Giving Tours of Abandoned Places with James Kerwin
This week on the No Tracers podcast I am joined by urban explorer and tour guide, James Kerwin! James hosts tours around the world to give people access to some absolutely incredible ruins and abandoned places. He does urban exploration a bit differently than most of us. Check this episode out and follow James' journey below!
Welcome back to the No Tracers podcast. All about urban exploration. What's up guys. My name is K Enagonio. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of No Tracers, the podcast where every week, I have a different guest on to talk about their urban exploration stories. And this week on the podcast, I'm super stoked to talk to you, James Kerwin from the UK, this guy, not only does he explore abandoned places, but he also got, he's a tour guide. He gives tours to people around the world to go visit different ruins and different abandoned places. And he, most, most of the time gets permission to do this kind of stuff. So we're going to be diving into that. And I'm super excited for you guys to hear this episode, but before we get started, I need to let you know, your girl has a book out called No Tracers, an urban explorers diary.
It's a coffee table, photo book, full of photos and stories from my urban explorations all across the United States. Some explorations in Portugal and Canada. So if you guys want to check that out, you can head to No Tracers dot com slash shop. And if you want to support this podcast and all the content that I create, I have a Patrion patrion.com/just the letter. K. You can check out all the links down to the description. There are also a bunch of affiliate links for things like gear that I think would help you explore better backpacks, lights, all kinds of stuff, camera gear, bunch of things that I think you guys could get use out of, down in the description. So make sure you guys check that stuff out and I have to say huge.
0 (1m 32s):
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0 (2m 32s):
All right. So without further ado, let's jump into this episode of the No Tracers podcast with James Kerwin, James, please introduce yourself. And what it is you do to the No Tracers audience.
2 (2m 42s):
Yeah. My name is James Kerwin, obviously, and I'm British guy later is now, but I'm from originally from Norwich and the United Kingdom. But since January of 2019, I've actually been on the road full time. So we actually, myself and my partner, Jay, to actually left the UK to sort of basically travel and be based in cheaper destinations around the world to assist in finding document. And then, and obviously I'm running trips and stuff. That is what I've been doing in off the beaten path destinations over the last few months since start 2019. Really. So yeah, I hope that this all covers it.
2 (3m 22s):
I've broad subject range, but I'm off the beaten path and hidden architecture and abandoned stuff is certainly right up my street.
0 (3m 31s):
So let's go back a little bit and tell me how you first got into exploring. How did you catch this bug?
2 (3m 38s):
It's actually all the way back to 2013. So quite a, quite a while back now, I actually, it was started in the local, Norfolk's quite a remote area, so there's not actually a lot there. And I ended up actually finding articles online asylums. We used to have loads of them in the UK abandoned, you know, sanatoriums and asylums. And there was one actually down in Essex in Colchester called several asylum. And I remember seeing an article online about it, and I was living with two of my really good friends at the time. So I went home that night and sort of shared stories of what each scene on the internet. And it kind of grew from there really, it took a while to, to brave going out, but early part of very late 2013 and early 2014 is when it really sort of kicked off in terms of going out and actually started shooting.
2 (4m 26s):
But 20, I wouldn't say the first place as a worth worth talking about. I mean, it's a, it's a rural area like Norfolk farmland. So a lot of the stuff there is old farm houses and you know, this kinda stuff. So it's nothing to write home about and hence the, hence the need for travel a lot when you're, when you're someone like from that neck of the woods, you know, it's probably the similar to you guys in the states. You have to travel to get the good stuff, you know?
0 (4m 53s):
Yeah, definitely. I'm personally in California right now and I've been to, you know, all the abandoned stuff around the area. And so we now have to like travel outside of the state really to go mostly over to the east coast to find all the good stuff, you know, cause it's been around longer than the west coast has. So yeah, I can totally understand the need to travel. So tell me about several is asylum a little bit more, I'm checking it out right now on line. I'm looking at the photos of it and personally asylums and abandoned churches are my favorite things to explore. So, so bring me in to this asylum. Tell me a little bit about it. If you know some of the history that would be really cool.
