You know you’re in deepest, darkest Surrey when at one moment you’re travelling past what appears to be the sleepy village green and cricket pitch of a Sussex village, and the next are hammering past semi-detached hell on a bypass which stinks of fumes. We’re well inside the M25, and headed for West Park near Epsom - a town which appears to be half the Stella Street idyll of Kingston, and half something a dozen or so miles out in the sticks. Just substitute farmers with tractors for stockbrokers with Porsches.
Approaching West Park itself, and something seems oddly familiar. Peering through the rhododendrons are buildings with sharp lines, neatly arranged windows and, dominating the sky line, an imposing looking water tower. We could be at Park Prewett again - last week’s UE location. While the two asylums don't share an architect, they share many key features.
Said to be ‘an asylum to end them all’, West Park was the last of the five hospitals that constituted the so called ‘Epsom Cluster’ to be constructed. Finished in 1922, the first abiding impression is that of sheer size - West Park is behemothic. The five hours we spent yomping through its corridors and over its roofs revealed only a fraction of the old place’s dozens of wards, admin blocks and utilities. Be sure - there is enough of the place to go round - and if there had been scores of other UE’ers scrambling around that day the chances are we wouldn’t have bumped into them or even registered their crashing about in the undergrowth. It’s also relatively uncharted if the amount of trinkets we discovered were anything to judge by, and we certainly appeared to be the first visitors to much of the complex. Abandoned, it seemed, in stages from 1994 to 1997.
It immediately became apparent that this place is more of a soft touch than Park Prewett - the windows appeared open and un-boarded, and we were not greeted at the perimeter by a towering fence of chain link topped with barbed wire, or any fence at all. Some of the windows were propped ajar, but in generale the lack of mindless desecration (vandalism, graffiti et al) was notable by it’s absence. I wondered why. Perhaps the locals’ indifference to the old asylum was a snobby Surrey thing. Or maybe tramps and junkies (the usual denizens of these dark places) had been chased out of the county by rabid Daily Mailites with axes, for living off the government. I eventually concluded that the site’s location - well out of the way and deep in some menacing looking woodland - may have put off interlopers.
After taking our usual recce around the outside of the buildings - overgrown with the de rigeur UE flora of long grass and brambles - we attempted insertion at the ward nearest the Christchurch road - Ashford/Barton to be precise. We were to realise later that this sector of the asylum was the most infiltrated by other UE’rs so far. Nevertheless, it provided some quite chilling souvenirs, and the interior was far more intact, I was told by my colleagues, than the bolted down wards at Park Prewett.
I had never been inside an asylum before, having left Park Prewett early last week. After entering a ward, the first sensation of note is that of smell. An aroma half way between the comforting hospital scent of disinfectant, and the stench of decaying linoleum and wood tends to hit you as soon as your feet hit the floor from the window-vault. The next feeling apparent is that of touch, as thick, wet, sticky dust climbs up your nostrils and into your mouth. Wards are also cold, being at least a couple of degrees chillier than the sunny airing courts outside. Of course, the sight of an empty room, or the perspective of a long corridor are likely to be the enduring impressions of a sortie, but the sight of cheap wallpaper, saturated with damp, sloughing like orange peel or a bad perm from the ceiling down, is one I find quite difficult to shift.
We enter the wards - which are listed alphabetically, and christened after towns: we’re in Addlestone ward now, and are soon to travel through the As and Bs, a reminder of the sheer size of the place - through a bathroom window. Generally speaking, toilets hold little interest for this Urbexer. They tend to be uniform to the point of ennui, smell worse than working bogs, and sometimes harbour some rather disgusting surprises. Nevertheless, this toilet block looks fascinating already - a good early sign. Bic Razors are piled on a worktop, while several menacing looking syringes lie alongside. The photographers among us snap this up.
Progressing further into the ward we find condiments left behind - some jam which was due to go out of date about seven years ago, and some Ribena which has earned itself a skin of mould several inches thick. It’s trinkets like these - abandoned in the last few days of habitation and more or less untouched - which make these trips worth while, at least for me. They act as a time capsule of sorts, and it’s probably the privilege one feels brushing the dust off them that makes searching for them so addictive. While Park Prewett was a desert for these objects - probably either snitched by an earlier visitor or more thoroughly cleared away before closure - West Park was like a gold mine. It almost mocked the ‘seek and you shall find’ ethic of the urbexer, where hours of toil -searching and walking in circles - will bring their reward. Here the pickings were easy, and quite striking.
A letter from an Aunt to an in-patient. Postcards from New York and Majorca to Nurses on the wards, dated in the mid nineties. Seemingly random pictures of knitwear models and kittens, blue tacked to the walls or cubicles of the walls by some out-of-their-mind schizo who is probably now dead. Patient evaluation forms reading ‘Linda cannot be released into the world yet’, also from a decade before, sometimes earlier. The twisted and deranged shapes that are the loins of art-therapy. A small cuddly toy. Piles and piles of vinyl records, with everything from Tchaikovsky to Liberache. Some distorted and terrifying writing scribbled in biro. A token used in the Asylum economy. These are a few of my favourite things. Things that are almost as much fun to first discover, shouting at your buddies to ‘Come take a look at this mad shit!’, as they are to invent histories of. Christ knows whose armpit the pink soft toy inhabited during it’s long, lonely lifetime. I’m loathe to take these trinkets as souvenirs, as I’m sure they have their ghosts, and were left for a reason, but my comrades seem unfazed, and stuff them into their pockets gladly.
