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Brentwood Community Hospital - Essex [2005]

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While the majority of former 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, Brentwood Community Hospital, now empty, I visited this afternoon. Lying in a quiet residential street, just a short walk from the town centre, 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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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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"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."

 

- Brentwood Gazette (August, 2005)

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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 strange 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, even emitting a low hum when I touched one of the dials. As the hospital closed only a few months 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. 

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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, Shenfield Road and Crescent 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."

 

- Brentwood Gazette (August, 2005)

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Drifting around the ground floor, I stumbled across the log book of the security guard, the ink barely dry 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 was 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, with the guard talked of being scared, of asking for backup – the vulnerability of such an isolated job painfully apparent.

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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 is a novel about a young woman’s suicide – but more importantly, is by a little-known 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 only a month earlier. The only book in the entire hospital was by my favourite author, and was something I had been reading only recently.

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In my time exploring derelict buildings (almost always alone, and sometimes at night), I've experienced several moments of unease or fear (strange metronomic footsteps on an empty ward above me at Cane Hill; doors slamming in an airless Severalls corridor - yet this was by far the most unsettling as it related to something so personal. It was such a shock to see it there (so difficult not to interpret it as some kind of sign), that I had to sit down for several minutes to gather my thoughts. Its presence is almost impossible to rationalise, and the chances of it being there would be infinitesimal. 

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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 it grown to visitors, I once managed to pass within ten feet before being noticed, the fox fleeing across the car park.. 

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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.'"

 

- Brentwood Gazette (August, 2005)

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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.' "

- Brentwood Gazette (August, 2005)

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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 stopped me playing football; an encounter with vicious, mocking dermatologist; a blood test when my last major illness first manifested itself) it summoned up nothing by sadness and regret. Visiting again was a miserable experience, even before the uncanny discovery of the novel. The building now at my mercy, I felt completely powerless, 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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