mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Thursday, January 1st, 2004

Time:8:41 pm.
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........#5 - Cane Hill, London [Summer 2005]


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London is a ruthless city - buildings that have served their purpose are quickly torn down and replaced - and yet Cane Hill still stands almost fifteen years after it served its last patients. Built in 1882, it was once the largest building of its type, but it now lies derelict - a magnet for explorers, vandals, …even filmmakers and artists. …

In the years since its closure it has acquired the reputation of being the ultimate abandoned asylum, the supreme embodiment of dereliction and decay. This is due mainly to the amount of equipment still on site - the extraordinary wealth of mementoes and personal information that still litter the corridors and wards – but also owes much to the asylum’s uniquely fearsome exterior. Viewed from the surrounding path, it feels more like a prison than a hospital (…..a towering monument to Victorian bleakness and austerity…)

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Sadly, the building is now in a desperate state. The floor in several wards has disappeared while the ceiling in most corridors is close to collapse. With repeated arson attacks and continued weathering, it seems unlikely that many sections will survive beyond the end of the year.

Perhaps the only factor now working in the hospital’s favour is its sheer scale. The building is so vast that even a concerted campaign by vandals couldn’t remove all of the curtains, smash all the furniture.

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Poor security has greatly hastened the building’s decline. Once a fortress, in recent years, access has become considerably easier. Security have retreated to the main entrance, and the patrols have steadily decreased in number. Indeed, such is its reputation for laxity, one group were even so brazen as to park their minibus in front of the hospital (!). In the last few weeks, however, the pendulum has started to swing the other way. Security has been tightened; dogs once again patrol the interiors. It seems that the constant stream of visitors have prompted a radical rethink. The hospital’s many splendours are finally being afforded a greater degree of protection – and hopefully this will be enough to ensure their survival).

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As at most other hospitals, there appears to have been little reasoning behind the items left on site. Many are too personal to justify neglect, while others certainly had the potential for reuse elsewhere. Inevitably, this leads to a rather confused atmosphere in some sections of the hospital. Occasionally, it has the rather eerie feeling of a ghost town - of scared inhabitants, grabbing what they could before fleeing. The feeling in most wards, however, is rather closer to the reality – staff and workmen too lazy and underfunded to clear the hospital properly.

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Most photographs of Cane Hill tend to accentuate its bleakness – (black-and-white images of faded grandeur ) - and yet the thing that most struck me about the hospital was its colour. Admittedly most wards deferred to cream or pastels, but far greater flair was shown with decorations and fittings.

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In Lidgett-Lettsom, for instance, hung curtains the most beautiful, sun-infused shade of orange – while elsewhere the kitchens were a dizzying collision of red and blue. Even the more personal remnants retained much of their sheen.(luminous blue containers in the pharmacy, a burgundy dressing gown in Browning-Blake). And then of course there was green, each ward slowly being consumed by mould and a glorious array of plants…

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Browning/Blake

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Beyond paperwork, traces of former patients were limited. .. A suit in a cupboard, Christmas decorations on the ceiling – but in most wards little else. A superabundance of machinery and furniture but nothing remotely personal. The only real exception came in the form of Browning/Blake – a ward to the south-west of the hospital. It has somehow survived thirteen years of visitors and vandals and remained much as it was when the hospital closed. Beds, mattresses and pillows are still in situ, as are the curtains and curtain rails. A dressing gown still hangs in a cupboard, and beneath one of the beds there is even a pair of slippers.

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Many of the bedside lockers also contain cards, and there are dozens of special clothes-hangers, each inscribed with a patient’s name. Even the day room offers several insights into hospital life. There are packs of generic razors, a table-tennis table and dartboard ….(.even the skeleton of a fourteen-year-old Christmas tree.).