2 (5m 30s):
Yeah. It's actually demolished. Now it's actually been turned into housing. It's turned about sort of end of 2017. It actually got, so it, it was a long process and it was guarded for quite some time and it was one of them ones, you know, sometimes when something's really close to your house, this was about an hour from Norridge. I didn't actually venture there for co from, for a while because it was notorious for security and what's one point sort of all the way back 2010, it was wide open. But yeah, by, by 20 13, 14, it was certainly guardian. He was all right, nice friendly guy. But he used to just turf you out. And it was a very long walk round. The thing about this sanatoriums or to not sound so much to the asylums and in the UK, they used to be huge plots.
2 (6m 14s):
So this one in particular was 300 plus acres, a massive site, sprawling corridors, like all from center. Like, I mean, it's calm, it's hard to explain to me, you got to Clocktower in center and an off of it, there was just, you know, tens of corridors and you could easily get lost if you didn't know your way around. And that was this, the advantage the security guy had really, because he knew it. He knew it from the back of his hand. And if you were new and you'd jumped the fence and got in there. Yeah. Wouldn't last long. That was, that was just the thing of it, you know, but it was a, it wasn't, it was quite samey. You like a lot of the, by the time I actually visited it, you know, it was kind of very samey. A lot of the corridors look quite samey, but you know, it was one of those Memorial sites.
2 (6m 57s):
You can certainly get some amazing footage. If you were going through cold off to corridor. If you went on there on a rainy day, for instance, you can get some amazing reflection shots and stuff like this. So it's one of those places, you know, when it was same of asylum as you'd get it in the morning, nice light, it looks different to when it's an overcast and sort of moody day. Yeah. It's the coal side, but I wouldn't say it was in the best to conditions by the time I got there, but it's a very old, I mean, on most of this stuff in obviously to the UK at that time that was abandoned, the asylums and stuff were pretty old. We're talking sort of late 18th, early 19th century. Some of them that particular, what I'm sure is is late 18th, but it would have changed quite a bit, you know, and now, cause it was a local asylum and you'd always find somebody who's to work there or used to sort of like go there as a kid or my girlfriend actually grew up next door to it.
2 (7m 52s):
So she used to jump the fence and going off of like, you know, smoking there with a friend's drink, some beers are on a Saturday night because it back to then it was easy. You know, if you were growing up in the area that was like your local horn, you know, but it took some more braving for us to actually cause myself and Adam, a guy that I went with for the first time here, we drove down from Norridge, but it took quite some time to, to, to sort of brave it because of that whole knowing, you know, just to dig under the fence and get to get in that way. Cause it used to have this Palisade fence and you know, and it was either over and hurt yourself or, or under. So it used to be under and the easiest way. And then eventually they put up a second row of Palisades you to have to do it twice.
2 (8m 32s):
I was just going to say, UK is quite difficult to be the tutorials for it is, is probably similar to the east coast for you guys. There's some places that really are hard, you know, and that was definitely by the end. That was definitely one of them. So, and then about 2018, yeah. The, the builders had completely stripped to it. Or I think the only things left now are probably the cocktail tower and some, the houses are very expensive there, but it's yeah, it was a, it's a cool one. There was a few like it in the UK, which of them I think, or M one up north, there was a famous ones down south as well, but I was quite late to this item's I'd say for the peak in the UK, they were probably 2009, 10.
2 (9m 16s):
I would say it was probably the years to be doing the UK ones, you know, as 2014 was probably prime for Italy. So it was different, you know, we at to quickly jump on a plane if we wanted to get the best, the best asylums, but there were certainly amazing, you know, you could spend 10 hours, 13 hours, easy of a day walking around just the M G corridors are so many of them.
0 (9m 40s):
That's so good. Oh man. It's so good. I love hearing about, you know, the asylums and it's, it's one of the most eerie places I think you can go to explore just because of the, like the history and so many asylums had so much dark history surrounding them.
2 (9m 55s):
Yeah. Well that leaves me on it. I mean, if you don't mind me going on, I have to be Italian one on one of the first Italian one I actually had, I went to was quite a famous one called manic homeo. I think that's where <inaudible>, but it's manic homeo. Dr. And it's in this or not far from, to re nowadays it's sets famous live on the scene. But when I went to went in 2014 U to access it, you have to crawl through basements. You know, you have to go through tunnels and, and literally go over pipes and put your bags under it, put your mask on. And literally, I remember me and Adam got there and it was pouring down rain and we'd go through this basement access to this old school way.
