possibility of running into unfriendly scrap thieves in a derelict building – but then, I would not normally be alone, and would not normally have the language barrier to contend with…and there would not normally be 500 of them parked next door!
I froze and trained my ears on any noises I could make out. Was anyone else inside the building at this end? Is that the noise of footsteps or chains banging in the wind? What was that loud popping sound? Wait, there it was again! Is that…it’s bloody gunfire! Jesus! What have I gotten myself into?
Adrenaline levels at 11, I quickly made my way through the front section of the prison. It seemed to be made up of a mixture of kitchens, administration, medical rooms and shower blocks. I tried to get a few interesting photos but have to admit I was more than a little distracted by the gunfire and threat of angry scrap thieves around every corner. My fight or flight response was pushing increasingly towards the flight end of the spectrum…and it was awesome.
I have said it before but it bares repeating – this is the sole reason I don’t get too excited by computer games any more. They just seem a bit pointless when you can actually do this stuff for real. Bollocks to paint-ball and the like too – if you want to feel a genuine rush of exhilaration, as far as I am concerned, you need genuine danger. Not a sanitised, watered down version mass-produced for the XBox or organised for corporate teambuilding events.
I find too much of today’s society is risk-assessed and we have gotten to the point where there is an unwritten contract within society whereby we expect danger should simply not exists – anywhere. I disagree with that at a very fundamental level. Genuine danger is useful, it’s character building, it’s exciting, it trains you to think hard about problems since there is no safety net.
Anyhow, checking the time I realised I should be getting back to meet the others. I made my way back retracing my steps back to the front door, back along the dark treacherous corridor and back to the atrium. Or at least, that was the idea. However, once I got back to the barred gates to the atrium I found they were locked. I could have sworn I came through this gate to get in. Maybe it was via one of these side rooms! Yeah that was it….or not – none seemed to lead anywhere. As I searched for the way back I began to get increasingly concerned. I had no intention whatsoever of becoming locked inside a disused prison.
I put down my things, turned the torch back on and tried to take stock. I was relieved to see there was a single bar missing near the base of the gate. It certainly was not how I had gotten into the corridor and it would be a squeeze but it would do. So, I forced my podgey torso through the gap and dragged my camera and bag after me. I found the others who were setting up for the obligatory group shots.
We took a few final shots around what appeared to be the high-security isolation wing as we reluctantly drifted towards the exit. It was very difficult to drag ourselves away as there was clearly so much more we simply had not had the time to see but, the schedule had already been agreed and there was plenty more to see and it was already the afternoon so we bid the place ‘au revoir’.