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And on the walls, notices still cling to pinboards. One announced the closure of the Patient Bank, while another laid out a schedule for the last inhabitants (each activity focused on reintegration into the community). Monday, for instance, involved the following routine:

0900 - 1000 - Exercises with Physio
1000 - 1100 - Basic Skills
1100 - 1200 - Current Affairs
1400 - 1500 - Basic Skills
1500 - 1600 - Bingo Session (Social Afternoon)

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Activities for the rest of the month included beauty care, cookery, horticulture, and community outings twice a week. ..(.Other notices concerned drop-in centres, rehabilition schemes such as "Positive Futures", and even opening hours for the hospital canteen..)


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[In each section of the asylum, there is an almost unbearable sense of waste, …The intricate carving of a water pipe, a hand-painted fresco on a derelict ward. Like the space behind bookcases, it can drive you insane if you accord it any thought...]

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I’m sure the urge to take photographs is partly an attempt at reclamation – shoring up a defence against obsolescence. As much as celebrating their past, it is an attempt to confer on these buildings (however misguidedly) some kind of permanence…

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Pharmacy

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The hospital pharmacy was also surprisingly well preserved – bottles and cabinets unbroken, boxes unopened. Surplus medication has long since been removed, but much of its packaging remained on site. Containers for anti-psychotics were scattered across the floor, as were containers for emergency drugs (each with an inventory on its lid..) With everything from adrenaline to Lignocaine, they offered more than enough to subdue a manic patient, or to assist with crises such as heart failure.

(In amongst this mess, there were also some amusing traces of former staff – particularly the Largactil tin that had been converted into a vessel for tea bags!)

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As with any asylum there is the sense of finality [..endgame] – of traversing the outer reaches of suffering and endurance. The nurses may have been kind, the grounds beautiful – but these buildings still represent life at its most attenuated and fragile.

[It is often people without exposure to their inner workings who feel the most affection for these asylums. Certainly anyone who has endured the blistering immediacy of acute wards, or the desolation of a geriatric unit… (screaming, the unbearable stench, ..patients who look like they’ve been hit by the first wave of a nuclear blast) wouldn’t be in the least bit sentimental about such institutions..]

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Phone call from mother to say that Mark was at home causing havoc - smoking cannabis and slapping his mother, also upsetting his grandparents. Urine specimen sent down to the path labs for drug screening. ........Returned to the ward at 3:30pm. Seen by ward staff, he was asked about his behaviour, about causing problems at home and with his grandparents, as apparently he’d taken [patient name] with him. Admitted to taking cannabis, also saying he’d taken money from the bank. To be discussed with Dr. Bernadt tomorrow.



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Laundry

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Stripped of people and their everyday detritus, even the most mundane of objects achieved a kind of monumentalism … (like rocks on the shoreline as the tide recedes). This was most evident in what would once have been the hub of the asylum – the laundry. Huge cylinders and pressing mechanisms are now adrift in a sea of concrete, while on the east wall a vast extractor fan lies silent above the exit.

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One day while Sydney was playing football, two nurses called him out of the game and told him that Mother had gone insane and had been sent to Cane Hill lunatic asylum. When Sydney heard the news he showed no reaction but went back and continued playing football. But after the game he stole away by himself and wept. When he told me I could not believe it. I did not cry, but a baffling despair came over me. Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane? Vaguely I felt that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and had deserted us. In my despair, I had visions of her looking pathetically at me, drifiting away into a void.


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During rehearsals Sydney and I went to Cane Hill to see Mother. At first the nurses told us she could not be seen as she was not well that day. They took Sydney aside out of my hearing, but I heard him say: 'No, I don't think he would.' Then turning to me sadly: 'You don't want to see Mother in a padded room?' ....'No, no! I couldn't bear it!' I said, recoiling. ...But Sydney saw her and Mother recognised him and became rational. A few minutes later a nurse told me that Mother was well enough , if I wished to see her, and we sat together in her padded room. Before leaving she took me aside and whispered forlornly: 'Don't lose your way because they might keep you here.' .....She remained eighteen months at Cane Hill before regaining her health.


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The news of Mother's relapse came like a stab in the heart. We never knew the details. We received only a curt official notice that she had been found wandering and incoherent in the streets. There was nothing we could do but accept poor Mother's fate. She never again recovered her mind completely. For several years she languished in Cane Hill asylum until we could afford to put her in a private one.

