mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

Time:2:05 pm.

chapel.....#1 - Rauceby



After learning that it was soon to be demolished, I decided to pay Rauceby Hospital (formerly Kesteven County Asylum) a visit this afternoon. A two-hour train journey from Cambridge, the hospital is secreted away deep in the Lincolnshire countryside, two-and-a-half miles from the nearest village. Built to house almost 500 patients in 1902, the hospital closed in 1997 and is about to make way for a vast new housing estate ..(the admin block and conservatory are apparently the only original features to be retained.)

There’s a great deal to be said about the history of such asylums, of course, and indeed about mental health in general, but I don’t wish to say too much until I have conducted considerably more research. For now, I wish merely to document as many asylums as possible before they are demolished, turned into housing, or simply allowed to degenerate into deathtraps (as in the case of Cane Hill in Coulsdon…)

I hope to visit at least one hospital each month (perhaps more in the summer) and chronicle each adventure at length in this journal. Over the years, I’ve visited several such abandoned institutions but Rauceby is the first I’ve decided to document in any way . ..(motivated primarily by its imminent destruction, of course, but also by a renewed interest in photography..)

I wanted my photographs to be as personal as possible - paying far more attention to capturing the hospital’s atmosphere than to recording its architectural features ..(hence the lack of shots of exterior - something that would barely have been seen by any of the patients). ..My camera is poor and my compositional sense weak, but I hope that I have managed to give a reasonable account of the hospital's last few days.


Chapel



One of the first buildings I visited was the hospital’s chapel - a rather humble red-brick construction that was now being used solely for storage. Divided in two by a chipboard partition, the inside was particularly bright and serene, and I can only pray the developers are able to find some use for it. The altar has already been stripped away, as have most other decorative features, so unfortunately I hold out little hope. For the moment, it is home to notebooks, ladders, electrical cables.. (even something that looks suspiciously like an E.C.T machine) and will probably be demolished in a few weeks' time.




Kitchens/Laundry



Asylums are still regarded as "bleak old Victorian institutions" - terrifying monoliths that speak of unimaginable horrors, suffering, and, most significantly of all, extreme danger – (a fear that still stems largely from ridiculous prejudices concerning mental illness). Even when lying empty, many people remain too afraid even to walk around their perimeter or explore their grounds.

I suppose I am rather fortunate in that my entire family has worked in psychiatric hospitals in various capacities over the years (everything from nurses and managers right down to ward supervisors and cleaners) - something which ensured I grew up with an extraordinarily vivid sense of the day-to-day reality of such places. Like any other hospital, to me these asylums represent recovery, care and compassion far more than they do fear, violence and suffering. Walking about the complex this afternoon, I didn’t find the hospital in the least bit menacing or cold. Indeed, aside from the constant cawing of crows (in certain sections, deafening), the hospital was generally quite peaceful. At one stage, I even noticed a young couple in their twenties exploring the site with their baby.




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Cells/Dormitories/Wards



Most cells were incredibly small - barely enough room even for a bed - and struck me as being particularly fearsome and oppressive (far more claustrophobic than my own experiences, at least). For obvious reasons, most rooms contained nothing more than a heater (in a handful of cases not even this), and in terms of light or the possibility of a view, things were similarly bleak. At the rear of each cell was only a tiny double-paned window, while in the more acute wards patients were denied even this. There, windows were covered by lockable grilles - a small amount of sunlight streaming through the interstices, but all hopes of looking out across parkland utterly curtailed

In contrast, the dormitories and wards, whilst cramped and with little or no privacy, at least seemed fairly bright and vibrant. Large windows and high ceilings asssured an influx of light, and the atmosphere was one of recovery rather than imprisonment…




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Animals



What remains of the hospital is now home to an abundance of wildlife – primarily bats and pigeons, but also a host of other animals too. In one particular ward, I even encountered the decaying, fetid corpse of a large pheasant. Clearly it had found its way into the main building but been far too stupid to retrace its steps. Indeed, on almost every stairwell, I seemed to come across some kind of dead animal. In the middle of a children’s ward, I even discovered the pristine carcass of a woodpigeon. Its wings folded weakly beneath its body, it had lain completely undisturbed as flesh and sinew had slowly wasted away.

[One of the things I find so fascinating about such places is that the whole cycle of life and death continues long after the final patients have been discharged. Exploring the upper floors of the hospital, I’d often feel reassured by the cooing of fledglings in the rafters, or the sound of bats and mice scuttling around in the passageways below. …For me, the appeal of these buildings lies not in history or nostalgia, but in a kind of aberrant, forgotten present.]

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Hospital Radio

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Undoubtedly my favourite part of the visit was the time I spent exploring what remained of the hospital’s radio station. Located in a small office to the rear of the ballroom, it was perhaps the only part of Rauceby with any kind of genuine human presence. Handwritten production notes, scoresheets for inter-ward quizzes – at almost every turn something highly singular and personal.

I even stumbled across a rather baffling script that appeared to be written by one of the patients:

214-231 Crowds Walking..
277-281 Laughter
304-5 Whine and Cry
306 Crowds Noisy

For a moment, I thought that they had perhaps constructed an elaborate hierarchy of suffering, ..a paranoid inventory of everything that had upset them that particular afternoon. I quickly realised, however, that it was actually an audacious plan for some kind of avant-garde radio show; a Vertov-like compendium of sounds and field recordings. (The most banal and everyday of noises utterly transformed by the sounds that they precede and follow..)

The radio station ceased transmission in 1994, but as the booth lies beyond the reach of all but the most determined of vandals, most of the technical equipment and production notes remain incredibly well preserved. Indeed, were it not for an enormous sign reading ‘Hospital Radio Rauceby 1976-94’, I’d have had little trouble believing it had been abandoned only a few weeks ago..



Each Wednesday at 8, it appears that someone calling himself The Heartbreak Kid would play an hour-long selection of Beatles tracks. In order to promote the show, he’d actually produced a series of flyers – cheap black and white photocopies in which he assumed the role of the fifth Beatle, a huge grin plastered across his face as he sat to the side of Paul and a few inches below George. (On another flyer I unearthed, he’d even superimposed his face upon a similarly iconic image of Elvis!).

I actually found all of this incredibly affecting, even more so when I discovered what was clearly the playlist for one of his shows. In beautifully crisp, clear handwriting, a list of fourteen Beatles tracks - resolutely upbeat, populist fare, clearly designed to foster the occasional sing-a-long in the dormitories and wards.. (..It was tempting to read something into the songs he had chosen, particularly Fool on the Hill and Day in the Life, but I eventually realised that his tracklisting came directly from the 'Blue Album'..)

It struck me as being a particularly happy (even hopeful) place. The posters that adorned the walls featured smiling faces (in the case of Jimmy Somerville not such a good thing!), while there wasn’t a single Smiths or Leonard Cohen record in sight. Sitting there this afternoon, I actually sensed something incredibly reassuring. An approach to life that in many ways mirrored my own - the use of music to comfort and to heal…

Whilst all of the actual records had disappeared, many of the gatefold sleeves remained (New Order, Yazz, Jimi Hendrix) , as did hundreds of pages of transcripts from the hospital’s eighteen years on air. Most broadcasts concerned local affairs, but occasionally there’d be the odd guest or segment of interest. I almost laughed out loud when I discovered a show featuring 80s cast-off Keith Harris and his puppet Orville. I suspect that these transcripts concerned syndicated broadcasts (certainly there was little mention of goings-on within the hospital itself), but the thought of that little green aberration chirping away still brought an enormous smile to my face..



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Nurses' Block



The demolition work already seems to have already started in the Nurse’s Block - all windows and doorframes have been removed, while protective sheets now cover most of the ground around the perimeter. Architecturally utilitarian, the building was nothing more than an assortment of bedrooms and bathrooms spread uninterestingly across four large floors. Despite all the rubble and devastation, however, there remained a sense of past activity and of life that was largely absent elsewhere in the hospital. Indeed, many areas of the building still seemed faintly feminine – not through the presence of anything so obvious as a dress or nurse’s uniform, but rather through the softness of the remaining fixtures and fittings; ..the freshness and lustre of the broken faucets.



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Occupational Therapy



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Records/Paperwork



Though patient records have now been transferred or incinerated, far less attention appears to have been paid to those of the staff. In one room alone, I counted sixteen folders of payslips, expense sheets, and most interestingly of all, applications for sick leave. Most concerned trivial conditions such as viral infections and food poisoning, but a select handful were far more disconcerting. In a pile of almost a hundred slips, stress appeared no less than fifteen times, and much the same can be said of depression.

Even more sobering was the case of a staff nurse brutally assaulted by someone under his charge - an attack so severe it merited almost three works off work. (His form reads simply : injury to lower back due to violent incident from patient on ward.)

On the upper tier of the same room, I also discovered literally thousands of prescription slips (everything from flouxetine to a tube of emollient), all of which still bore the patients’ full names and addresses.

