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West Park Hospital

What: Mental Hospital
Where: Epsom, Surrey
Built: 1913-1924 with additions in 1950, 1970s and 1980s
Architect: William C. Clifford Smith
Abandoned: 1993-2003
Listed: Water tower only, Grade II.
Visited: 2009-2010
Last Known Condition: Mostly demolished; some buildings retained for conversion
Page Updated: March 2014

Designed by William C. Clifford-Smith RIBA, West Park was the last of a cluster of mental hospitals to be built by the London County Council on the Horton Estate near Epsom between 1899 and 1924. Construction of West Park began before the First World War but was interrupted by lack of workforce and resources. The part-completed buildings were used by the Canadian Military until the end of hostilities, after which the hospital reverted to civilian use and opened to patients in 1921. The remainder of planned buildings were completed in 1924 to a design of outlying villas surrounding a main complex of two storey ward blocks linked by long corridors converging at the centre where shared facilities such as the kitchens, recreation and dining halls, laundry and administration blocks were located. The Hospital, as was customary was divided into male and female sides, and different wards and villas on each side were assigned to different types of patient; convalescent, infirm, acute, chronic 'dirty', working chronic and so on. The hospital was designed to hold approximately 2,000 patients.

Attitudes to the care of mental patients changed radically over the next few decades, with the advent of new drugs and therapy and in 1948 with the unfolding of the NHS. The hospitals were no longer isolated or self-sufficient, and it was hoped that patients would stay for shorter periods, and that there would be fewer of them. To improve treatment and patient welfare, a social centre, new nurses' home and other facilities were added from 1950 onwards. By the 1980s, however the tide was beginning to flow in an entirely different direction: Care in the Community became the preferred way of dealing with patients with mental illnesses and mental hospitals were closed or stepped down in large numbers across the country, West Park and the others in the cluster falling victim slowly, ward by ward in the 1990s and 2000s. By this time, admissions had already fallen due to new policy but the hospital was not empty and the remaining patients had to go somewhere. Such patients were most likely moved to the remaining open wards, sent to care homes and smaller mental health units in the area or else discharged. At West Park today only a few buildings are in use by administrative and clinical services and just a small number of patients are treated there.

The rest, as large as a village, lies empty and rotting with the changing of many seasons. The wards are still strewn with clothes, books, shoes, even cards and letters mouldering in the stifling atmosphere of dust, damp and fungal spores. In these shattered rooms are slowly vanishing the histories of people that society would still often rather forget.

Over the last five years, explorers of all sorts have come to West Park with cameras, costumes and props to film and photograph every inch of the place. They, like me, feel an irresistable pull: an obsession with the fabric and atmosphere of the place and its past residents, real or imagined, leading them to return time and again. There are less savoury elements as well: on my second visit, I happened upon two men who, unpeturbed by my appearance on the scene, appeared to be trying to break down a door by throwing themselves against it repeatedly. Not sure of their intentions (vandalism and arson are rife) and fearing trouble, I left them and moved on. Since Hallowe'en 2009 when vandals busted open doors and windows in the night and caused extensive damage to buildings and property, security has been tightened, entrances have been closed and explorers are less common.

Epilogue, Summer 2011

In late 2010 plans were announced to demolish most of the hospital buildings and develop the site as a complex of housing and apartments known as 'Noble Park' It is understood that admin, the water tower and some of the wards will be retained.
As of Summer 2011, most of the central buildings had been demolished and the first new houses had been built.

Addendum, Spring 2014

Of all the buildings I have explored, West Park has had the most lasting impact on me. Having spent much of my adolescence in and out of clinics and psychiatrists' offices (visiting as an outpatient in the final days of Graylingwell), the hospital, apparently solid from the outside yet collapsing slowly inside, labyrinthine, disorientating and empty, threw me into deep introspection as I wandered its endless corridors. For all this, I found West Park not threatening but strangely calming, the stillness and gentle decay a fitting end to a place which had seen so much bustle and heightened emotion. Even three years after demolition started, now that mouldering wards have given way to luxury apartments and the overgrown gardens to well-manicured parkland, I nonetheless find myself returning to West Park every few months. As I walk down the main street lined with new houses, I can still picture the buildings which once stood there and in my mind still walk the echoing wards and passageways.

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