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Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (London, 1964)

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Art Therapy

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…In another room, I found myself knee-deep in patient artwork, canvasses covering every last inch of floor. (On each of my visits, a new layer revealed, explorers having helped themselves to countless souvenirs in the intervening weeks)

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The quality of the pieces varied wildly– some revealing a genuine aptitude (..and a range of influences as diverse as Rothko and Monet) , while others amounted to little more than random scrawlings in crayon.

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And yet the quality of each piece was almost irrelevant. …Bold geometric patterns, glorious bursts of colour - each a reminder of the comfort brought by even the simplest forms of expression ..(certainly the most moving picture was also the most clumsy – a pencil drawing with the word ‘Love’ at its centre)

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Patient Poem unearthed in Art Therapy:

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey)

There’s not one curse or evil deed,
No spells or promises to heed,
There is no equal power within the mind
Yes!
Love’s happiness was hard to find

[April, 1969]



Miscellanea

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Cane Hill has a long history of treating famous patients - or rather, the relatives of someone famous. Charlie Chaplin’s mother was interred there (during the psychotic stage of syphilis), as were the siblings of David Bowie and Michael Caine. All three of these cases were particularly tragic - although perhaps the most harrowing was that of Bowie’s half-brother, Terry. A manic depressive or schizophrenic (accounts differ), he spent virtually his entire life in an institution. After countless attempts, he finally committed suicide in 1985. In the midst of a fearsome storm, he scaled a wall, walked down to the nearby railway station, and placed his head on the rails.

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Patient is an old Boer War combatant, who after many years service, left the army to become a postman. For the past 38 years he has lived with his niece who has looked after his needs since his wife died (his wife died shortly after the niece came to live in the same household).

Pleasant without being fatuous, but was suffering from general memory failure and scored only 1½ in the orientation test.

Recently he has expressed a desire to go to a nearby pub and has on a few occasions been escorted along the street by neighbours. Apart from this he does not appear to have left the house for years. He is generally unstable on his feet, but is able to manage the stairs.

Although his niece seemed cheerful enough at interview, she often feels downhearted and wonders what there is in life for her. She fully admitted she would be glad when he is dead and asked the interviewer if this would be likely in the near future.



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Paperwork

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Yet another area in which Cane Hill surpasses all others is paperwork. Most is routine hospital fare - guidelines and government directives – but there are still numerous personal items on display. In the office of one ward, for instance, the desks and floor were littered with case notes – the examples below representing a mere fraction…

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The patient is a pleasant, rather obese widow of 84 who has had a variety of physical illnesses in her life. (Prolapse, ovarian cysts, haematemosis, cholecystectomy, and renal abscess). …More recently, she has become depressed and has even been ruminating about her husband who died suddenly 15 years ago. She has been tearful and recently felt that it would be better if ‘God would take her’, but such feelings have not been voiced to others, and the district nurse was unaware of them. Recently she awoke in the night and saw her husband.



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The mood of many reports was lightened by idiosyncrasies, but in most instances what struck me was the cool detachment of the psychiatrists…(instantly calling to mind the registrar in Potter’s The Singing Detective )….

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…Her husband died of bronchitis and emphysema a year ago, and it seemed clear that she suffered little grief. She regarded him as a neurotic , unaffectionate man who made the most of his symptoms. No sexual life took place for most of their married life after the birth of their two children, and they occupied separate rooms. She talked about the details of his death without emotion.

In the war her only son had been killed; a daughter married late in life. But she was close to neither. She could not recall the years of the last world war, although her son was killed in it.



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The interview was a difficult one as the patient was openly hostile, tense, and irritable throughout – intent with her caustically-humoured remarks on creating discomfort in the interviewer. She presented herself as a bitter woman whom life had treated unjustly by bestowing upon her such a crippling condition.

Beneath the patient’s façade of bitterness, it seemed evident that the patient was undoubtedly depressed, although she did her utmost to camoflauge this and defended probing with her caustic replies..



