After my last couple of relatively short reports I’ve got a whopper for you this time – I hope you bear with me and read the write up and don’t just skip straight to the pics!
It’s 10pm on a Friday night, at the end of a long and tiring week at work. Am I relaxing with a few beers down the pub? Nope, I’m packing my camera, lenses, P3 masks, spare clothes, energy drink, and buttering some hot-crossed buns(!) in preparation for what would turn out to be an epic 16 hour all-nighter trip to London.
After meeting up with Richie Gowen and Darren of Desolate Nation we made the drive down to London to rendezvous shortly before 1am with MrDan Explores, who I’d met on my Kings Reach Tower climb a few weeks earlier.
However, our excited anticipation took an immediate and major knock when rumours that our first target had been sealed sadly proved to be true. Despite much effort we had to admit defeat on this one for the time being – but it won’t stay sealed forever and we’ll be back for another attempt soon.
We then drove in to central London for a middle-of-the-night recce of another potential target, which turned out to have more CCTV surveillance than any of us had ever seen on a site before! Of course you never know whether the cameras are on, and if they are on whether or not they are being actively monitored – the only way to find out is to give it a go. However, we agreed that on this occasion we didn’t think that it was worth the risk of getting busted and potentially detained and questioned when our main target of the night was still ahead of us.
And so we pointed our cars East, and drove on to West Silvertown….
Millennium Mills is a “well-loved icon of post-industrial Britain” (wiki) – not least in the Urban Exploration community. From a personal perspective it immediately grabbed my imagination and has been one of the top three UK sites (along with Severalls Asylum and Battersea Power Station) which I most wanted to see when I first started exploring in August 2013. Eight months on I’ve managed 2 out of the 3 so far, with BPS now firmly at the top of my “to do” list.
History (abridged from wiki)
The Millennium Mills is a derelict turn of 20th century flour mill in West Silvertown on the south side of the Royal Victoria Dock, between the Thames Barrier and the ExCel exhibition centre alongside the newly built Britannia village, in Newham, London. It has been described as a “decaying industrial anachronism standing defiant and alone in the surrounding subtopia”. It has featured widely in popular culture, including music videos (The Smiths, Orbital, Arctic Monkeys, and Coldplay), TV (Ashes to Ashes), and Films (Brazil, Green Zone, Trance).
Along with Millennium Mills, there remains a small section of the now destroyed Rank Hovis Premier Mill and a restored grade II listed grain silo, labelled the ‘D’ silo.
During the early half of the 20th century, the Royal Victoria Dock became an essential part of industrial Britain and London’s largest centre of flour milling. The rail and water transport links made it an ideal location for business as well as a centre for international trade and commerce. The Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) was the first of the large nationwide milling companies to establish a flour mill in the area, with the opening of the Silvertown confectionery in 1901. Joseph Rank Limited would soon follow with the establishment of the Premier Mill at the Royal Dock in 1904. The “palatial” Millennium Mills was designed and built by millers William Vernon & Sons of West Float, Birkenhead in 1905.
These mills, operated by Britain’s three largest milling companies, converted imported grain from overseas into flour for the London market and were the first in the Port of London designed to take imported grain direct from the ships.
Millennium Mills was named after Vernon & Sons’ most successful product, a flour variety which they called “Millennium Flour” after winning The Miller Challenge Cup at the 1899 International Bakers Exhibition.
In 1917 all of the mills were partially destroyed by the Silvertown explosion at Brunner Mond’s munitions factory on the North Woolwich Road that was manufacturing explosives for Britain’s World War I military effort. The Brunner Mond works was about 100 yards east of where Millennium Mills stood, and the adjoining grain silos and flour warehouses were amongst the 17 acres of buildings that the Port of London Authority estimated were affected.
In 1920, Vernon & Sons was taken over by Spillers Limited, at which time the Millennium Mills was acquired. Spillers was an established flour milling business founded in 1829, which subsequently went into the production of dog food and animal feeds by 1927. The Spillers name remains prominent on the east and west wings of the building.
Millennium Mills was rebuilt as a 10-storey concrete art deco building in 1933.
During the Second World War Spillers’ Millennium Mills as well as Rank’s Premier Mills were substantially destroyed by heavy bombing. Between 1945 and 1950 the ports underwent large-scale post-war reconstruction despite a deficit of raw materials and strict licensing. At this time Millennium Mills was rebuilt, including a windowless steel-framed infill on the west side, and was in operation by September 1953.
The Royal Docks closed in 1981, and many businesses relocated to Tilbury, Essex. During the 1990s there were plans to build an aquarium on the site of the former CWS mill, but these were eventually shelved and the Rank and CWS mills were demolished in the 1990s, along with the Millennium Mills’ B and C silos. The D silo to the south is Grade II listed. Millennium Mills itself is locally listed by Newham Council. A £1.5 billion building scheme for the redevelopment of the area, including converting Millennium Mills into residential flats, was developed between 2001 and 2007, but was unable to secure sufficient funds and was officially cancelled in 2010.
Millennium Mills remains derelict, with its future uncertain. Architects Journal has suggested that the area may be incorporated as part of a wider Royal Docks masterplan to build housing up to 30,000 people.
