A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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6 - Urban explorers, Chaplin and Bowie - all Cane Hill asylum visitors

Over to the west, dominating the view, is Netherne Hospital's big big brother, the notorious Cane Hill. The Surrey County Asylum at Cane Hill was opened in 1883. Designed by Charles Henry Howell, the country's chief asylum architect, it was the largest building of its type and became something of a showpiece. Cane Hill was completely closed down by 1991, like many of the Victorian-age asylums, following a major change in government policy, principally towards care in the community. (However, a small medium secure unit for patients with severe mental health problems does remain open on the edge of the site.) Day-to-day management of the non-operational areas is carried out by NHS Estates, while the operational areas are managed by South London and Maudsley National Health Service Trust.

For more than a decade, controversy over the site has raged, and the buildings have continued to deteriorate. Security costs alone are in the region of £10,000 a week. The National Health Service wants to build a bigger medium secure unit; others want a science development park, and yet others want to ensure any use of the site does not violate the green belt. According to Richard Ottaway MP for Croydon South, Cane Hill represents more than 200 acres of green belt (nearly twice as big as Farthing Down), and is 'a prime site of outstanding beauty and location'. He told Parliament in 1999, 'Cane Hill is attractive to any developer under any circumstances, and it offers first-class links to the motorway network and to Gatwick, Heathrow and Biggin Hill. It has a mainline rail station by its front entrance. It is, in short, a world-class site.'

But the site is not only of interest to politicians. Urban explorers like it too. Some of the most detailed information about Cane Hill, its architecture, its current state, its history can be found on the their internet pages (websites such Urbex). According to the available information, urban exploration covers a wide area - active and disused buildings, industrial sites, bunkers, tunnels, schools, offices, roofs, towers, drains, sewers, bridges, plant rooms, cranes, hospitals, asylums, tower blocks, railways, underground railways, shopping centres, old houses, car parks, gas works, power stations, and even military sites. Urban explorers, however, do admit that, generally speaking, their hobby falls on the wrong side of the law. Urbex says: 'This is the case pretty much anywhere that you live. Trespass, breaking and entering, and other small laws are easily broken. I am not a lawyer, and don't know much about the law in the UK, never mind the US or anywhere else. So I won't say what is right and what is wrong until I know for sure. Err on the side of caution always.'

I cannot leave Cane Hill (I wish it had been closer to the 300 easting, which would have given me an excuse to try a little urban exploration) without a brief mention of three famous-by-association inmates. Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sydney visited their mother Hannah Chaplin there in the 1910s. To quote from Chaplin's 'My Autobiography': 'That week we went to Cane Hill to see her. As we sat in the waiting room, the ordeal of waiting became almost unbearable. I remember the keys turning and Mother walking in. She looked pale and her lips were blue, and, although she recognised us, it was without enthusiasm; her old ebullience had gone. She was accompanied by a nurse, an innocuous, glib woman who stood and wanted to talk. "It's a pity you came at such a time," she said, "for we're not ourselves today, are we dear?" According to Chaplin, she languished in Cane Hill asylum for several years before he could afford to put her into a private one.

At least two books about David Bowie cover the death of his half-brother Terry Burns. After a suicide attempt, Bowie agreed to visit Burns at Cane Hill. He brought various presents with him on that occasion, but never returned. Several years later, Burns made one attempt to kill himself on the rail tracks at Coulsdon South station, but saved himself at the last minute, and was then overpowered by a group of railway workers. Three weeks later, Burns again escaped and this time had sufficient self-destructive will power to remain with his head on the train tracks. Bowie has said publicly that one of his songs - 'Jump They Say' - arose out of his feelings towards his brother's suicide. And Michael Caine also had a half-brother at Cane Hill, although he never knew it. For many years, his mother had secretly visited her other son. Caine only found out about him a year and a half before he died, and he'd already moved from Cane Hill by then.

I've dallied on Farthing Down far too long, perhaps I'm reluctant to leave behind the country, with only urban city sprawl ahead of me for many miles. Leaving the down, crossing the cattle grid, I see the stocky bollards of the Corporation of London, painted brilliant white. And I can't help but notice one of the well-placed houses on Down Road, which has a white-painted pebble dash front. It also has an extension with rooms on the first floor and two garages at ground floor level. The front door and the garage doors are painted such a brilliant yellow, it's impossible not to notice this house has one more garage then any other house along this way.


 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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