Elsewhere in the hospital, official directives and missives abounded; most not too dissimilar to the kind of thing you’d encounter in a G.P’s waiting room, although occasionally I’d unearth something far more disturbing. Guidelines on the placement of children at risk, for example, (truly harrowing in their matter-of-factness) or instructions for the handling of suicide attempts.



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Pictures/Art



On the floor of the Occupational Therapy centre, I also discovered a remarkably assured painting of a fire engine. I had initially assumed it to be the work of a young child, yet the extraordinary attention given to the driver’s features appeared to suggest otherwise. A similarly accomplished vision of an Arthurian knight was pinned to the wall above, leaving me even more unsure whether these paintings were the work of a patient or merely those of a particularly hands-on therapist.

. . Unfortunately there was almost no other work to hand, and so I left with little clue as to their origins. The pictures of the fire truck and knight were two of only five works of art I encountered in the entire complex, everything else appearing to have been incinerated.. (All of this in marked contrast to Cane Hill, of course, where there remain several drawers’ worth of patients’ artwork - much of it terrifying, yet some of it genuinely of exhibition standard…)



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Corridors etc



I must have spent upwards of three hours exploring the site this afternoon, yet would find it impossible to say how often I had passed through certain sections. As with almost any hospital, the most abiding impression was of endless corridors; disorientation, monotony - a slow dissolve into abstraction. Walking about the site this afternoon, I disregarded signs and floor plans entirely – embarking instead upon an almost Situationist search for experience – drifting mindlessly from one ward to another in a desperate attempt to see past their base utility.

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Ballroom/Conservatory



Much of the interior of Rauceby is bleak and uninspiring - brute functionality inevitably taking precedence over style and character. There were, however, two notable exceptions – the ballroom and conservatory…

The ballroom, in particular, was far more radical than the rest of the hospital. Expecting a rather dreary assembly hall, I was stunned by the incredible flash of light and colour that greeted me upon my arrival. Its stage framed by soft blue and white arches, the ballroom seemed exceptionally peaceful and inspiring - a soft-hued sanctuary for the more artistic amongst the hospital’s patients. It was also of a decent size, yet like all good venues still small enough to feel intimate and conspiratorial. I imagine it was here that the staff and patients gave the hospital its final send-off…



It was also one of the best-preserved sections of the hospital…. (its windows amongst the very few in the hospital still to bear curtains, ….. ) and there was very little rubbish in evidence save a rather bizarre pyre of broken turntables and speakers to the front of the stage….

Although the signs around the hospital continued to refer to it as a ballroom, in its final few years it appears to have functioned largely as a playhouse and makeshift sports hall - a full-size badminton court marked out in its centre, and several pieces of theatrical debris scattered randomly about the stage. Indeed, the ballroom was perhaps the most obvious symbol I encountered of a bygone age in the treatment of the mentally ill. It seemed utterly incongruous amongst all the wards and corridors… (to me ballrooms speak of Glenn Miller and Churchill, not Venlafaxine and schizophrenia) yet for much of the last century such places were an absolutely integral part of any asylum. (My grandparents even met at a staff dance in the ballroom of what was then called Brentwood Mental Hospital.)



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Ceremony



Whilst Care in the Community and the advent of new drugs have helped to restore a great many people’s dignity and freedom, for the few left behind, the loss of the facilities and sense of fellowship provided by these asylums has undoubtedly made their lives a good deal harder..

Long-term patients in newer units frequently complain of a lack of activity – of the opportunity to do little more than sit smacked-out in front of a television all day – and for all their many faults, asylums such as Rauceby, with their gardens, sewing rooms, sports teams and theatres, seem to have provided something of immense importance…

To the best of my knowledge, the only hospital that can still be said to adopt a similar attitude is St. Andrew’s in Northampton (a beautiful sprawling 100 acre site which even features its own golf course and croquet lawn) – its enlightened approach only possible because it is run as a charitable trust beyond the reach of local authorities…

Grounds



Mindful of security, I had little opportunity to explore the grounds, though from the little I saw I doubt that I missed out on very much. Most is now given over to rubble and access routes as the bulldozers begin their assault upon the main site. Perhaps the only section retaining any of its original character is the small expanse of greenery immediately to the rear of the hospital. Obviously it has lain untended for several years now, but from the views afforded by the upper floors, the overwhelming impression is still one of calmness and renewal.


Ending




[After a final visit to the chapel, I headed back to the train station and began the three-hour journey home. We were delayed for almost an hour outside Grantham; the girl beside me joking that some idiot had probably thrown themselves in front of the train.]

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