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Many of the lives captured in these reports were extraordinary – all the more so for the grand sweep of their narrative. It was incredibly humbling to see someone’s entire life laid out before you - a childhood covered by a sentence, an assault barely stretching beyond a single clause.

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Ward reports were rather more scarce, though the handful I stumbled across offered a fascinating glimpse of life in the hospital (mainly its monotony, of course (by far the most common entry was “nothing to report – all patients appear comfortable at time of writing”) – but also its rare flashes of violence and disorder… . …These reports also offered my first encounter with patients my own age. Many of those listed were in their late teens and early twenties – and I found it impossible to look upon such cases objectively. I’ve somehow found my way out of that world, but most aren’t nearly so fortunate..

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Wards

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Cane Hill remains the supreme example of the strange life that buildings assume after they’ve been vacated…. Arsonists and vandals have left their mark in many sections of the hospital – but such destruction is the work of only a tiny fraction of visitors. The overwhelming majority come only to inspect a magnificent ruin, …

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My companion on my first visit boasted of upwards of fifty visits - and even the most cursory research reveals those who have been regular visitors for years. Indeed, there now exists a small group of explorers returning to the site on an almost weekly basis (most with camera in hand). Trolleys are ridden along corridors, machinery clambered into. Often an upper floor is colonised and a small party takes place. [..In one corridor someone has even affixed a poem to the wall (bizarrely including their contact details at its base)…]

I must admit my first reaction was to baulk at such behaviour – to brand its participants idiots - but recently my line has softened considerably.. Little vandalism takes place (the worst I’ve seen is a name scribbled on a blackboard) and all that is left behind is a handful of beer cans. When talking of her time as a psychiatric nurse, my grandmother often said “you had to laugh or you couldn’t have handled it” – and the behaviour of these visitors clearly springs from the same impulse. Much like graffiti, it is less a sign of disrespect, more one of fear and disquiet…

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The hospital also seems to have its own band of guardians – a silent few who return sporadically to repair damage and ensure order is maintained. Graffiti has regularly been removed from the chapel – although the most famous incident remains that of the bookcase and greeting cards (a tale relayed by the first major chronicler of the site). In one particular room he had discovered a bookcase, each shelf home to a row of perfectly aligned Christmas cards. One evening, out of curiosity, he decided to turn down several of these cards, only to return a few weeks later to discover each of the cards returned to its original position. Similar stories abound – and whilst most are apocryphal – such accounts are too frequent in number to be dismissed.. In amongst the vandals, explorers, freaks and security guards, there are clearly people who care a great deal about the hospital.

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Unsurprisingly, of course, the hospital has still been a magnet for thieves, their targets ranging from a few pieces of cutlery to enormous porcelain baths. Tiles on the roofs have also been removed, while copper has been stripped from all accessible wiring. Even the fuel from the one of the boiler rooms has started to be siphoned off. …Elsewhere, there are signs of Satanic rituals and paganism (in most cases sheer bravado – but sometimes terrifyingly well-informed and sincere) – and many doorways are bedecked in blue police tape.

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Patient welcomed the interviewer and commented on the praiseworthiness of an interest in the welfare of the aged. There was only evidence of mild rateable psychiatric pathology at interview – but it seemed she has been disturbed by the suicide of her grandson, an anaesthetist, about six months ago. The event, of which there was no previous indication, was a great shock to her and her family. She has slept badly, felt dispirited and the event has remained continually in her thoughts.

She felt she had now recovered from it, and had accepted it as divine intervention. She has had a lifelong interest in Spiritualism, and allied subjects, and is inclined to interpret significant events in terms of such beliefs. Her husband, who died several years ago, was a Christian Scientist. She was again upset by his death and grieved for about a year, feeling his presence after death in the house. Her beliefs were well in accordance with the philosophies propunded by members of such associations, and could in no way be regarded as delusional, nor was there any evidence of sinister psychiatric abnormality.

