mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Thursday, December 11th, 2003

Time:8:43 pm.
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........Community Hospital, Essex [September 2005]


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While the majority of asylums have now been demolished or converted, there is still a rapid turnover in other hospitals. District and cottage hospitals, even general units, are frequently being closed and rebuilt as the needs of communities change. In my region alone, three are soon to be replaced – the first of which, now abandoned, I visited this afternoon. Lying in a quiet residential street, it has so far escaped vandals, though I’m sure this is soon to change. For much of the day there is a strong security presence, but like most places, shortcuts have been taken and access remains possible with a little perseverance.

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Corridors

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Built in 1934 to serve the needs of a growing community, it was paid for mainly by local fundraising – the cornerstone of which was a ‘buy a brick’ campaign. Its foundation stone was laid by the Princess Royal in 1933, and it was formally opened by Princess Helena Victoria a year or so later. For the next seventy years, its duties gradually diminished, its final responsibilities merely x-rays, blood tests and physiotherapy.

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Clerical

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Speech Therapy

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Ann Edwards, staff nurse in the outpatients department, worked at the hospital for 30 years. She emphasised that no matter how much money was spent on the new hospital the most important thing was to protect the special character created by the people who have worked there. She told the Gazette: "It is a lovely atmosphere at the community hospital - we are one big, happy family. We must not lose that friendly feeling."

Gazette (August, 2005)



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Day Ward

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One of the more interesting pieces of equipment still on site was a scale. At first I assumed it was from a maternity ward - wondering how many pinkened newborns it had cradled – but then I remembered neonatal care was provided elsewhere. Like so much else in the hospital, its original placement and purpose are a mystery – though this time the fault lies with workmen rather than vandals or explorers.

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The majority of the equipment in the hospital has been removed – although, as with other sites, some of the larger items have been left behind. Perhaps the most startling discovery was of a bench and machine on the first floor… In too much of a daze to pay close attention, I was unsure of its purpose, but its presence and positioning was decidedly eerie. It even emitted a low hum when I touched one of the dials..

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As the hospital closed only a few weeks ago, its power supply is yet to be cut off. Random lights are turned on, and items such as computers, fridges and sterilisers can still be plugged in and operated. Again, this only added to the discomfort, the feeling of illegality and intrusion.

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Blood Tests

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Sandy Philpott, who worked as a sister in the outpatient department, said the community hospital team was extremely close knit with many staff firm friends after working together for many years. She added: "It will be sad to see the old hospital go, but the benefits will definitely outweigh what will be lost."

Gazette (August, 2005)



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"The seemingly impossible had happened! The wonderful people of this town had raised £40,000 in pennies, half pennies and even farthings to build their own hospital in a spirit of community never seen before or since. And they did it in just over three years during the darkest days of Britain's biggest economic depression, when one in five men were unemployed. How proud this little town was, and how justifiably so."

Gazette (August, 2005)



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Princess Helena, daughter of King Christian of Denmark and grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, arrived to perform the opening ceremony in front of of a huge and ecstatic crowd lining the High Street, S---field Road and C------t Drive which were festooned in bunting, Union Jacks and Danish flags.

As the princess stepped toward the hospital's gleaming and impressive front door it was realised that the fund-raising committee was still short of £750. But Frederick "Limelight" Jackson, determined that the hospital would open free of debt, held a frantic collection among the onlookers which, amazingly, raised £1,120 in pledges and cash.

Gazette (August, 2005)



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With little trace of decay, I was reminded how banal many of these places are. …It is loss – present or imminent - that is at the heart of beauty; and much of the hospital is too sanitised to have much impact. I felt more like a criminal than an interested observer.

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Operating Theatre

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It is also, in my opinion, a rather ugly building – its art deco features only compounding its hideousness.. Its development appears to have stalled thirty years ago, leaving a legacy of brown floor tiles and wretched curtains. The hospital was a curious mixture of Eastern Bloc squalor and 70s naffness - the interiors dark, cold and irredeemably hostile.

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The grounds of the hospital are now the domain of a single fox. A nurse returns each week to leave food, but the majority of the time, it strolls around undisturbed… Indeed, so unaccustomed has he grown to visitors, I once managed to pass within ten feet of him….

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X-Ray

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Miscellanea

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In one of the waiting rooms, resting on one of the seats, was a book. Constrained by time, I’d ignored it on my first visit – but second time around, decided to look more closely. I’d expected some kind of trashy romance – at best a detective story – but was astonished to discover Among Women Only by Cesare Pavese.

It’s a novel about a young woman’s suicide – but more importantly, is by an obscure Italian author who is barely in print in English, and whom I revere above all others. Even more significant is the fact I had finished rereading the novel the night before. The only book in the entire hospital was by my favourite author, and was something I had been reading only a few hours earlier.

...It was such a shock to see it there – so impossible not to interpret it as some kind of sign – that I had to sit down for several minutes to gather my thoughts… It’s presence is almost impossible to rationalise – and the chances of it being there must be several million to one. (Even more strangely, the book was water-damaged, despite lying in an entirely dry area..).

In the hours since, I’ve thought about little else. I’m currently in the midst of some kind of crisis, scrabbling around for some kind of guidance or sign – and now suddenly this happens. When the hospital closed its doors for the last time, somehow one of my favourite novels was left behind (although ‘favourite’ demeans its importance somewhat. It is a book I have clung to desperately at various times in my life). Only the presence of Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor could have surprised me more. I’ve no idea what to make of all this.

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Security

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Another curious find concerned the building’s security. Drifting around the ground floor, I stumbled across the log book of the security guard, the ink still wet on his latest entry… After scanning a few pages. I was relieved to learn his shift had just finished, and that I was visiting during one of the few periods of the day when the hospital is unmanned.

Predictably most of the entries were rather dull - but whenever there was a noise, the slightest hint of an intruder, the tone changed dramatically. The guard talked of being scared, of asking for backup – at times nearing a siege mentality..(I was so tempted to add my own comment, but in the end restrained myself…)

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Chapel

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The hospital was much loved by the community (the local paper saturated with eulogies) but given its associations (an x-ray on the injury that ruined my football career; an encounter with vicious, mocking dermatologist; a blood test when my last major illness first manifested itself…) it was a building I despised….

Visiting again was a miserable experience. The building now at my mercy, I felt completely powerless… impotent. ...With every step, there was the feeling of confronting my past several years too late. I shan’t be sad to see it demolished.

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