2 (10m 36s):
Really the back then it was like changing to, I find some of this stuff fairly easy now, like if you've done stuff like that, it kind of crosses over to make stuff feel a lot easier than it should be, I suppose. And we get in there and you know, once you're in there, it was pat the back then it was packed full of instruments, chairs, there's all 1950s and sixties equipment, you know? So that was like a proper site was probably my first one that was like, wow, this is packed full of amazing equipment. History seems spooky. There's documents on the floor, that kind of stuff. You know? So it's like on your foreign country and kind of like away from your home and you're not doing the norm and you know, outside, you've got the people, the hustle and bustle of the market or wherever it is going on, buy 10:00 PM to 10:00 AM, sorry.
2 (11m 22s):
And we're inside taking photos around on asylum sites to fascinate one. It wasn't as big as maybe some of the UK stuff, but it's, you know, for what it lacks in which it probably goes up in floors. So you kind of have a four floors in two figure rebates in money. Dr. So it's kind of like huge site, lots of equipment, but there's a lot of, it's obviously been stripped over the years now since, but I remember it well, if in terms of luck and asylum, that's definitely one of my all time favorites. And I could imagine looking back at the UK stuff, that's probably similar to what they were like in 20 2009, 10, you know, man,
0 (12m 2s):
I'm checking out these photos right now on this place. It's crazy. Like, so I've, I've only been to abandoned spots in Greece and Portugal. So I haven't been to Italy. I haven't been to the UK to see any of this stuff you guys have over there. So I'm super keen to get over and do a little bit of exploring. So when did photography come into play? Was it from the beginning or did you just start exploring first and then get a camera? Like what was your process? No,
2 (12m 29s):
I mean, I was already actually a photographer, so it was kind of strange for me because I, I actually w travel was my main love and passion and that hadn't on doing now, but travel for me was the, where the travel made me fall in love with photography. I think they go hand in hand, like if you're into travel, I think you ended up picking up camera. It's the same with exploring really? Because if you go out on a bow and you're seeing a beautiful, I don't know, waterfall or some canyon somewhere, you want to take a good photo of it. And at the time I was in living in Australia for awhile and I was working and I would live for, to German guys and they loved photography. So that got me hooked into photography.
2 (13m 11s):
I went to buy the time, I'd get back to the UK off the credit crunch will be over in 2010 and it turned out to be the height of it. So got back and struggling for administration jobs. I've actually ended up in events and I was shooting for events and for weddings for a bit, actually for three or four years. And then I eventually came across this stuff, you know, a couple of years later. So it was this sort of weird transition, but photography definitely came first for me. And it he's just one of those things. I think when you, you know what, it's like, you see the photos online for the first time, you know, oh, that's just on, it looks so cool. It might not be in your style or it might not be your, your take, but then when you kind of like delve into it and you get there yourself, you realize it's actually not lazy.
2 (13m 57s):
Actually people think it's quite an easy John Ruh free. It's not a waste. So to get something different, I think is, can be quite hard.
0 (14m 6s):
No, definitely. And I think that, you know, the cool thing about exploring and being a photographer is that your photos, even if a hundred thousand people explore that place, you're still going to have your photos and they're going to be unique to you and your style. And I've had guests on this podcast, like a rum hammer Vinge who creates horror content inside abandoned places, you know, brings creepy dolls or creepy masks and, and creates these beautiful portraits inside these abandoned places. And so it's, it's so cool to see different people's explorations and their photos. And like I said, every everyone's stuff is super unique to them and their style.
0 (14m 47s):
So how did you kind of develop your style as a photographer with, with a band in places in mind?