Her garrulous talk was again a quirk of her personality. Apart from being a day out in her orientation, and suggesting that Lloyd George was the Prime Minister before Heath, see seemed well orientated. She seemed throughout mentally alert, cooperated well in the Names Learning Test. She scored only two errors in the first two trials. She tired visibly as the tests proceeded and scored only 46/60

In summary a resolving grief reaction, with the persistence of moderate symptoms of anxiety. Slight memory impairment, but not dementia.



Chapel

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The hospital chapel is immense (eclipsing even those of Warley and Severalls) – and yet rather than inspiring awe, it left me rather disoriented. Its grandeur matches the hospital’s exterior, but not its interior. Sandwiched between wards and the administration block, and accessed by a narrow, sloping corridor, it seemed strangely incongruous – a mistake even. At most other hospitals, the chapel stands apart from the main building, and this seems by far the most preferable configuration. Just as hospital banks and hairdressers seem faintly ridiculous, so a chapel sits uncomfortably within the frame of the main building – its purpose too distinct to bear allegiance with personnel departments and pharmacies.

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In the fourteen years since its closure, Cane Hill has been visited by hundreds of explorers – many of whom have inevitably tampered with the remaining furniture and paperwork. [a wheelchair from Rossetti stranded in the pharmacy …the bizarre migration of ward reports from Hogarth to Ruskin ….] …With the possible exception of the wards of Browning-Blake, very little in the hospital can be taken at face value…]

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Fragments

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Increasingly, I find myself wondering why people visit these buildings - and more significantly, continue to return long after their initial curiosity has been sated…

My own reasons remain somewhat nebulous, although I suppose certain factors are fairly obvious. Having grown up in the shadow of an asylum, psychiatry was the backdrop to my childhood, (and later the scourge of my adolescence..). – and so naturally these places hold a particular fascination for me….

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Additionally, when depressed, I quickly grow weary of family or nature, and need to be immersed in something more excoriating and hopeless. Each visit is not so much an embrace of new experience, or a search for some kind of answer – but rather an escape, …an almost foetal retreat into the world at its most harmless and redundant.

[...Perhaps the greatest illustration of my state of mind is the fact that I experience a sense of comfort when wandering about these forgotten asylums. Not exhilaration or awe, but comfort. Their innards ripped out, floors caving in, level after level of support slowly falling away - yet they are still there - from the outside appearing almost unchanged… (Indeed, they are such a perfect metaphor as to be laughable)..]

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As others have suggested, such behaviour also represents a turning away from unbearably oppressive consumerism - the demonic sheen of Starbucks and Bluewater. In antiquated trolleys and crumbling machinery, there is genuine sense of the world before it took such a wrong turn…

“Dilapidation, derelict London… we love to wander in these little Stalker-like scurf zones of underdevelopment, to escape the crushing sense of Now. Aspiration, hygiene, focus: we want somewhere to flee from this Amerika of the soul. …We don't hunger for the time when these caffs, these ruins and rust-heaps, were shiny-new. We savour their decay, the gentle rot...” [Mark Fisher]


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And yet the tenor of most other accounts is rather triumphalist. Explorers approach each building with torches, hard hats, extravagant cameras – each revelling in being somewhere forbidden, …in the sight of collapsed ceilings and security guards … … I struggle to understand how anyone can be so myopic - but I suppose with little appreciation of context, these places can feel like nothing more than vast, elaborate playgrounds…

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Exterior


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… …The hospital may now lie derelict, but it remains very much a part of the local consciousness. (Certainly there is nothing of remotely the same scale within the town’s boundaries…) Approaching Coulsdon from the north, its water tower dominates the skyline, while its long driveway begins at the mouth of the town centre. Even when riding the bus, several people mentioned it in passing; and it is still a regular news item in the local press. With each generation, perceptions of the hospital change (it appears that fear has now been supplanted by curiosity) – but the hospital retains a prominence greater than in almost any other town…

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Animals

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Pigeon coos merge with the distant rumble of freight trains – but all wildlife stays resolutely out of sight. The animals at Cane Hill are strangely furtive; excretions and carcasses their only trace…..[..In most instances, their bodies had decomposed beyond all recognition – although beneath a window in Andrewes we discovered a still-warm bullfinch. (its burnished plumage all the more startling when set against the dampened hues of the walls and curtains)….]

