Thursday, 3 July 2014

"All the bodies are hidden above you"

"This has got an episode of Casualty written all over it," he said. We all chuckled nervously as we stepped amongst the debris, casting our minds back to the episodes from our childhood that had made the longest lasting impressions. Car accidents, a woman trapped under a horse, an abandoned newborn and, for me, the episode where a group of people gave a woman The Bumps for her birthday and left me feeling anxious about them ever since. I'm not entirely sure how that episode panned out.

I'd only heard of the place moments before. We were driving to the marina, four of us in the car, in varying states of hunger after a day spent travelling to our annual Scottish retreat. In previous years we'd been to Applecross, and Knoydart, and Gairloch, but this year we were staying in a holiday home belonging to the parents of a friend. A holiday home tucked away two miles down a private track, on a bay overlooking a tiny island that houses nothing but a cemetery and ghost stories for the locals tell. It's a place so remote and peaceful that a well known fashion designer once turned up and asked if she could buy it.

We had left London at 8:30am and taken two trains, a passenger ferry and a bus to reach our destination. Our friends met us in the town and, after a beer and a catch up in an empty hotel bar, we set out to find a spot for dinner. Things close early round these parts and not much happens after 6pm, even less after 9. We'd come seeking rest and fresh air, the company of our favourite friends, and the pleasure that comes from opening a good bottle of Malbec at 2pm. We weren't here for the urban or the unknown, but that's what we got.

"There's that place where they made the music video," said our driver, pointing at a building on the hilltop that could only be described as a shithole. I asked for more detail. "Someone filmed a hip hop video there. Apparently it's completely abandoned and then years ago loads of graffiti artists turned up and covered the place."



She didn't need to say any more, which is how we came to find ourselves inside the complex of abandoned buildings. The whole thing was made of concrete and untreated wood, bleached by years of sun reflecting off the water below. My phone's battery had died, and without the ability to snap photos every five seconds I found myself exploring freely, drawn into doorways and behind walls and, when I eventually found them, up the stairs.






I could not figure it out. Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave?

And how the fuck did anyone pass a risk assessment to shoot a music video?

As I explored with my fists balled tightly inside my sleeves I found rooms and corridors and stairways and exits. I spotted some arrows which lured me round a corner, up some stairs, through empty rooms, down some more stairs until I found myself back where I started. Then I did it again in case I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. Nope. Neat trick, NOT.


I've seen too many horror films, and I kept expecting to find a face staring at me from a broken window across the way, or to discover a person living there. Perhaps a former resident who had refused to leave, or at best a disgruntled security guard.

I found bedrooms, really small rooms, with really small beds. With empty drawers stuck underneath, or long since ripped from their runners. No mattresses. No belongings. No posters on the walls.


I could not figure this place out. It's abandoned, but radiates life. There are mirrors on some of the walls, mainly broken, but enough remains to make you feel like someone is watching you. There are no signs of drug use, though plenty of empty cans of beer. Entire walls are missing, and I realise later that they were windows, taken to be sold. And there'd be very little drug use in the area due to its remoteness. Local kids probably came once for the thrill of a secret party and quickly grew bored.


There were washing machines, big industrial ones.


And an enormous kitchen with oddly pristine white tiles.


I slipped through a doorway and three birds flew loudly and violently into my face and so I screamed a scream that echoed so loudly through the empty rooms that in turn I screamed some more. I pushed against one door and something pushed back. A stiff hinge no doubt, but in my mind this was clearly the work of a scary witch and so I headed in the opposite direction again.

I could not figure it out. There's no sense from the outside of what this place was for.



A low-security prison? It certainly looked like it, but we were too close to the water, inmates would be off in a stolen dinghy in no time.

A scout camp? Plenty of outdoor activities around, but I've been to a summer camp, and I knew there'd be tiny names scratched into everything. David, Gary, Angus, Duncan.

A care home? Again, they'd be off in a shot leaving names everywhere.



Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave?




I've seen too many horror films. The further I ventured, the more certain I became that I'd shortly be uncovering a pile of bodies. Imagine my horror when my boyfriend moved a piece of wood to discover a hole with a pile of bones in the bottom of it. This wasn't a horror film, this was a Steven King novel and I was 9 years old again and NOT SUPPOSED TO BE READING THAT. I regained my composure and looked a little more closely. I've seen enough episodes of Bones to know that there were none resembling anything human, most likely a dog or a sheep. But we all know what happens when you hang out in places where people put dead dogs or sheep down holes. I've seen enough episodes of Dexter.

This did not help my sense of unease.


In another room we found a sheep skeleton, two floors up. I did not know that sheep can climb stairs and if they can't then I do not want to think about how or why it got there.


Back at our holiday home I felt obsessed. Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave? I needed to know much, much more.

A Google search revealed that the place is in fact a village called Polphail, and was built in the 1970s. Plans were afoot to build platforms for oil rigs in nearby Portavadie and the complex would have housed some 500 construction workers. Plans were abandoned before anyone could move in, and Polphail was left to decay.



I wondered if the workers would have liked living there. Would the small rooms have thrived with hard work, tired bodies and camaraderie? Would their kids have visited? What would have been the impact on the small local community where not much happens after 6pm, even less after 9? Who would have enjoyed this view of Loch Fyne each morning?




I learned that the graffiti, or some of it at least, came from the group Agents of Change, who were given permission to access the site in 2009, shortly before it was due to be demolished. They made it beautiful, but I think it already had a beauty of its own.

I learned that in late 2012 the 25 acre site was sold for £250,000. Apparently there are plans to build houses and a distillery but there are no signs of that yet. I remembered that I couldn't even buy a studio flat in London for £250,000 and I wondered why I left Scotland.


Two days later we returned, cameras in hand, and ventured a little further into the complex, looking for signs of life where we knew we'd find none. Despite the place having been thoroughly ransacked a number of times, part of me kept a little spark of hope that I'd discover something special. Perhaps a pristine room, hidden away from all the rest. Lost treasures. Something, anything, but there was nothing but art, the best treasure of all.










Before we left I stopped to wonder who'd been here before us. Who built this place? Who broke it? Who smashed the windows and who painted the walls? Who partied here and camped out overnight? Who cast it aside, and who saw potential? I pictured a kind of dystopian future where the rich pay to trash a place, with no pause to think about the lasting footprint. Just to know what it feels like, without malice. And I pictured a past where something different happened here.


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