2 (14m 56s):
So for me it was to things to it. I mean, there's a lot of document, especially entering it at the year. I did. There's a lot of documentary photographers in the, in the subject. I mean, traditionally you get forums. Yeah. And they always in the kind of documentary style you've got, I don't know. You've got like the history of the building. Here's my photos my day out. And that's kind of how it goes and that's fair enough. But I always thought Adam on the guy I was going around with quite a lot being based from the same city, you know, you always end up hooking up with someone there, but I don't you and it's M he had a very good blog doing that kind of thing. So for me, it was always going to be down the, maybe looking at series or bodies of work rather than kind of like, here's like just one building for me.
2 (15m 38s):
It was always going to be that I suppose, to photography background in this as well. And then in terms of development, I, again, at the time I love color. I can literally love it. This is my thing really. And I, and M back when I was sort of first linking up with people, I am out with Rebecca Litchfield, I think her name's battery now. And she was in part of our group and she shoots very dark stuff, you know, shooting as in exposing for the light. So, you know, the light will come in the window and it's, as the camera sees, it is kind of her style. Cause it's kind of like, so it makes it kind of dark moody, and maybe a little bit on the Horning's haunted side, you know?
2 (16m 19s):
And, and I liked shooting architecture. So as it's developed, it's kind of been for me, I'd rather show Brynn, bring out the detail of what I'm looking at. So it's kind of like, you know, using my bracket in making sure that my compositions neat and tidy and, and I'm always like to try and pull out what it is we're looking at rather than leaving it to fall into the shot, into the shade, if that makes sense. And then using like, you know, post-processing to pronounce colors or details or whatever is, and it's kinda gone on from there really, I'd say it's very different to how it used to be as well, but can you just developed on you over time? I think everyone gets better and gets their own way.
2 (17m 2s):
And I have peaks and troughs. I think personally, I've gone through bits where I think I'm doing really well. And in terms of, I like what on producing and then you go through a little smell of like you did. I think that's part of being a photographer or, or to explore sometimes you, you want to having an off day, especially to the time of day you're entering some of these places, you know? And I think that that plays into it as well. I just want to, these it's kind of, I dunno, I've developed slowly learn. I'm always looking to learn. It's kind of like a big passion of mine to learn. It's kind of another thing. So, you know, I've been doing video learning on that side of it now for the last couple of years, and that's just this challenge and you know, this, the same kind of challenges, if anything, getting a star in this kind of part of it, I think, is it difficult, man, especially now because there's a lot of people shooting the genre.
2 (17m 52s):
So you on your work without, I don't know, without, you've got to be careful, I suppose, and you can easily cross paths with people and probably a half done where you edit, it looks very similar to theirs or whatever you don't mean to, but it's just the way that sometimes there's a lot of footfall in these places now on you. And there may only be three shots, four shots. And as a photographer, I think it's easier to, to, to spot those shots if you've been doing it regularly. And I said, really, I'm part of now, it's always there looking at new ways to develop your style, isn't it. And, and do things differently or try and be something that means something to you, I suppose.
0 (18m 30s):
Right? Yeah. I mean, and I think when, you know, things like Instagram came around, I think that really increased the foot traffic. Like you said, like it's just kind of increased over the years through things like social media. And so let's kind of dive into social media and what that's done for you as, as an Explorer, as somebody who you said you like do like tours and stuff.
2 (18m 56s):
Yeah. So for me, I'm very careful in what I do, but it's kind of like, I love off the beaten path stuff anyway, like, you know, I've been to countries like Georgia, where I'm sitting now, Lebanon Armenia tow on places like this are very off the beaten path anyway. So I kind of, there's two sides of it is in terms of like social media. I got made redundant for the second time around 20 2018. And I, by then I was earning a bit of photography. So I wanted to make sure I did something that was more sort of permanent and full-time. So I made the switch that year.
2 (19m 36s):
But to do that, I meant that it, maybe some of my backs how you would see it as kind of climbing every single fence has to take a back seat because I'm looking at kind of maybe more ruins replacing the dangerous stuff with the ruins so that I can actually bring people there. And it's not dangerous finding more permission visits and with finding places that maybe are more off the beaten path. So for instance, Lebanon, obviously we all have heard of it recently, but up until that point, you know, two years ago, it was a very new RA thing. But going there, you find people with the footfall, you get off of se the YouTubes on the Instagram in places like France, Belgium, Portugal, as you know, if you've been the footfall huge now to the point where the next door neighbor sees you and me and he's angry and there's always problems for France and Belgium guns involved in this kind of stuff.
