Wednesday, December 30, 2009
The last days of Hellingly Asylum
Growing up in Hastings, there was always a joke that the town was so full of nutters because they were all given a one-way train ticket from Hellingly mental hospital. It may even have been true.
Situated in a remote pocket of the East Sussex countryside, even the name of this early-Edwardian institution conjured up an evocative image of - well - Hell. It closed around the time I left Hastings for the more civilised surroundings of Brighton in the mid-80s, but it always retained its fascination for me.
So when the news came that it was finally due to be demolished in early 2010 to make way for a luxury housing estate, a couple of mates from Hastings suggested a photographic mission to capture the last days of this once magnificent building.
We deliberately chose the last Sunday of the year, the day after Boxing Day, when we figured security would be low. Demolition was already well under way lower down the site, but the part we were heading for was as yet untouched. A couple of our small party had already been in and had previously been challenged by security, who have a tendency to patrol with fearsome dogs.
The day turned out to be perfect: bright sunshine, chilly and crisp, so it was over a security fence, through a bramble bush, under another fence, more brambles, up and over through a window, then another, and we were in, unchallenged.
The building is amazing: a huge red brick construction dominated by a large water tower; corridors with more corridors off them; a huge ballroom with an arched ceiling bearing ornate ceiling roses and the remnants of what must have been beautiful stained glass windows; hydrotherapy baths with sinister-looking knobs and dials; the smashed remnant of a hairdressing salon; long ward rooms; tiled kitchens and bathrooms. It's a warren, with angular corners giving the feeling you could walk forever and disappear into an infinite architectural fractal.
Many of the corridor roofs have collapsed, and floorboards are perilous, partly through rot and partly vandalism. Numerous fires have been set and every single fixture, fitting and pane of glass has been destroyed, some by intruding vandals, and no doubt others by the developers to deter architectural salvage. Despite that, there's still enough to see to conjure an image of what it would have been like: remnants of wallpaper, remaining fireplaces, signs, a room full of hoists and other medical implements, the cracking paint revealing fragments of previous layers of colour, tattered orange curtains flapping as nature's green tendrils creep in through shattered panes.
One of the most fascinating aspects is the graffiti. Alongside the usual scrawled knobs and obscenities, artists have used the building as a canvas for an inventive series of works: a ghostly woman rising from a bath; a top-hatted tailcoated figure in the corner of the ballroom; two creepy Victorian girls by a doorway, all adding to the atmosphere of a place where misery, tragedy, fear and joy would have commingled for eight decades.
My pictures are on Flickr but for some reason I can't link to them, but the link to my site is in the left-hand bar here. There's also a link there to Hellingly on Google Earth - catch it while it's still visible.
A/ What a great idea.
B/ Those luxury flats will undoubtedly be haunted.
C/ Your blog started out but thankfully didn't end like a Hollywood slasher.