Urban Exploring: Cotton College

“Some people call them squatters of burglars, but this is not true they call themselves Urban Explorers,” to quote local author, historian and wizard of the moors, Doug Pickford.

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Doug Pickford, Wizard of the moors

With an enthusiastic nature and a wide knowledge of the local area, the urge to explore has always been about. However, with the increase of social media, it has given urban explorers a platform to share their findings and experiences.

Having an in-depth look into the history of Cotton College, the abandoned Roman Catholic school in Oakamoor, and analysing the risks which accompany Urban Explorers take to photograph the life still within these forgotten structures.

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Main gates Cotton College

Driving down Cotton Lane, Oakamoor the magnificent building of Cotton College emerges from the woodland, it is truly overpowering. With the additional historical interest to the locals, the gothic structure swallows you in.

A place once filled with life and energy, is now nothing more than an empty structure. To quote our wizard of the moors and Urban Explorer Doug Pickford, “we never force our way in most buildings, most structures have doors forced open, collapsed walls and rusty locks.” A very accurate account for people who believe explorers are doing anything anti-social.

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Old fire escape side of Cotton College

Focusing Cotton College, Oakamoor it was through one of these forum websites which the location came to light. The Roman Catholic boarding school stands derelict on Cotton Lane. The structure has been abandoned since the late 80’s, however to this day there has been no further restoration happen on the site and Cotton College is a grade 2 listed building.

Cotton College was originally home to the Gilbert Family back in the 16th century and it was known as Cotton Hall. Members of urban exploring forums claim that the date ‘1680’ is clearly marked in the walls of the basement, underneath the main hall. However, there has been no photographic evidence to back up these claims. This may have something to do with gaining access as many of the access points within the older buildings have been boarded up due to the unstable structure.

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Cotton College main building

When the Gilbert family died out in 1843 the 16th earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot brought the buildings with plans to restore it to its former beauty. He was local to the area, his residence at the time was neighbouring Alton Towers, also well known for its gothic structure.

“These places are living and breathing with energy, which Urban Explorers want to express,” implies Doug Pickford, Wizard of the moors.

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Main steps into Cotton College

Doug Pickford speaks of urban explorers using the abandoned buildings to their advantage, documenting spaces for personal projects, within the Cotton grounds stands St Thomas’ which was an additional building, this structure is easily accessible.

This building was originally built in 1962 and known as St Thomas’ junior school, which was opened due to an increase in students.

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Cotton College main building

Within the upstairs you can clearly see it has been subject a fire and light vandalism, however within one of the upstairs bathrooms, fake blood hand prints are scattered on pealing white painted walls. The evidence is clear that to film makers it is a perfect location to stage horror footage.

Urban Exploring can be commonly referred to as infiltration, although most people would consider infiltration to be more associated with exploring structures which are of an active or inhabited state, which Cotton College is not.

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Cotton College

Urban exploring to most people is the raw adrenaline someone gets from adventuring to urban places which most people would not choose to do for fun. These people examine man-made structures, which are usually abandoned or derelict ruins.

There are a lot of urban exploring forums online, such as ’28 days later’, which is the largest UK based urban exploring website. With over 30,000 members, it is a large network of people who share their past experiences and communicate among each other about future explorations.

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St Wilfreds Church

Urban exploring to most people is the raw adrenaline someone gets from adventuring to urban places which most people would not choose to do for fun. These people examine man-made structures, which are usually abandoned or derelict ruins.

There are a lot of urban exploring forums online, such as ’28 days later’, which is the largest UK based urban exploring website. With over 30,000 members, it is a large network of people who share their past experiences and communicate among each other about future explorations.

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Outside St Wilfred’s Church

One of the aspects of exploring active buildings includes gaining access to document the unseen elements. Using Google maps, the great gothic structure can be clearly spotted, also this is give explorers contact information upon the land owners. Additionally, across the road from where the buildings are situated a large running track and outdoor swimming pool can be located. This is a great way to gain information on a place before entering.

With access through the graveyard, which is public property, St Wilfred’s church can be seen in all its glory. In 1846 the famous gothic designer Augustus Pugin, well known for his work upon the Houses of Parliament and the Earls own home, neighbouring Alton Towers. So there was no question why Earl John Talbot contracted Pugin to design the church and furthermore his iconic gothic style can be seen in elements within the main buildings also.

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Classroom within St Thomas’

“You can see gothic designer Pugin’s influence within the college buildings, especially within St Wilfred’s church, which is a magnificent structure,” Said Doug Pickford.

Augustus Pugin claims that John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury land owner during the restoration, had great intentions. In Pugin’s words, “John was a patron to the Gothic revival.”

