Rauceby Hospital - Sleaford, Lincolnshire [2004]

Rauceby Hospital lies deep within the Lincolnshire countryside, two-and-a-half miles from the nearest village. Built in 1902, the hospital closed in 1997, tens of thousands of patients having passed through its doors. It is soon to make way for a vast new housing estate, with the administration block and conservatory reportedly the only original features to be retained.

I spent a few hours there in the Spring of 2005, photographing much of the site and seeking to capture in some way the brief interlude between active use and demolition. Given the hospital's size, the clearance of furniture and other paraphernalia was rather haphazard, with traces of its former inhabitants scattered everywhere. Often this was just scraps of paper or clothing, though sometimes whole rooms, such as the hospital's radio booth, had survived largely intact. 

Asylums are still regarded by many as bleak, old Victorian institutions - terrifying monoliths that speak of unimaginable horrors and danger (a fear that stems in part from misconceptions concerning mental illness). Even when lying empty, many people remain reluctant even to walk around their perimeter or explore their grounds. At various stages, most of my family worked in psychiatric hospitals (everything from nurses and managers to ward supervisors and cleaners), and so I at least grew up with a sense of the day-to-day reality of such places. Like any other hospital, to me these asylums represent care and compassion as much as fear and exclusion. Walking about the complex this afternoon, I rarely found the hospital unsettling; instead the prevailing sense was of anachronism and sanctioned decline.

Most cells were incredibly small - barely enough room even for a bed - and for obvious reasons 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 a tiny double-paned window (too high to afford a view of anything but sky), 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. In contrast, the dormitories and wards, whilst cramped and with little or no privacy, at least seemed fairly bright, large windows and high ceilings ensured an influx of light throughout the day.

Much of the interior of Rauceby was 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 characterful than the rest of the hospital. Expecting a rather dreary assembly hall, I was stunned by the flash of light and colour that greeted me upon my arrival. 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 at the front of the stage.

My favourite part of Rauceby was what remained of the hospital's radio station. Located in a small office to the rear of the ballroom, there remained a palpable 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. At first convinced it was some kind of avant-garde soundscape, I realised eventually it was probably just an index to some sound effects.



                   214-231 Crowds Walking..

                   277-281 Laughter

                   304-5 Whine and Cry

                   306 Crowds Noisy

The radio station ceased transmission in 1994, but as the booth lay beyond the reach of all but the most determined of vandals, the technical equipment and production notes remained incredibly well preserved. Indeed, were it not for an enormous sign reading "Hospital Radio Rauceby 1976-94, it would be easy to think it had been abandoned only a few months ago..

Each Wednesday evening, 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 even 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 superimposed his face upon the gyrating frame of Elvis Presley).


I found all of this incredibly affecting, even more so when I discovered a handwritten playlist for one of his shows: a list of fourteen Beatles tracks. (It was tempting to read something into the songs he had chosen, particularly 'Fool on the Hill' and 'Day in the Life', though I soon realised the track listing came directly from The Blue Album).

While 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 laughed out loud when I discovered a show featuring 80s cast-off Keith Harris and his puppet Orville, though I suspect that these transcripts concerned syndicated broadcasts (certainly there was little mention of goings-on within the hospital itself).

The station struck me as being a particularly happy, even hopeful place - and I sensed something incredibly reassuring: the use of music to comfort and to heal. There was undoubtedly a degree of projection in this, having, for many years, used music to manage my own instability - but the love and care devoted to the studio was instantly apparent. (My impressions of hospital radio probably owe something, too, to the 90s BBC drama Takin' Over the Asylum, in which music was ascribed a similar power: serving not just as escapism, but as actual salvation; art as the only meaningful buffer to terror).

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 twenty 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").

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 disoriented to retrace its steps. Indeed, on almost every stairwell, I seemed to come across some kind of dead animal, some in advanced stage of putrefaction, others so lushly-plumed or silken it was hard to believe they were no longer alive. In the middle of a children's ward, I even discovered the pristine carcass of a wood pigeon. Its wings folded weakly beneath its body, it had lain completely undisturbed as flesh and sinew had slowly wasted away.

[For me, the appeal of these buildings lies not just history or nostalgia, but in a kind of aberrant, forgotten present; the whole cycle of life and death continuing 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.]

One of the last buildings I visited was the 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, though the altar had already been stripped away, as had most other decorative features. 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.

I must have spent more than three hours exploring the site, yet would find it impossible to say how often I passed through certain sections. As with most hospitals, the most abiding sense was of endless corridors and disorientation - 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.

Mindful of security, I had little opportunity to explore the grounds, though most were 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 was the small expanse of greenery to the rear of the hospital. An overgrown gazebo stood at its centre, the grass around it still trimmed by the building's custodians. Beyond, lay a row of young trees, perhaps planted in the hospital's final decade, while beyond these, the fields extended as far as the horizon, the view unchanged since the hospital's opening.