Industrial decay in the City of a Hundred Spires.
This old mental hospital lies a few miles outside of a city in Southwest England, surrounded by a dense growth of woodland. These days it is a popular site amongst local urban explorers… provided you can get past the relatively tight security.
Built in the 1930s to provide support for the city’s overflowing Victorian mental asylum, the layout of the new hospital reflected the growing trends towards patient-centred therapies at the time.
Rather than featuring the traditional, inward-opening network of corridors and wards, this new site was built in a 260-acre woodland estate, with a number of separate buildings and wards scattered through an area of parkland and gardens, and connected with lamp-lined boulevards. Nevertheless, just beyond the perimeter of verdant hedgerows, there lies an imposing perimeter fence.
This progressive hospital flourished through the middle part of the twentieth century, specialising in the treatment of mental illnesses, and was known for pioneering exploration in a number of areas; doctors here were keen to scale down the use of radical approaches such as electro-shock therapy, as well as the barbaric technique known as transorbital lobotomy, which was still being used well into the 1950s. At its peak in the year 1960, the hospital cared for a total population of 453 patients.
After numerous cuts in funding over the following decades, the hospital was at an all time low by the turn of the twenty-first century.
In 2005 a survey conducted on the nation’s urban hospitals found this to be the dirtiest hospital in the country, and two of the remaining wards were closed down overnight, the patients being transferred to other hospitals. The final ward closed the following year, and the hospital was decommissioned in the summer of 2006.
Nowadays this is not an easy site to gain access to, due to the strong security presence.
Rather than strip the hospital altogether, much of the equipment has been left where it stands – and so the site is surrounded by a high fence, and regularly patrolled by a team of security guards with big dogs. The hospital is also used as a training ground for police dogs.
On this particular exploration we managed to climb the perimeter fence at the back, under the cover of the woods; then made straight for the closest building, taking care to steer clear of the security cameras, which may or may not have been operational. This expedition was conducted on one of the hottest days of the year, and in retrospect, I really should have taken a bottle of water with me.
Luckily, we hit the jackpot first time – the doorframe to the side of the building was damaged, so that the door just swung open when pushed. From here a long stone corridor spiralled up and around in darkness, towards the higher floors. Most of the wards in this building were colour-coded, so that you’d explore all of the rooms in the blue area, before moving onto orange, and then green, and so on. In many places there was equipment left in situ, including a couple of self-lowering bath seats, as well as what looked alarmingly like an electro-shock machine in the high security ‘grey’ ward.
There was one small moment of panic a little later, when a patrolling dog caught scent of us whilst exploring the top floor of the main building. It came running towards us down the corridor, and we were forced to dive for cover in the closest unlocked rooms we could find. I found myself holding onto the door handle for dear life, and looking out the window; imagining how hard it would be to drop to the roof of the floor below, jump from there to the nearby trees, and then shimmy down to the ground before making a sprint across the open courtyard and back to the safety of the woods. Thankfully, the dog was an amateur – it lost interest in us soon enough, and the security guards were none the wiser.
A little later, we were walking along one of the wooded paths when we spotted a Land Rover approaching us in the distance. Ducking into the trees, we stumbled across what appeared to be a tall brick chimney, with a plywood board pinned against one side with leaning logs. On pulling this board back a doorway was revealed in the small tower, with steps heading down underground.
It turned out that this was a service entrance to the long stretches of tunnel that weave their way underneath the whole site, from building to building, forming a conduit for gas pipes and electricity cables. By crawling on hands and knees through the dark water, the tunnel allowed for exploration right across the site, without once stepping above ground!
All in all, the hospital makes an enjoyable day’s exploration – so long as you’re not scared of German Shepherds.
Many areas are still intact, furnished with hydrobaths, pharmacy storerooms and dentistry chairs. Other parts however, are now semi-demolished.
Nevertheless, from the grim high security unit through to the peaceful chapel and mortuary block, the whole site feels richly imbued with a sense of its own past; and one can’t help but feel a great deal of compassion for the countless patients who passed through this mental hospital during its many years of service.
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