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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