The Atlas of Abandoned Places by Oliver Smith

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

When Oliver Smith’s The Atlas of Abandoned Places was listed in the catalogue I couldn’t resist asking if I could review it. There is something about reading the stories of forgotten buildings and places that holds my attention. I am not alone in this because as well as books such as Smith’s atlas there are also many programmes and episodes on TV and YouTube to choose from. Some are professionally produced while others are the result of amateurs who have filmed a place or places they have come across while on holidays.

As Smith says in the Introduction, “to step into an abandoned place is to cross a kind of threshold into the past – to time travel from the present day to the instant that people departed”. This line reminded me of a trip to Oman some years ago to celebrate the birthday of a friend. We were taken on an impromptu sight seeing tour to an abandoned village near Muscat. Though the buildings were slowly decaying there was enough to see how life may have been before the population abandoned it to move somewhere else. While we could go into some of the houses, it became apparent that it wasn’t the safest thing to do. It did give me some interesting video footing before I heeded my wife’s sage advice and left the buildings.

Smith provides a wide variety of abandoned places from different places around the world. Some are war time relics that outlived their usefulness and so were left to decay peacefully having done their duty. Others were the follies of autocrats whose plans of grandeur have outlived the regimes that supported them. One of the saddest stories in the book is the draining of the Aral Sea because the waters that fed it were diverted to feed agricultural land further east. In the process an environmental catastrophe has occurred that has affected the livelihoods and ways of life of those who depended on the small sea for sustenance. The case of the Aral Sea is not the only climate story Smith covers. He also has articles on the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters whose effects are still being felt years after they occurred.

Each story is accompanied with photos of the various places along with maps to assist the reader. The atlas is a true coffee table book that can be picked up and consulted as needed. As well as telling some good stories, Smith shows that abandonment comes in many shapes and sizes. Each place was not intended to be left alone for so long and while there are many who hope that some of them may be restored to their former glory there is no guarantee that it will ever happen. In many ways there is probably more tourist value in the abandonment than if they were restored and opened to more public use.

Oliver Smith has spent years travelling the faraway corners of the world. A four-time Travel Writer of the Year award winner; he has appeared in Lonely Planet, National Geographic, the BBC, The Sunday Times, Outside Magazine and many more.

The Atlas of Abandoned Places

Oliver Smith


Mitchell Beazley

ISBN 978 178472 692 8

$45.00; 224pp

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