One Saturday in June, about three or maybe even four years ago, I left home to meet my friend Lorna for lunch. She lived a little further south than me, in Surrey, and we’d agreed to meet in Epsom as it was equidistant between our homes. Anyway, I’m absolutely flipping rubbish at directions, and have little-to-no spatial awareness – I literally can’t remember my way home unless I’ve done the journey about fifty times. So, even though I’d been to Epsom on many occasions, I decided to dig out Mr Sat Nav, to make sure I didn’t get lost.
I think we’d arranged to meet in a car park, but anyway, I thought the High Street was a logical address to tap into my sat nav. So I set off, and said a small prayer to whoever’s up there that the stupid machine wouldn’t try to take me the wrong way up a one-way street like it has done before.
I can’t remember exactly when I noticed something had gone wrong. The problem with me, when I’m driving, is that I go off into some kind of hypnotic state and really don’t absorb where I’m going or what I’m doing. It’s all a bit autopilot-y. But anyway, at some point I turned off the main road and drove down a side road, as instructed, probably singing along incredibly loudly and badly to Britney, and missing the big signs warning me not to enter.
It took a while before I realised something wasn’t quite right. It might have been when Mr Sat Nav cheerfully announced ‘You have reached your destination’ and I realised that the High Street I appeared to be driving down definitely didn’t host any nice little brasseries that Lorna and I could catch up in. It might have been when I realised the road I was trundling my car along was so full of pot holes it was making me feel a bit sick. It might have been when I looked up and realised that all the buildings I was driving past – beautiful, grand red-brick buildings – had either boarded-up or broken windows.
Or it might have been when a woman appeared out of nowhere, and started screaming at me through the window, her eyes wide and staring.
But it was when she started to run after my car, eventually thumping on the back window, that I knew for sure that something Definitely Wasn’t Right.
I know it sounds like I'm making this up, but I swear I'm not. It was a little bit like a scene from a horror film, except for the fact it was a sunny Saturday lunchtime in Surrey.
It took me a good ten minutes to navigate my way back to the main road, and I can’t tell you just how panicked I was by this point. I thought I was never going to get out of there, and all I could hear was the woman shouting and Mr Sat Nav repetitively trying to direct me back to the High Street From Hell. Then, when I finally found the entrance, I saw the sign saying ‘St Ebba’s Hospital’.
I made it to Epsom in the end (I was about 25 minutes late, but this is pretty standard so I don’t think Lorna was too surprised) and as soon as I got home that afternoon, I spent hours online, researching exactly what *kind* of hospital I had ended up at.
And so I discovered a whole new world, hidden away in suburban Epsom. In the late Victorian times, the London County Council chose to erect five huge lunatic asylums in Epsom, in order to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of mental patients in London. Together, they were known as the 'Epsom Cluster' and today, they all stand empty and abandoned, awaiting their future fate. The Mental Health Act in 1983 marked the end of treating mentally ill patients within asylums, and they were all transferred to other hospitals, or sent to live with their families.
There's plenty of history to be found online, but for me, the fascinating thing about these hospitals is that they were run like little towns – with shops, and roads and chapels and greens. They truly housed a whole community, not just the patients, but the nurses and doctors and cooks and admin staff and gardeners. Some of them even had their own railway stations. There's something poignant about the fact that they named the main road in St Ebba's the ‘High Street’. Some time later, I spoke to a friend whose father had been a groundsman there and he said that many of the patients had lived there their entire lives, and found it very distressing when they were ordered out to live in the real world. As such, a few of them return on a regular basis to the surroundings they grew up in – obviously the distressed woman who followed my car was one of them.
I felt a bit ashamed when I drove past the entrance to the hospital again a few months later, this time noticing the big sign saying:
WARNING: VULNERABLE PATIENTS
MAX SPEED: 10MPH
Something I’d clearly overlooked the first time I barged my way in.
It was this experience and my consequent fascination with these beautiful, haunting places that led me to write my second book, Everything You Can Imagine, part of which is set in a mental hospital in the 1970s. The hospital I write about in the novel, West Hill, doesn’t exist, but is instead a fictional amalgamation of West Park in Epsom and Cane Hill in Coulsdon. I was most struck by the water tower at Cane Hill, and without wanting to give anything away, this features heavily in the plot. Both West Park and Cane Hill are such beautiful hospitals, and I feel so sad that they have fallen into disrepair, having been subject to arson and vandalism, and are now most likely to be completely demolished.
If any of this has inspired you the way it inspired me, you can find out endless amounts online. Some of the websites that I used for research include: Epsom's Hospital Cluster, Simon Cornwell, and canehill.org.
I'd like to thank Nick Wild for letting me use some of his fantastic pictures of West Park. Take a look at his Flickr pages to see more pics.