Nothing captures the imagination quite like an abandoned site. The search term “abandoned places near me” has soared since 2014 and there's even a name for it: “ruin porn”.
So check nobody is looking and sneek a peek at these fascinating islands...
Hashima Island/Gunkanjima, Japan
James Bond fans might recognise Hashima, which lies around 15km from Nagasaki – it appeared as the lair of villain Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, in the 2012 film Skyfall.
This tiny island was once home to an undersea coal mine and was permanently inhabited between 1887 and 1974, with its population reaching a peak of 5,259 people in 1959. That equates to 216,264 people per square mile, which made it the most densely populated island on the planet.
Apartment blocks and sea walls were erected, along with a school, hospital, town hall, cinema, shops - and even a pachinko parlour, and four mine shafts, including one that links it to a neighbouring island, were built.
From the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, much of the work here was done by forced labourers and prisoners of war, who were subjected to brutal conditions, and it is estimated that at least 1,300 died in accidents - or from exhaustion and malnutrition.
A Korean worker lucky enough to survive the ordeal described Hashima in an interview in 1983:
“The island was surrounded by high concrete walls, and there was ocean, nothing but ocean, all around. It was crowded with concrete buildings as high as nine stories... We Koreans were lodged in buildings on the edge of the island. Seven or eight of us were put together in a tiny room, giving each person no more than a few feet of space.
“The buildings were made of reinforced concrete and had mortar on the outside, but the interior was filthy and falling apart... We were given uniforms like rice bags to wear and forced to begin work the morning after arrival. We were constantly watched and ordered around by Japanese guards, some of whom were wearing swords.
“The mine was deep under the sea, the workers reaching it by elevator down a long narrow shaft. The coal was carried out from a spacious underground chamber, but the digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work. It was excruciating, exhausting labor. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute. I was convinced that I would never leave the island alive. Four or five workers in fact died every month in accidents. Modern concepts of safety were nonexistent.”
After petroleum replaced coal throughout Japan in the 1960s, Hashima was abandoned. Since 2009, however, tourists have been able to sign up for boat tours from Nakasaki, and in 2015 it was one of more than a dozen industrial sites to receive World Heritage status.
“Hashima is one of Japan's most extraordinary places,” says Telegraph Travel’s Chris Leadbeater, a recent visitor. “Even once you are there, treading on its concrete walkways, it seems impossible that this country known for its neatness, politeness and sense of order has this swarthy mess of an industrial relic, tucked away in the waves off its most westerly city. Even on a sunny day, Hashima looks grey. Its old apartment blocks and abandoned buildings seem caked with a rust and soot that the stiffest sea breezes cannot blow away. And the journey to reach it feels like a descent into the underworld. Once your boat leaves the shelter of the islands around Nagasaki, the East China Sea kicks up with a vehemence that is certain to trouble the stomachs of less hardy travellers.
“But Hashima was - by some accounts, and with a number of caveats - a happy place. Japan tends to skim over the worst of its behaviour in the Second World War, and you will not hear any mention of the enslavement and use of forced labour which Hashima witnessed in the Forties. But several of its tour guides worked there in later days, and are full of warm memories about a place that was defined by hard toil and isolation - but also a family spirit and a sense of community.”
This little island, between Venice and Lido, was inhabited from the 5th century until 1379, when its residents were forced to flee after an attack by a Genoan fleet. An octagonal fort, part of the city’s wider defences, was built on Poveglia in the 17th century, before in 1793 after an outbreak of plague, it became a lazaretto or confinement station for the sick. In 1922 some existing buildings were converted into an asylum for the mentally ill but in 1968 the hospital closed and the island as been abandoned ever since. Surviving structures include the hospital, the fort and a bell tower.
Plans to build a luxury hotel emerged in 2014 and the island’s fate has become something of a cause célèbre for Venice’s dwindling population. Locals, angry that their city has been turned into a theme park for tourists, have sought to frustrate efforts to auction it off to the highest bidder and instead turn it into something sustainable.
A recent visitor to the island was Nigel Richardson, who wrote the following for Telegraph Travel after being shown around by Lorenzo Pesola, spokesman for an association hoping to save Poveglia. “Ashore, we pick among the crumbling buildings. The island was a quarantine station, a sanatorium and latterly, until its closure in 1968, a nursing home. In the undergrowth a Latin inscription on a headstone dated 1793 says, ‘Do not dig. Those who suffered contagion in life lie here.’ But there’s little basis to the lurid supernatural tales that have trivialised much of the reporting of the Poveglia auction in the foreign media – a handful of plague victims lie here, says Pesola, not the ‘hundreds of thousands’ of popular myth; and the mad doctor who supposedly carried out experiments on elderly patients is a fiction.
