Ruinenlust, commonly referred to as “ruin porn”, is a German term that means to take pleasure in ruins and abandoned places. It allows people to confront their deepest desires and fears through exploration of deserted monuments to the past, and the futures born out of their demise.
Enter Abandoned Britain and host Michael Portillo. In this four-part series, the former British conservative cabinet minister visits four abandoned sites that harbour secrets from Britain's past, symbolising both nationalistic pride and shame.
Portillo, with his whimsical manner and sometimes dramatic commentary, does not disappoint, providing an emotionally charged glimpse of what once was and the reasons it is no more.
Abandoned village of Imber
Portillo weighs up the rights of citizens versus the needs of the state when he visits the one-time village of Imber on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. A once-thriving farming village, Imber was first documented as existing in 967 AD and, centuries later, was taken over by the British military in 1943 to be used as a training ground.
As Portillo enters the now-barren village to the faint sounds of children eerily singing, we know all probably did not end well here. We learn the villagers were given 47 days to evacuate their homes in 1943 — an order sweetened with a promise from the British government that they would be able to return after WWII had ended. Why then is the village still deserted today?
As well as presenting poignant stories from former residents and their relatives, Portillo provides answers about the fate of the village and its people.
Orford Ness's secret spy facility
“If you found out what is done to defend you, would you feel safer?” says Portillo while introducing episode two, having just divulged that he knows lots of secrets from his time as secretary of state for defence — an apt kick-off to an episode themed with secrecy.
Orford Ness is a desolate stretch of land nine miles long and one mile wide on the Suffolk Coast harbouring an odd, sporadic collection of buildings that loom mysteriously empty across the land. Bunkers, a windmill and a lighthouse stand alongside other structures, including a vast, metal, windowless building code-named Cobra Mist, which we are bravely led into by a flashlight-wielding Portillo.
Orford Ness, formerly a top-secret spy facility still protected under the Official Secrets Act, has historical links to the Cold War, espionage, the British and US governments, military testing, weapons development (including death rays) and the Blue Danube Bomb — Britain’s first atomic bomb developed in 1953.
This is a fascinating and shocking exploration of this abandoned but still classified site, which was bought over a century ago by the British War Office.
Shepton Mallet Prison
The gruesome, ghostly past of this now-abandoned prison, built in 1610 and closing its doors in 2013, is unveiled in episode three. Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset is known for its past brutality and horrendous, disease-ridden living conditions, along with multiple on-site judicial and military executions. As a “category C lifer prison”, it housed the most dangerous criminals, some of whom are buried within the grounds.
Lending support to its reputation as “Britain's most haunted prison”, Portillo speaks to a former inmate who recalls hearing a woman singing at night from the vacant cell next to him.
Two of the prison's more famous inmates were Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who entered for assault and allegedly left as fully fledged gangsters, which leads Portillo to wonder whether this type of incarceration can actually set people off on a life of crime, rather than rehabilitate them.
Still armed with a flashlight, Portillo heads to the London Hospital in Whitechapel. After being built in 1740, this hospital pioneered available health care for all long before the NHS, with one of its most famous residents being Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. Merrick lived at the London Hospital for the last three years of his life after surgeon Frederick Treves gave him refuge, liberating him from a life of "freak show" performances.
Jack the Ripper, illegal corpse exhumation and organ dissection, and the Whitechapel murders all have grisly links to the hospital and are adeptly investigated by Portillo.
Satisfy your own ruinenlust and watch Abandoned Britain on Tuesday 23 October at 7:35pm on SBS.
Watch the episodes after they air at SBS On Demand: