mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2002

Time:5:13 pm.
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........#9 – Hellingly Hospital, Sussex [Spring 2006]


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The hospital’s exterior gives little sense of the destruction contained within. Missing tiles, smashed windows, but otherwise reasonably sound. Once inside, however, the damage is staggering. The floors are strewn with timber and light fittings, while broken ceiling tiles cover entire corridors. (I remember being startled by a patch of original flooring that someone had exposed - several layers of plaster scraped away to reveal a thin strip of linoleum)


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I’ve spent much of this evening reading the testimonies of people connected with the hospital. Patients, nurses (even inquisitive local residents) all speak fondly of their time in the hospital – sufficiently moved to register in print its impact upon their lives. And yet still I find myself struggling to reconcile the two. The destruction within Hellingly is so great it requires a major imaginative leap to picture the hospital in use. Walking through wards and day rooms (even into cells) what few traces exist of staff and patients are overwhelmed by structural debris.


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In the upper reaches of one annexe, I discovered some ward reports, but sadly damp had rendered them illegible. Nearby were scattered some colour charts and templates, a staff presentation on how to be a good nurse – but very little else. Indeed, the only personal item I found was a birthday card. Addressed to “dear Florrie”, it spoke of recovery and rejoiced in the gradual coming of spring.


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Hall


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The clear centrepiece of the hospital is the main hall – and as such has been subject to the most concerted vandalism. …And yet somehow it has survived. Large sections of the stage and flooring lie charred, but the essential character of the hall remains. For some reason, fires never seem to have spread further than a few feet, even when started amongst the tinder sticks of the rafters.


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The stage framed by burnt umber, the ceiling a dusty powder blue - the hall possesses an undoubted grandeur despite a decade’s worth of decay and destruction. Even the wainscoted panelling and ceiling medallions have survived.


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Corridors


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In all of these hospitals, there is the curious sight of nature and vandals working in concert. The untrammelled growth of a tree grants access to some previously inaccessible quarter…(which can then be plundered or attacked). Similarly, a smashed window permits the entry of ivy, which can then go on to consume an entire wall.


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I myself am often dependent on criminality. It is only when vandals or other lawbreakers have cleared a path – smashing windows, removing boarding - that I am able to gain access. (On this particular afternoon, a protective panel had been removed and I was able to post myself through a narrow opening).


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While much of the criminality make me grimace (stupid graffiti, theft) the more savage aspects also offer a perverse thrill. Smashed glass, upturned radiators – everything amplifies the sense of dislocation, fracture. Even arson, when localised, heightens the sense of fragility, bringing what remains into sharper relief.


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Works Area


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Laundry


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Kitchens


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As with other asylums, the afterlife of Hellingly is almost as interesting as its years of active use. Stories range from animal sacrifice to entire rooms being painted white at midnight. There is also the widely-reported tale of a homeless man living on the ground floor (even witnessed sunbathing by previous explorers).


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[In addition to vandals and explorers, these asylums regularly attract the dispossessed. At Severalls, I remember a tent pitched in one of the airing courts, while elsewhere an office contained a mattress and small bag of food and clothes)...]


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At Hellingly. I quickly discovered what remained of the man’s room. A mattress lay by the door, and the floor was littered with clothes and empty cans. A pulp thriller was even located on a nearby desk. I’ve no idea whether he was chased out by security or unnerved by trespassers – but it was clear that he had long since departed. ]


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Communal Areas


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The thought of a long journey home and a growing uneasiness led me to cut short my visit. The storm raging outside was also growing in ferocity, and I became increasingly wary of structural failure – (a small section of corridor collapsing a few metres in front of me). More than anything, though, I started to feel extremely isolated. At one stage, I found myself on the fourth floor looking out across the entire complex, and wondered what on earth I was doing there.


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Further Reading

Hellingly is one of the most documented of asylums– and the sites below offer the most interesting interpretations. (Indeed, one of the reasons this tour is so short is my failure to offer anything of substantial difference.)

  • Sub-Urban - [fascinating “Then and Now” section comparing the hospital as it stands with images from the 1900s]

  • Exploration Station - [reminiscences of former staff, patients and local residents; also contains countless photos]

  • Urbex - [the most accessible tour of the hospital; an extended journey through all of the main points of interest]

  • Abandoned Britain - [black and white tour that perhaps comes closest to capturing Hellingly's calm and stillness]


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