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Vincent Vanburgh

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Arson is the most cowardly, idiotic of crimes – and yet at times I almost found myself thankful for some of the views it afforded me. (inching down sulphur-licked corridors before emerging into an almost celestial light...)

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In Vincent Vanburgh, for instance, a fire has caused the building’s entire mid-section to collapse. Light now streams in from three floors, granting an astonishing cross-section of its many wards and days rooms. Elsewhere, the floor has buckled and bowed, door frames left charred and fragile - and yet the whole area is still extraordinarily beautiful. (like a firebombed cathedral)

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It is only such, of course, because firemen prevented the rest of the hospital from becoming an inferno - but it is still impossible to deny its splendour .....(or to deny the creative power of destruction). Indeed, the entire area provokes such awe in all who visit, it seems hypocritical to condemn those responsible...


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Wards

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Having visited several times, the thing I wish most to communicate about the building is its sense of peacefulness, ..safety. Viewed from the footpath it seems incredibly forbidding (before entering I was convinced I was going to die!) - yet once inside all unease vanishes. Nervousness stems from a fear of being caught, nothing more. Many asylums have a ‘Last Days of Berlin’ atmosphere - post-apocalyptic wastelands burdened with signifiers of death and illness – and yet Cane Hill seemed different. Everywhere there were traces of pain and suffering, but the mood was still one of gentle decline. Perhaps it was simply that much of the fixtures and fittings were so antiquated – but the overwhelming feeling was simply of a building whose life had run its course.

Mortuary

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One of the last parts of the hospital I visited was the mortuary - a small building to the rear of the site that even included its own chapel.

All that remained were trolleys, weights, and two lustrous porcelain slabs (one of which had been recently cleaned). Closer examination yielded some rather chilling details ….. (drainage channels for blood and fluids, scales for the weighing of body parts) – but the atmosphere remained sombre rather than morbid. As with much of the hospital, its tragic past has been softened by nature; …the random incursion of brambles and other flora.

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In an adjacent room there were storage bays for fifteen bodies, each lifted and stowed by an antique rack-and-pinion mechanism. Again, there was very little damage – the supports discoloured only by random patches of mould.

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Coda

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My grandmother has been ill recently – the last few weeks punctuated by visits to the nearby hospital. Seeing her last night – in a crumbling, urine-soaked ward - I began to feel extremely depressed ---- ….but then suddenly a nurse smiled at me, a patient in the next bed made my grandmother laugh – and I was reminded of the rather simple truth that it is the people who make these places. Nothing else matters.

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Indeed, when it comes to asylums, compared to the testimonies of staff and patients the buildings themselves are now of little historical interest - banal relics, with only the slightest trace of the people they once held…. An absolute sense of desolation is their overriding feature - their impact derived from all that is absent ……


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Artwork



  • Inside Out - Arts Council project on the hospital that showcases Rachel Gadsden's extraordinary paintings of the hospital (thumbnails above). Also includes brooding video footage of the hospital's interiors, in addition to a musical score and handful of photographs.


  • Rachel Gadsden Paintings and Projects - More examples of her work on Cane Hill, North Wales Hospital in Denbigh, and many other subjects. Her paintings are warm, vibrant and compassionate - the antithesis of most other work on decay.



  • Primary Resource

  • Urbex UK - Cane Hill Project - An unparalled resource on Cane Hill. ...Simon Cornwell's project encompasses several excellent tours (covering ten times as much ground as here) as well as a wealth of other information.... [maps, historical images, essays, paperwork]



  • Alternative Accounts

  • Sub-Urban - excellent tour that also includes a short video.


  • Abandoned Britain - extended tour of Cane Hill - universally strong with excellent photographs of exteriors.


  • Urban Decay - large collection of images, with many exceptional black-and-white compositions.


  • Nobody There - extensive tour with highly pragmatic approach to documentation.


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