2 (20m 29s):
And I didn't like that. And I knew that if I was going to progress in terms of the avenue I wanted to go, it would need to be more, you know, going knocking on doors, getting permission, talking to locals and also making contact, which is a much more difficult thing to do is actually really challenging. But especially this year, but it's like for, you know, it's also, it means replacing maybe the dangerous stuff and the stuff that maybe I can do on a weekend on my own with stuff that's kind of, okay, we'll open the door for you. You know? And then from that, I already had a reasonable social media follow in which, you know, in terms of setting work and prints and, and just put in work on Instagram.
2 (21m 11s):
But I think the real change has been probably YouTube in terms of footfall that I noticed in Europe is kind of Instagram, I think was already there as 20 14, 20 15. But I think in Europe, I think YouTube changed it dramatically around 20 17, 18, where it just got extreme footfall, you know? And I think that's the thing I don't, I just always look at it as I wanted to progress as a photographer as well. So that meant dropping maybe some of the just Urbek stuff to replace it with stuff, still stuff that's amazing, but it's maybe the average urbex photographer might not go to because it's more like a ruin if that makes sense. Yeah.
2 (21m 53s):
Which is fine. This call. And I still think they've got things that are got aesthetics or they're pleasing, like places like I went to Coleman's cock in Namibia colonoscopies, a fascinating ghost town full of sand. You've probably seen that the famous photos from there. And it's probably even out of all the locations I've done over six, seven years is probably in my top three, just because of how many places are filled with sand. And they're colorful and beautiful in terms of the lie in terms of every room is different and that's so you need, where else is for the sand, you know, like it's mad. So yeah, it's places like that, which is permission, but you have to gain access.
2 (22m 35s):
You know, you have to go talk to somebody and get permission and go there and there to kind of things I'm kinda looking to replace with the dangerous stuff. You know, now I'm not that I don't enjoy the dangerous stuff. Obviously we all do, but you can't, I can't brunch, you know, trips there with 50 year old men and stuff. That's just not going to happen. I always look at kind of the photography side is to, to, to tear. I suppose I've got to, you've got the real abandoned stuff. That's kind of dangerous. They, if you replace them, it's gonna have to be something that's a bit more put more permission. Or for instance, in Georgia, the welcome you get compared to say France, you can go knock, talk to people, you to communicate with them in a, in a slow map, in a slow manner, but you might gain access to stuff that potentially it would be very difficult to do in some way like France, because they're just sick of the amount of people that are coming, you know?
2 (23m 30s):
And that's why I chose as well. The, the, the kind of countries that I've been doing the last two years really as well. So it's like looking, looking at different places, maybe that the average traveler wouldn't go to and combine my love for travel with my photography, you know? And it's kind of different, I suppose, as well. Not that I'm the first obviously to ever come to these countries, but you see, my point is just about looking at things a little bit differently.
0 (23m 55s):
Yeah. And like, I love that you're taking your love for exploration and travel and photography and you're, you know, trying to like get permission and trying to gain access and make these connections. I think that's super cool. And it, it makes you almost like a location scout in a way, you know, like you, you, you have to like work at it and it really shows how much effort you put into this.
2 (24m 19s):
Yeah. That's it that's exactly. Yeah. I mean, I've even had like last year in Tbilisi, I've had actual movie directors come to me cause I was doing walking tours around the city. I got to know the city so well, and that's where we're talking from today for me. But it's like, I got to know the city so well, you'd find like little, you know, little hidden spots and locations. So I ended up doing walking tours around the city for travelers, for people. I had a lot of German clients who would come and I could show them around my city and it wouldn't all be abandoned, but you know, you just need to put it on the one nice spot in the middle of the day and they're happy, you know, and it's a permission place and you get to kind of get, but it's difficult, but you, over time, I ended up doing it to the point where some, I think I had two directors come on and night to show, to show them all around the city.
