A Journey Into The Haunted Past Of England's Largest Mental Asylum

A jaunt to the eerie and decaying remains of Whittingham Hospital, a place where mental patients of yesteryear were sent to remain "out of the way" from the general public...
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A jaunt to the eerie and decaying remains of Whittingham Hospital, a place where mental patients of yesteryear were sent to remain "out of the way" from the general public...

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I see a clinic full of cynics... Who want to twist the peoples wrists... They’re watching every move we make... We’re all included on the list... – Golding/Hall/Staples

Just the mention of a psychiatric hospital, to some, evokes deep harboured thoughts about such institutes and an array of names too such as funny farms, loony bins, madhouses, nut-homes and may more off the cuff nametags. These thought provoking names can also centre on who were housed behind high walled secure asylums where the patients have been sectioned because they’re crazy, mad, nutcases, batty, crackpots, unhinged, barking, loppy, round the twist, lost their marbles, have a screw lose, wacko, off their rocker, cuckoo... the list goes on and on. Many never stop to think that it could be a safe sanctuary for individuals who may have some form of a mental illness. An illness that can’t be seen by the naked eye like a broken limb, a bleeding cut, or a rash.

Those needing specialized medical care may be suffering from a neurological disorder such as epilepsy, seizures, blackouts, ADHD, schizophrenia or depression of some form. Also, the may have side effects from drink and drugs, a hereditarily passed down illnesses or, modern day pressures that may have taken their toll with behavioural actions and thoughts being affected. Even a sexual disease, syphilis, can travel through the body and cause an infection of the brain. Eventually, any of these can lead to someone not being able to function normally though no fault of their own. A mental illness isn’t a rare affliction, though: one in four UK residents will be struck with a brain disorder at sometime in their life – fact!

There has also been numerous documentaries, TV series and films made that were set, or contained scenes from, or events that took place in, asylums: flicks like, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Monkeys, Gothika, Awakenings, Butterfly Effect, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and hundreds more have been based on secure units and happenings inside multi-secured, closed doors. The aforementioned 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, is one of only three to win ‘the big 5’ (picture, actor, actress, director, screenplay) awards at the Oscars. Rated has one of, if not, the best films ever, the lead role of McMurphy, played superbly by Jack Nicholson, was originally offered to Kirk Douglas. He agreed to play the ‘madman’, but then declined due to family pressure because of close to home issues concerning the subject of the film. The other two to win ‘the big 5’ are, It Happened One Night in 1934, and, The Silence of the Lambs in 1991!

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It seems to be/me, we have a somewhat nervy fascination with Asylums, their patients, and therapies administrated too - whether this be in fictional form or in real life. Therapies ranging from drug induced deep sleeps, insulin and cardiazol therapy, mind bending LSD, electroconvulsive shocks through holes drilled into the skull, and the most barbaric, transorbital lobotomies. This an operation preformed by using a ice-pick like device!

So, with all the above in mind, I set off from where I live over the fields to Whittingham and the site of the now shutdown and boarded-up Whittingham Psychiatric Hospital, full of trepidation I must add. Apart from a brief drop by one day in autumn for a photo of the son and Henri the Staff – our then dog – to use the grounds as a backdrop a few years ago, it must be over 30 years since I paid the place a visit. This being as a snotty nosed kid ‘egging’. Times when I hadn’t a care in the world and didn’t have a clue who resided in the Victorian buildings or, what the gaff actually was or about.

I inhaled country air deeply through my nostrils as I made tracks over the meadows and... coaxed? The farmer had been up early muck spreading!

On arrival at destination known, and the gatehouse, I found a new secure unit has been constructed adjoining Whitties old grounds named the Guild Park. It has never been openly admitted, but I bet the name change is probably to lose any stigma associated with the original hospital. This might be a wild guess though, but I doubt it. The Guild Park is home to individuals who have been housed on a voluntary basics or, have been involuntary committed for their own safety. Because, there will always be people in need of care.

But even during daylight the deserted institution is eerie and rather spooky to say the least, as rooks squawk in the surrounding woodlands as they fly from towering ancient tree-to-tree.

Parallel to Guild Park is the cricket pitch in the sprawling grounds which is still used to this day by the local Whittingham village cricket team. Back in the day, patients would sit round the perimeter on warm, mid-summers days with an ice cream or bag of sweets.

Unluckily, or luckily, whichever way you look at it, the abandoned hospital buildings were fenced off to Joe Public and me so I could only circle the fringes of the site. But even during daylight the deserted institution is eerie and rather spooky to say the least, as rooks squawk in the surrounding woodlands as they fly from towering ancient tree-to-tree.

I enter at my peril: Whittingham Psychiatric Hospital was built in 1873 and were the largest in the UK, and the second largest in Europe, when conducting therapy. And at its peak, it housed over 3,500 patients and employed over 500 staff too. Also, if buildings could tell tales of their history and what had taken place behind thick, brick and stone walls, I personally wouldn’t want to hear any to in-depth ones - no thanks indeed. There are also boarded-up churches and concert halls amongst the multitude of various sized, decaying wards. Even if I’d have brought any leftover bread for the ducks and geese I couldn’t get anywhere near the duck pond, because they too were fenced off.

As I walked round the lush, wooded grounds taking photos, squirrels dart around majestic oak trees, robins belt out tuneful warbles in hedgerows and rabbits scurry by on their daily business. (I didn’t clock any ‘mad’ March hares though!) The occasional dog bounds by with acknowledging  dog walker and, the odd lone stranger. And I mean odd! Sightings of ghosts, ghouls and blood curdling cries have allegedly been seen and heard over the years with tales still rife since the last key was turned locking the solid oak doors shut for good. Such myths (?) do the rounds whenever the hospital is dropped into a conversation in our neck of the woods, regularly.

There has now been plans submitted for new family homes to be built on the grounds when the site is cleared in the not too distant future. Hopefully one day soon the haunted past of Whittingham Hospital may be exorcised once and for all, and the souls of the inflicted will be finally at peace. Even though it is stated that Whittingham Hospital can hold its head high for providing welfare and comfort to individuals who would have spent their days in misery.

Boy did I need a drink to settle the nerves after that experience; I then set off down a long and winding road. Rambling along a quite country lane my mind drifted back to my youth, to when I visited the nearby most haunted house in Britain, Chingle Hall, one Halloween. Weird or what, this too is in Whittingham. I then stepped up a gear. I pass fishermen sat round a manmade lake, rod in hand – can’t get that, me-self? - and pass a quaint cottage serving ‘high teas’ – what the hell are ‘high teas’ by the way? - plus a dead rabbit on the roadside verge - hopefully killed the night pervious by a fox?

Phew. I made it! I enter the Ye Horns Inn that is steeped in history and is an oasis to me coz, I’ve got quite a thirst on. The Ye Horns Inn is one only three left in the UK that still has a ‘parlour’ room behind the bar which you can sit in.

Following three quickly consumed pints of Bowland Blonde, the son picks us up for a lift home. I felt totally shattered and mentally drained too. What a day.