One of the most unique things to explore in and around London for the past 20 years or so has been the county asylums, many of which were shut down in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher‘s privatization of UK government systems. Asylums like Severals, Cane Hill, Horton, Manor, Long Grove, and West Park have been places that inspired slow strolls, beautiful photography and space for quiet contemplation about local histories that we seem to have collectively forgotten.

Better housing?

In January of last year, I wrote about West Park, about how the legendary security guard lovingly called The Hammer came down on us like a ninja and walked us off the property. He was a good sec and likely the reason why the place was so beautifully preserved.

Then, in July, I wrote about it again, this time making it in after The Hammer had been laid off, probably due to the recession. I predicted at the time that this may be the end of our beloved asylum, with the economy crumbling and every developer grubbing around for areas to “redevelop” in line with the government’s plans to embed a curtain of concrete, metal and glass over the whole of greater London before the Olympic games in 2012.

Where we still play

Shiny

Well, sure enough, I just got word that Jonathan Lees, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Epsom & Ewell has announced plans to level the site and build “a total of 373 new homes.”

When I posted the news story to my facebook page, I was surprised by two things. First, there was no cry of “let’s stop them!” (as my archaeologists friends might do) and second, the two comments that were posted (by UrbExers) were very reasonable in terms of letting go of the place. The first from Midnight Runner who say this “always happens but who’s going to buy their buildings in this financial climate?” and the second from Statler who said “interesting that they propose to convert the water tower into 4 dwellings, that tower has a HUGE crack down the middle of it and is held together by steel bands!”

Well thought out?

These comments reinforce my earlier postings about the UrbEx communities enjoyment of architectural transition and the lack of a need to hold on to the physicality of a place. But these comments also say something about the depth of our relationships with these places. Who else in this city has such detailed information about dangerous substances, unsafe architectural elements and archaeological points of interest?

Granted,  most of us who explore this place never saw West Park as an active asylum and maybe there are some memories here that people might want to forget. Perhaps this concept sits behind the scenes like a memory architect, quietly guiding the hand of redevelopment. We get nostalgic about the London Asylums but as David Lowenthal writes in The Past in Foreign Country “nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. The pain is today. We shed tears for the landscape we find no longer what is was, what we thought it was, or what we hoped it would be.” But does our discomfort with particular memories warrant an erasure of that past? Certainly a lesson here could be learned from Germany, a country which humbly preserves horrible memories because even memories of difficult times can help us to better understand who were are today, even if it is just about not repeating certain mistakes.

Dangerous?

The question that lingers is an important one – do we need the physical space to remain in order to remember? The UrbEx community seems content to look at thousands of photos taken and say “yeah, I was there when it was something different” yet we know an intimacy of place through experience. It seems to me a very mature response to spatial change, memory without attachment to place. But the archaeologist in me still wants to cry foul.

One comment on Lee’s blog by Dave Baker asks whether “there also been budgetary arrangements and provisioning for a photographic survey prior to demolition”. Dave, just so you know, there is probably no building in the city that has been better documented. The better question in my mind is whether our digital archiving is all that is needed to make sure these places are never forgotten. Where is the room in the agenda for experience of place?

I guess the likelihood of that argument holding weight in a society based on a commodity system is not likely to sway many hearts or minds but in terms of documentation, whenever the council would like to thank us for our wonderful work in preserving memories of these neglected places, including Rookinella’s controversial tour offered to The Independent, I am sure the UrbEx community would be happy to hear it. In the meantime Mr. Lee, just from an economic standpoint, please consider the possibility that the Asylum would make more money as a London County Asylum living museum and heritage park that as a housing development in the middle of a recession. Just a thought.

Thinking space

Documented

Young ones

Left behind

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12 Responses to “West Park Asylum slated for housing “development””

  1. Winch Says:

    Agreed, Mental Health needs a museum. Even if it’s just by using the Admin block and then converting the existing buildings on site, it would at least serve to show what a total asylum was and looked like.

    My experiences of asylums have almost all been of dereliction, aside from one impromptu visit to St Cadocs in Wales, which hadn’t been closed yet. It felt very different; I guess the buildings being forgotten about and left to rot is a suitable metaphor for the people who were put there.

    Derelict buildings will never able to be represented properly in a museum – they are an experience you have to dig out and work at.

  2. Urban Orienteer Says:

    Hi Bradley,

    Thanks for the link to County Asylums. I recently started to follow your blog because I think it might help me position myself relative to the practice of UrbEx. My own focus at the moment is the government’s “curtain of concrete, metal and glass” you refer to:

    http://urbanorienteer.blogspot.com/2010/01/throwing-stones-at-glass-houses.html

    However, I am interested to find out to what extent UrbExers share in a general attitude, and how best to characterise it? Apparently not nostalgia…so what else? Escapism or even fetishism perhaps? More specifically, without the threat of architectural change, would there be any motivation for exploration at all?

    Unfortunately I don’t have any connections with UrbExers so I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Cheers,

  3. sophos9 Says:

    Bradley, Hi

    Great write up. My purpose in providing a comment to the planning applications committee was not to secure derelict urban exploration view more so to provide a concise and historically correct characterisation of West Park and its contribution to healthcare in modern Britain thus the conversations with English Heritage for a full site audit and historical record.

    Do you know of any such documentation documenting the historical contributions to healthcare?

    Thanks my friend

    Dave

  4. sophos9 Says:

    Thanks my friend – I will keep you up to date with response from the Planning Committee output and how the discussions evolve with EH, they seem very keen at the minute however funding is an issue – if we can get the planners to fund the characterisation then EH should become significantly interested :)

    Winch done an awesome job – great historical importance and lots of work in there

    Kind regards

    Dave

  5. Urban Orienteer Says:

    Hi Bradley,

    Many thanks for the reply. I haven’t been over to see the Olympics site for ages…just mud and cranes at the time. It seems absurd that they are going to cover the place with drone surveillance. After the games maybe they’ll wall it off and turn it into a Running Man arena.

    Since the emphasis in my project has moved away from the Olympics development, it would be good to work it back in. My current collaborators are in the process of securing a gallery space for an exhibit this summer. I can’t promise anything but we are keen to invite others to join us. If you are working on something of your own already that might be perfect. I’ll keep you posted if there is an opening.

    Also, I noticed your small documentary on Vimeo. Would you be happy if I decided to base a post on it at some point in the future?

    Cheers,

  6. jonathanlees Says:

    Thanks for the comments. It was most interesting looking at your site and the photos. For clarity it is not us (Lib Dems) that have put it up for development. There has been a plan for many years for housing to be built on here as proposed by Epsom & Ewell Council and a builder has submitted an planning application for this, which is what the article refers to. For information the Council is run by the Residents Association.

  7. JohnONolan Says:

    Hey Bradley, I can confirm that The Hammer is in fact still there! He escorted us off the property today with the very same sense of confusion as to what we could possibly be doing there.

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