Hellingly Hospital - East Sussex [2006]

The hospital's exterior gave little sense of the destruction within: missing tiles, smashed windows, but otherwise reasonably sound. Once inside, however, the damage was staggering. The floors were strewn with timber and light fittings, while broken ceiling tiles covered 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.

At the time of my visit, Hellingly had lain derelict for over a decade, its final patients discharged in 1994. Designed by GT Hine and opened in 1903, the hospital housed almost two thousand patients at its peak - female patients on the east of the complex, males on the west, with further provision in the form of villas and an isolation hospital elsewhere in the grounds. In recent years, two secure units were added, remaining in use to this day - but unfortunately, I saw little beyond the main building.


I spent only a few hours there before being overwhelmed by the urge to leave. The reasons remain somewhat nebulous, but I departed in a state of profound disorientation, and now have little recollection of the long journey home (just the clumping strudge of soil; the extreme weight of my boots as I pushed my bike across the barren fields). I can only liken it to a sort of vertigo - or perhaps just exhaustion at the desolate spectacle. Unlike other hospitals, Hellingly acted not as balm, but as a reactant or agitator - existing turbulence amplified by the scale of the destruction (and its implications). After a series of flashbacks, I rushed down the stairs and out through the nearest opening. 

In an attempt at redress, I've spent much of this evening reading the testimonies of people connected with the hospital. Patients, nurses (even inquisitive local residents) all speaking passionately of their ties to the hospital; sufficiently moved to register in print its impact upon their lives. And yet still I find myself struggling to reconcile the accounts with my own experience of the asylum. 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.

The clear centrepiece of the hospital was the main hall - and as such had been subject to the most concerted vandalism. And yet somehow it had survived. Large sections of the stage and flooring lay charred, but the essential character of the hall remained. For some reason, fires never seem to have spread further than a few feet, even when started among the tinder sticks of the rafters or beneath the stage. 

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. 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).

Doors opening and closing are magnificent - the way they point to unsolved mysteries.    - Robert Bresson

As much as anything else, a visit to a former asylum is about doors. They are more numerous and symbolic here than perhaps anywhere else; and are central to any understanding of such places, operational or derelict. In their many states, doors represent the various forces at play within an asylum: the tension between private and public, choice and compulsion, freedom and authority, interior and exterior, power and impotence, the individual and the institution, hope and despair. Indeed, it is possible to consider one's whole life in terms of doors - yet it was only at Hellingly that I began to pay them any real attention. At first, they were merely identified as points of escape, or monitored for any sign of security - though once it became clear I was alone, my focus began to shift. 

With the hospital empty, almost all interior doors lay open - many artfully positioned by previous visitors - and exploring the hospital was largely effortless - so unobstructed, in fact, I sometimes had the sensation of circuiting endlessly, each ward or corridor leaving me more and more convinced that I would never leave. For patients, of course, most doors would have been closed and secured - many finding themselves in a locked room, on a locked ward, on the locked floor of a locked wing, in a locked building, contained by a secure fence, in a location far removed from the rest of society. Each door I encountered presented me with a choice - a movement towards or away from something - yet for patients most doors in the hospital were the opposite. (There is perhaps no greater illustration of this powerlessness than the small viewing window of a cell door). 

All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home - Gaston Bachelard

While doors may be metaphor-rich, the more concrete dimension of those at Hellingly was of equal interest: the size and shape of their handles, the sounds they made, their rhythm. When I think of my own childhood, I can vividly recall certain doors: the old white one that led to the stairs in my childhood home (the thick gloss paint, the old iron latch with its black, bubbled ridges); the cheap featherweight doors in our council house that slammed and juddered each time a window was left open; the sleek plywood panel behind which I crouched and listened, tape over the seals, as laughter filled the hallway.

The doors at Hellingly were no doubt equally significant for many patients, particular the high percentage of long-stay inmates (a 1989 report found that more than half of long-stay patients at Warley had been there over twenty years, with similar numbers recorded elsewhere). For these residents, the hospital couldn't be seen as anything other than a home (to avoid this designation feels too cruel, despite asylums meeting few of the criteria). Many of these doors would have been deeply embedded in their psyches; shaping their how they moved, interacted, thought..

In their current state, the doors at Hellingly gave only a partial sense of their former life. Most of the handles had been removed - presumably for scrap - as had any signs; the final leprous coats of paint clinging on in scattered patches. Still, the layout of each door remained clear. By necessity, the inner side of most cell doors had no handle, while the viewing window was usually just a small, circular hole. Surprisingly, given their age and bulk, most doors still opened and closed silently - their leaden drift largely unchanged. 

With almost all doors leading inward or sideways, after a few hours I began to feel intensely claustrophobic - and can perhaps understand why so many windows were kicked in - vandals not merely smashing glass, but dislodging entire frames - each serving as a necessary portal to the outside world. Eventually, the sight of another row of doors became too much. Rather than an invitation to proceed or to investigate, each open door suggested a departure - no social component or drama - just pure aftermath, my presence utterly redundant. 

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 F____", it spoke of recovery and taking comfort in the gradual coming of spring.

While much of the vandalism made me grimace (mean-spirited 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.

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 (on one occasion even witnessed sunbathing by previous explorers). I eventually discovered what remained of the man's room. A mattress lay by the door, while the floor was littered with clothes and empty cans, a pulp thriller lying open on a nearby desk. I've no idea whether he was caught security or unnerved by trespassers - but it was clear that he had long since departed. 

[At Severalls, I remember a tent pitched in one of the airing courts, and an office nearby containing a mattress, clothes and small bag of tinned food. Given the prevalence of mental illness among those on the street, it seems quite possible that this resident was once a patient - drawn back, perhaps, by the comfort of the familiar, or an awareness of the vast space in which to shelter. Indeed, for someone with few options, staying in a derelict hospital has many advantages - warmth, seclusion and the ability to avoid detection by moving around a vast building - though such a choice says much about the failures of provision elsewhere.]

The thought of a long journey home and a growing unease 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. I found myself almost paralysed by the sudden sense that I was the only person on site. 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.