“Nevertheless a forlorn air hangs over the place. In the old hospital, boundaries between inside and out have been blurred. Floors are tiled with leaf litter, lianas twist through glassless fanlights and a roof has been replaced by vegetation. Beyond the buildings, the old vegetable plots and orchards are obliterated by brambles. It takes some effort to imagine Poveglia revitalised but Lorenzo paints a picture: of a public park, a marina, a restaurant, a hostel (‘where groups can sleep, not necessarily a place where young tourists can come in droves’), a study centre. He estimates the amount they need to raise at €25-30 million.”
Dry Tortugas, Florida
The Dry Tortugas sit at the tip of the Florida Keys and the name refers to the lack of fresh water and the presence of turtles – which perhaps explains why they are not permanently inhabited, but are a popular spot for diving and snorkelling. The islands, and the surrounding sea, form one of America’s most serene, and hard to reach, national parks (and possibly the only one with neither tall trees nor grizzly bears).
As many as 11 islands have made up the atoll over the past two centuries, but they are continually changing in size and shape, with some disappearing entirely after major hurricanes, and only seven are visible today.
There are decommissioned lighthouses on Loggerhead Key and Garden Key, but by far the biggest abandoned building in the Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson. It is composed of 16 million bricks, making it the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas.
Construction began in 1846 and continued until 1875, but it was never finished or fully armed (or attacked). During the American Civil War, however, Union warships used it in their efforts to blockade Southern shipping. It also served as a prison for Union deserters (above the fort’s dungeon were the words “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind”, from Dante’s Inferno).
The fort was later used as a medical quarantine station, then as a coaling station, but by the Thirties was falling into disrepair.
A renaissance has happened in recent years, however. In 1995 it became a National Park, and a steady trickle of tourists now arrive on a daily ferry from Key West. Camping is permitted, but visitors usually tour the fort and spend an hour snorkelling before heading back to civilization.
St Kilda, Scotland
Scotland has more than its fair share of abandoned islands, such as this lonely speck of land 40 miles northwest of the Outer Hebrides and 112 miles west of the Scottish mainland.
The ageing Gaelic-speaking population had dwindled to 35 people by 1930, when they were evacuated.
“The problem of the evacuation of St Kilda became urgent a few months ago owing to the rapidly dwindling population and their difficulty in eking out a livelihood by gathering seabirds’ eggs and fishing,” said the Telegraph’s report at the time. “The islanders express the utmost satisfaction at leaving their old home, and have no regrets. All are eager to see the last of the place.”
These days many Britons are eager to go back (for the day, at least). It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birders’ paradise (its cliffs are home to a million seabirds) administered by the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Ministry of Defence. NTS cruises land, weather permitting, on the main island of Hirta. See nts.org.uk/Cruises.
Holland Island, Maryland
Originally settled in the 17th century, Holland Island - in Chesapeake Bay - was home to as many as 360 people in 1914, who made a living dredging for oysters, fishing and crabbing. It had 70 homes, a post office, a school, a community centre - even a baseball team, while its fleet of boats was 87-strong.
But the good times couldn’t last. “Year after year, northwest winds whipped up thirty miles of open water to hurl foot-high waves at the island’s exposed western ridge,” explains William B Cronin in his book The Disappearing Islands of Chesapeake. “Foot by foot, yard by yard, the shore gave way, and by 1900 erosion threatened the homes and businesses strung out along the ridge. Islanders could only watch as the bay ate away at the narrowing strip of land. Families clung to their homes as long as they could, shoring up a bit here, filling a bit there, but the forces at work were beyond their control. With homes of the verge of falling into the bay, people packed up and left for the mainland, taking everything they owned, including their houses. Finally in 1918 a summer gale drove the last family from Holland Island, [leaving it] to flocks of songbirds, blue herons, and sea gulls.”
Other islands in Chesapeake Bay suffered the same fate. James Island was abandoned around 1910, Barren Island in 1916.
Today Holland Island has been all but erased, turned to marshland and completely submerged at high tide. The last surviving house, which had for years appeared to rise directly from the depths, collapsed in 2010.
Brentford Ait, London
Now uninhabited, with no buildings, Brentford Ait was once home to the notorious Three Swans pub. Fred S. Thacker’s The Thames Highway – Locks and Weirs, published in 1920, explains: “In March 1811 one Robert Hunter of Kew Green described the island to the city as ‘a great Nuisance to this parish and the Neighbourhood on both sides of the River.’ It contained a ‘House of Entertainment, which has long been a Harbour for Men and women of the worst description, where riotous and indecent Scenes were often exhibited during the Summer Months on Sundays’.”
It is now covered with willows, planted to obscure the Brentford gasworks from the view of Kew Gardens. A gap in the middle of the island, apparent at low tide, is known as Hog Hole.