The more research which is done upon Cotton College it becomes more apparent of the passion that has gone into the structures upon the Cotton estate.

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Hall way of classrooms in St Thomas’

With the contrasting elements of the urban structures being taken over by the infestation of nature, it is very artistically inspiring. There is no denying that one of the key features urban explorers get drawn into these buildings involves photography and also the further documentation of the historical elements within the structures. Urban explorers find the decay of un-habited spaces to be a thing of beauty.

There is a strong element of democracy within urban exploring; some believe that the human race lives within a negative freedom; however urban explorers challenge our boundaries.

They are much like journalists in believing everybody should have a voice especially those who are not given the tools or opportunity to, such as man-made structures, within features such as this the aim is to give these places a voice and educate people upon the site.

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Chalkboard within St Thomas’

However, in contrast with the democracy element, Cotton College was exclusively a boy’s boarding school up until the 1980’s where they began to admit girls, very interesting when research shows that a mere 7 years later the college was forced the close due to financial struggles, local people believe that they took on more than they could chew.

Additionally, a key element of exploring a lot of Brownfield sites such as Cotton, is gaining access. If you create a good rapport with people you meet, you may be able to gain access to places you didn’t know existed, all down to a common interest in the beauty of a structure. However, they do have every right to be suspicious of your actions, due to these places being subject to anti-social behaviour. So make sure you make yourself approachable and explain your passion as an explorer and historian.

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Pealing walls in St Thomas’

Urban Explorers publicise private spaces, democratising urban architecture, turning former corporate spaces into more human, playful spaces, structures which were made for the elite.

Reflecting upon the topic of urban exploring is it understood why these people enjoy the experience of infiltration; however, it has become apparent that the curiosity comes with a variety of hazards.

Explorers try to have a wide skill base such as archive and web skills are useful within urban exploring for acquiring historical knowledge, blueprints that will inspire and orient you. Furthermore, familiarity with the laws within that jurisdiction is also useful to know due to trespassing laws.

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Boy’s bathroom in St Thomas’

Urban Explorers publicise private spaces, democratising urban architecture, turning former corporate spaces into more human, playful spaces, structures which were made for the elite.

Reflecting upon the topic of urban exploring is it understood why these people enjoy the experience of infiltration; however, it has become apparent that the curiosity comes with a variety of hazards.

Explorers try to have a wide skill base such as archive and web skills are useful within urban exploring for acquiring historical knowledge, blueprints that will inspire and orient you. Furthermore, familiarity with the laws within that jurisdiction is also useful to know due to trespassing laws.

From exploring old houses, railways and barns, I believe that Cotton College would be the exploration that has sparked the most interest with my peers. The discoveries explorers make deserve to be shared, for them to reach the pinnacle of each place is an accomplishment for explorers.

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Staircase in St Thomas’

A lot of people have emotional attachment to derelict places, such as Yvonne de Rosa who demonstrates her connection through her group of photographs among her ‘Crazy God’ publication. Based in Napoli, Italy it focuses upon her returning to the psychiatric hospital she once volunteered within during the 90’s.

Her emotional attachment shows through in her images, a lot of detail shots of paperwork and photographs are among a variety of establishing shots of the bedrooms which have been untouched. Especially when she was at the heart of the hospital when it was within its element, her knowledge of the industry is portrayed through her work.

A lot of people have recently taken up urban exploring as a hobby purely for the adrenaline rush, however everybody experiences the structures differently, some find it a haunting experience and others find it liberating as the structures open up so freely.

When entering Cotton College, initially wading through the over grown grass, the enormous Gothic structure takes your breath away. The building is strangely inviting, I was as excited as a child in a sweet shop. I have never been afraid of entering abandoned locations, the thrill of walking through old structures, filled with so many memories and history is so exciting.

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St Thomas’ main hall and stage

The adrenaline kicks in when you first enter the main building, you are met with a magnificent staircase to the right, however when walking further in, it is apparent that one of the archways leading to the great hall has been bricked up, the mystery is why?

Venturing further into the gothic structure the rooms have been stripped bare and only permanent structures remain, such as toilets and blackboards. In one of the top attic rooms, with was used as dormitories before St Thomas’s was opened, trees have taken over the walls and escaping through the circular windows. The smell of damp filling the air, just as you would imagine, accompanied by a dead black bird lying peacefully amongst the greenery.

By sneaking in and taking photographs to document and share with other enthusiasts, revealing the inside of places, they do it out of love for the architecture and love of the unfolding of history before them.

The fascination with infrastructure is not one for the faint hearted; you never know what you may come across. Urban Exploring is hardwired into the curious, passionate, inquisitive individuals. Where ever history, culture lies, it will be un-covered; the desire to explore is in all of us. Just some choose to stick by the rules.

 

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