After a while, the wards all seem to blend into one. Here they tend to be arranged around a large, open activity area, with cubicles and narrow rooms filled with beds located off this. After traipsing through several of these ghostly, high ceilinged areas, even the trinkets cease to amuse us and we try and escape the ward and push further into the complex. Easier said than done. While an open window will earn you a ticket to an entire ward (all the interior doors seem open at West Park, and we have a free reign inside), finding a way out can be far more complicated. Eventually we find a door hanging off its hinges, and move into the heart of West Park.
Walkways are common to many asylums. Here, as at Park Prewett, they criss cross the complex, forming pleasing geometric shapes. However, while those at Park Prewett were outside and open to the elements, the proprietors of West Park enclosed them with glass and wood. This is not good news for us, as we struggle to pass one of these barriers. We’re forced to scramble through a small window and out the other side of the walkway, into a massive open area lined with apple trees whose decaying fruit carpets the mossy concrete. West Park seems to surround us for miles on each side, so much so that I wonder if we started a rock concert in here, would anyone notice?
Dominating the site, as it does at Park Prewett, is the enormous Great Hall. West Park’s example was the subject of an enormous arson attack, and the black, furry looking struts of this huge building that project into the air like ribs are in stark contrast to the red brick wards and buildings that cluster round it. Access seems nigh impossible - the walkways towards the hall end with big, thick plywood plugs, and the signs attached to them warn of asbestos poisoning.
So, the aerial route then.
Scrambling over the walkway (which I seem to achieve in the most ignominious fashion possible) proves no problem whatsoever. Descending into the courtyard on the other side, next to the gutted shell of the great hall, proves slightly more problematic. The drop is around fifteen feet, and with no footholds to guide us, we appear lost. Before you can say ‘For God’s sake Jim, I’m an UEer, not a Steeplejack!’, a more intrepid member of our group, shinning across the point of a roof, finds a suitable place. Hanging by his fingertips from the gutters, we egg him on, and he finally drops down into the courtyard. He quickly locates an enormous ladder, which rescues us from our limbo on the roof.
The hall - or what remains of it - is enormous, and very grand. Blackened, roofless as if scalped and now open to the elements, it carries such a powerful air that despite being in a rush, our group pauses for breath and admires the ashy decadence. The wooden supports that once held up the massive roof lie across the floor, which are piled with debris four or five feet high. To the right, the shape of the stage can be seen. The door to the kitchen must be picked towards gingerly, and we balance along long girders carefully on our way towards it.
The hospital cafeteria is by no means as grand as its neighbour, but interestingly it contains a couple of apparently working vending machines and a microwave. Empty bottles of Bristol Cream and wine and assorted ‘picks’(now mouldy and festering) suggest the staff had one last shindig before the old place closed its doors.
Having experienced the faded grandeur of the Great Hall, our group moves towards its next major objective - the enormous, grey, gothic looking water tower. Once again this proves difficult to get to, and once again we take to the precarious looking slate roofs. Traversing one of the long walkways from above, the man in front of me freezes. ‘Get down’, he urges me, and I crouch under the eaves of an overlapping roof. These warnings are two a penny on any expedition. One member of the group might have caught movement out of the corner of his eye, or heard a surprising noise. Usually, the all clear is soon given, and the group moves on, but not this time. ‘I’ve seen a minibus!’, he exclaims excitedly. Sure enough, in a large yard below, is parked a large white vehicle - with ‘Surbit..’ (the rest is obscured) painted on the side. As it seems quiet down there, we shuffle forward until the whole van is visible. ‘Surbiton Scouts’, reads the full moniker, and despite being fully taxed and in good working order, the scene is deserted.
We decide to scale the far side of the yard, up a drain pipe which is unfortunately in full view of the large set of gates, and an access road. As we move towards it, my friend is startled. Out from behind a pile of skeletal Christmas trees (perhaps there for seven years or so), trots a fox. I’ve never seen one so close before, and as it skirts us confidently no more than 10 feet or so away, I note that this is a fine looking beast. At least someone still finds use for West Park then.
I manage to make a mess of the drain pipe climb, but the sight at the top when I finally haul myself over the parapet is a heartening one: the tower is no more than 20 feet away. We scuttle around on some roof tops for ten minutes or so, trying to find a way in, but to no avail. However, we have come across a window half ajar on a building nearby, and with the efforts of three men manage to wrench it open. I feel a little safer inside - we’re nearing the inhabited side of the site, and on some parts of the roof are quite clearly visible from the low buildings alongside - and the energy expended on opening the window proves to be well spent.
These buildings are far better kept, and we get the impression that they were vacated last. It appears to have been used as an admin block, and we peek into the cluttered former office of a trade union general, complete with copies of the Labour Party magazine from when Tony and co had just taken power. Thrillingly, we appear to be the first Urbexers to have gained entry to this building - always an exciting feeling.
Our curiosities sated for the day, we head back across the compound towards the Christchurch road, distracted by what appears to be the most likely entry point for the Water Tower on the way back. Weary, and having scrambled through one too many windows, we turn for home having had a truly magical day. And with huge swathes of West Park as yet uncharted, we will be coming back soon.
© 2004 Dr. Watson