2 (25m 7s):
And they just wanted to shoot a movie, but they didn't do it in the end. But it's a similar kind of work in a way. I think you do have one or two people in the U S doing similar stuff, but it's yeah, it's definitely difficult. I wouldn't say it's easy to cause the thing is you've got, you might turn it into a place there's culture house, for instance, to house of culture and Georgia in the east. And I have a contact to translate stuff for me. And last year I found this culture house off and I went to the owner. I got go-go my friend on the phone who did all the translating. And she thought about it for six months, wherever we could come there, bring the groups. I offered them. So in this neck of the woods, $250 or something like that is a huge amount of money to repair a roof or to repair stuff.
2 (25m 55s):
And it's interesting because I think I'm an Explorer is actually caring about building sometimes more than the owners because, you know, we, she said to me on was dangerous and we don't want, you know, we need to save it. They've been doing press releases saying they need to save it. The roof's getting damaged. They can't raise funds. And I offered them money to bring in groups. And it wasn't dangerous. Not compared to, you know, if I'm going there with groups, it has to be fairly safe right now to calm the Hong Kong street floor, the roof of gaps that you find. It was just a few holes in windows, you know, nothing outrageous, but beautiful theater. Chandelier's blue, gold chandeliers hanging and for the seat's, which is quite rare in this neck of the woods.
2 (26m 37s):
And she spent six months thinking about it and eventually said, no, we can't allow you in there. And it's frustrating because you like to say, I think we love buildings more than, than some times. And that's not always the case you do sometimes get, obviously people are really friendly, but it just goes to show that you can put a lot of work in and still in my, what I'm trying to achieve is show, show some of this beauty to people on a, you know, and also give back as well after doing it for such a long period of time. It's nice to sometimes give something back, maybe it maintenance of a roof, or if a place is locked and you know, there's no way in any way, then getting permission is a good way to do it. And if you're giving something back, I think it's, it's nice.
2 (27m 19s):
Cause you know, you're trying to maybe protect the roof or replace windows and it doesn't always come off, but that's the ultimate aim, you know, that would be nice to do. And there's, it's not like there's not enough buildings around is there for people to explore. So they're everywhere. They're just everywhere. So it's probably going to be more now. Yeah.
0 (27m 38s):
Do you have any gear recommendations, like a backpack you use or a pair of shoes or you know, anything that you would recommend to explorers
2 (27m 50s):
A boot? So I use five 11 boots. I think they're amazing because they're just solid and you know, they're really nice, comfortable to wear solid. That's a more of an exploring item and definitely for photography, if you're a photography lover, I, I actually shoot with a Ben Rowe geared head. If you're into architecture, photography, it's lightweight, doesn't weigh much. In fact, in some instances it's lighter than a ball head, but in terms of compositions and lining up a shot, you can't beat it. You know, it's it's precision movements. So use the, the locknut to do large movements and you do the rotating pin for small precision movements off of the three axis.
2 (28m 33s):
So ends up being M yeah, really clean compositions. It's easy to line stuff up and also say, you'd put you carry it down on your tripod to leave you come back. And if it's moved, you know, with a ball head, sometimes it goes off the side into portrait mode or stuff like that. So combine that with an L bracket. And, and I think that's the thing in these locations. You want to keep your weight on top of the count on top of the tripod, rather than hanging off the side, you know? And I think that makes a big difference. If you're looking to improve your photography, you can pick him up secondhand for fairly cheaper things as well.
0 (29m 5s):
Yeah, no, I love it. And what was your scariest exploration?
2 (29m 13s):
Oh, good question. That is, there's been some nervous when some of the power station to pretty nervous times, but some of the bigger ones, there's some big ones in Europe that have been to. And there's times where you hear all sorts of weird noises in power stations. They're just, you know, banging and clanging. And especially if it's a windy day. And I think I'd probably say some of those would be the scariest scariest stuff doesn't really scare me, but it can be a power station. Yeah. It can be a bit nerve wracking because as well it's metal and it doesn't seem as safe like the rafters and your walking on rusting metal a lot. And yeah, he nervous from the safety aspect, you know?
2 (29m 57s):
No for sure. I definitely say one of the past seasons, I wouldn't be able to name you want off the top of my head, but maybe one of the Belgium on some of them are rust buckets, you know?