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The Bearded Explorer ventures into derelict buildings to reveal their secrets

Former-plumber-turned-urban-explorer Colin Smith reclaims memories of otherwise forgotten buildings

The Bearded Explorer examine a car

Nature is surprisingly strong in reclaiming lost things, says The Bearded Explorer. Photo: supplied

A huge house, overgrown with nettles and brambles, sits in the middle of “somewhere near Wales”. The owner passed away in a fire in his home workshop decades ago and no one has touched it since. Out the back, a bunch of cars rot, the whole place abandoned to the ravages of time and nature. That is, until former-plumber-turned-urban-explorer Colin Smith fought through the undergrowth to reveal its secrets.

“It was very difficult to get in,” he says. “Inside it was very dangerous… the floors were falling through and walls were coming down.” 

Smith filmed his exploration and uploaded it to his popular YouTube channel, where he’s known as The Bearded Explorer. “A week later I was contacted by a girl, she was 23. And she said, ‘That was my granddad’s house. My mum was only six years old when he died.’”  

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The girl and her mum couldn’t access the property, as it had been inherited by family in the US. The new owners didn’t want anything to do with the house and had lost touch with their UK relatives, so it slipped through the cracks.  

“Legally, the mum and her daughter can’t really do anything with the house. But she said, ‘When we were watching the video, my mum saw her baby crawler in one of the rooms and burst into tears.’ She said, ‘I’m so glad that you went in there because she’s been wondering what it looked like for years.’ And now that I’ve done it, she doesn’t have to.” 

It’s a dramatic example of how Smith’s videos as The Bearded Explorer can reclaim lost spaces. For that woman, he was able to reconnect her with childhood memories. Other locations – whether a former hospital near London or an unfinished hotel in Bali – may have a less intimate impact, but it’s all part of the same process.  

“I go there, and I capture it all on camera and make the videos. So, in a way, I’m preserving what’s there,” says Smith, “because eventually these places fall down. They get redeveloped. And then they just disappear and there’s just a memory. I’m documenting the memories.” 

Smith has always been drawn towards places that have been left behind. As a kid he loved to play in derelict buildings – not a popular choice with his mum. But the drive to investigate the overlooked remained with him as an adult, so he took up urban exploring in his spare time. An urban explorer is “basically someone who goes where other people wouldn’t,” he explains. “If somewhere looks interesting, most people walk past it. I’m the sort of person that would go in and look. I’m really amazingly nosy.” 

About 10 years ago, Smith started taking his camera along on the trips – firstly just to take stills, but not long after, he started putting videos up on YouTube. “The channel was slow at first,” he says. “It was 2018 when the subscribers started to go up. Now it’s crazy. I’ve got almost 30 million views on YouTube. My TikTok’s massive – I’ve got over 80,000 followers.” 

The Southsea resident is the only UK-based urban explorer who has been verified on Instagram. “I thought it was just a strange hobby at first, but actually there’s a lot of people who are also interested. It’s great I can go there and film these places and show other people.” 

Three years ago, Smith got to the point when he was making enough from his videos to make his hobby a full-time job. “It’s completely changed my life,” he says. “I was working seven days a week doing call outs and clearing drains as a plumber. It was a horrible job. It’s just been a complete 180 on my whole life. It’s better than winning the lottery, in my eyes.” 

Three of The Bearded Explorer’s favourite locations

The Bearded Explorer at the top of some stairs with arms raised

The Ghost Palace in Bali

A luxury hotel resort built in the 1990s, this once-opulent location never opened to the public and is being slowly eaten by the jungle. “There were marble floors everywhere,” says Smith. “The baths were made out of solid marble and it was just unbelievable, some of the architecture in there – these big dragons at the main staircase. But there were monkeys running around inside the rooms. It was just really surreal.” 

Decaying corridors of a Hospital

The Haunted Hospital

“I went to a hospital near London that had been abandoned since the 1980s. I was in there completely on my own. I heard something scurry up the hallway in front of me. As I picked my camera up and panned up, I could see something. There was a shadow standing in the hallway in front of me, down the corridor. I actually caught it on camera. I don’t know what it was. But it really did scare me.” 

Cups of half made tea at The Cornish Cottage

The Cornish Cottage

“It had been empty for around 32 years. Everything was still in there. There were still cups of tea half-made in the kitchen. It was really quite emotional seeing all the stuff in there.” 

See more of The Bearded Explorer here

My Dog Sighs Big Issue cover

This article is part of an art special edition of The Big Issue, curated by My Dog Sighs and featuring his exclusive artwork on the cover. It is on the streets from 10 July. Find your local vendor here. Throughout the week we will be sharing more stories from creatives, explorers and activists who are reclaiming the lost. Read those stories here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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