I was first past the perimeter fence in the near-total darkness. When Darren joined me a few minutes later he whispered “I can see more palisade ahead”. My heart sank – palisade fencing is one of the unholy trinity (together with razor wire and anti-climb paint) of the most effective anti-trespass, and hence anti-explorer, measures deployed on sites.
However after being quickly joined by the other two members of our group we progressed through the dark over the rough and uneven wasteland and discovered that the palisade fencing was happily just a short and incomplete remnant of a previous line of defence which was easily bypassed.
We then began the long, slow task of searching for a point of access. After 45 minutes or so of searching we hadn’t found anything, and it was starting to look as if our luck really wasn’t with us. I was gutted – the incredible monolith of MM loomed above us, so near yet still so far from our grasp. We were facing the prospect of two fails and an abortive recce, and heading home without even having got my camera out of my bag.
It was at this point that MrDan Explores saw lights from a car approaching the site entrance, followed by the sound of the gates being unlocked – Security! We all scrambled for hiding places – the others standing behind concrete pillars, and me crouching behind a (thankfully not smelly) dumpster. We didn’t know whether we had been spotted, but the game looked up when the car immediately drove straight over to within no more than 10 metres of where we were hiding, parked up, and we heard the sound of a door opening and then being closed. I was just waiting for the shout of “come out from there” to be delivered…but it never arrived. Instead after a few minutes we heard the door open and close again, and the car drove further round the site. We remained frozen as we heard the car returning back past where we were hiding. I thought I heard the car stop in front of us again.
Everything was silent.
I couldn’t see anything, but thought that the car had parked up in front of us and turned off the headlights and radio. There was no way of knowing without looking out from our hiding places and risking being seen. I figured that my friends stationed behind the pillars would be better-placed to know when the coast was clear than I would, so I concentrated on trying not to shift my weight on to the loose boards and rubble on the ground around me and make a noise which would give my presence away.
I slowly adjusted my position to try and stop the cramp which was beginning to set in to my legs and arms from my initial crouching position.
And we waited.
After about 30 minutes we had all had enough – it’s one thing to outwait security for a while, it’s another to spend all morning uncomfortable behind a large bin when we haven’t managed to find an access point anyway. MrDan Explores, who was behind the pillar nearest to me, seemed to be doing something on his mobile phone – was he texting me? I had no way of telling as my phone was on silent in my bag on my back, and I wasn’t confident of being able to shift my weight and get to it without making any noise. A few more minutes passed. If you’re reading this then thank you for bearing with me this far and I hope you’re enjoying the story so far! Anyway, back to it… I tried peeking out into the darkness from underneath the bin, or around its side. I couldn’t see a thing. But it was still so dark that security could just as easily be sat looking straight towards us a matter of metres away.
MrDan Explores whispered across to me “Can you see anything?”. “No – how about you?” “No”. We looked out more and more from behind our hiding places, and eventually broke cover completely – no sign of Security! We stretched our aching limbs, and carefully crept along the perimeter of the building to survey the rest of the site – again no sign of Security.
By now it was nearly 5am and the birds were starting to sing as dawn approached. I sent a text message to Mrs X at 4.46am, which read “All safe, but failing. 😦 ”.
I was so frustrated, and decided that I would make one last search for a potential access point – if I was going to leave empty-handed then I wanted to know that I’d failed despite having done everything that I could. It’s nights like this which make what we explorers do so rewarding. As Mrs X had said to me the evening before “If you knew that you were going to be successful every time then there wouldn’t be any sense of adventure or achievement in it” – so true.
And so it was, at about 5am that the Urbex gods finally smiled upon us and I found a way in.
We climbed flight after flight of stairs and headed straight to the roof, where we were rewarded with a stunning 360° view of East London, including North to the ExCel Exhibition Centre, South to the Thames Barrier, East to London City Airport, and West towards the City and the Millennium Dome. Exactly 30 minutes after my previous text message I was sending Mrs X a picture of the view, and savouring the cool air on my sweating brow!
Our timing was pretty much perfect, as we arrived just in time to get a few night shots before dawn.
[Click on any photo to view large]
Before too long the pre-dawn chorus of the smaller songbirds gave way to the more raucous calls of seagulls. The city started to wake and stir before us as the sun rose, bringing with it a beautiful crisp and blue-skied spring morning.
After having spent an hour or so on the roof we finally headed down into the mill itself, with another detour or two back up onto some other parts of the roof. Right, better crack on with the rest of the photos!
Bodies aching, and all thoroughly exhausted we finally decided to call it a day and make our way back out to grab a few quick external shots before making our escape.
Ironically, after taking such care whilst exploring MM I managed to injure myself with an unnoticed nail in the final seconds of my explore. Luckily it “was but a scratch” and is another small memento from an epic explore!
As I said at the top, MM has been high on my list since I first started exploring, and as you may have gathered this was definitely one of my favourite explores to date. Many thanks to Richie, Darren/Desolate Nation, and MrDan Explores for such great company, and I hope we all get to catch up for a much-needed revisit or two later this year!
Thank you for coming down t’mill with me, and please share and sign up to follow this blog if you haven’t done so already – I’m off on my debut exploring trip to Europe next week, so there’s bound to be plenty more reports coming soon!