The Winchester

"Not all those who wander are lost" – Tolkien

Cane Hill Hospital – Transcience, Ruin and Restoration

without comments

March 2011

Transcience: an impermanence that suggests the inevitability of ending or dying”

Ruin: Verb. Reduce (a building or place) to a state of decay, collapse, or disintegration: “a ruined castle”.”

Restoration: the act of restoring something or someone to a satisfactory state”

The transient nature of public buildings is what afforded us the opportunity to experience Cane Hill in its dilapidated state, yet as I walked to the front of the recently burnt out administration block earlier this month, I surprised myself with a certain mournful feeling at the passing of one of the final remains of this much revered ruin.

In November 2010, news filtered through to me from several parties that the administration block had suffered an arson attack, a signifier of almost certain demolition. Public footpath 744 running through the site was subsequently closed, I assumed so it might be permanently closed to accommodate construction on the site.

Photographs and accounts from visits to Cane Hill captured my imagination in 2006 and were the catalyst in pushing my interests towards the activities captured on this website. As such, Cane Hill holds a special place in my heart. I have fond memories of 5am entries, sleeping in the seclusion rooms whilst waiting for it to get light, seeing the vast majority of the site, playing hide and seek with guards and of course the more bitter memories of eventually seeing it bulldozed, attacked by arson, and erased from the wider public consciousness.

When I first became aware of Cane Hill I hadn’t given thought to the idea that it might ever cease to exist in it’s ruined form. In reality, there are few modern ruins that last, for ruins inevitably deteriorate. Attempting to force or reduce the effects of ruin affects the sense of transience and tends us towards notions of preservation, replacing the romance of the authentic ruin with a certain sterility within the curated representation of the buildings.

The physical geography created by an institutional complex tends to be lost when such a building is repurposed, as the connecting corridors and open spaces are often removed and built on, creating a residential space themed on compartmentalised accommodation, markedly different to the almost entire use of the complex as one, as in it’s institutional days.

I have asked myself what the point is in preserving a ruin? Whilst ruin preservation inevitably appeals to the nostalgically inclined, there is an associated vulgarity to it, given the metaphors of damage and neglect that can be drawn up with an institutional building such as Cane Hill.

Nostalgia was described by San Francisco Journalist Herb Cain as “memory with the pain removed”, although it’s our personal memories and experience that shape our own nostalgia, not through society’s collective memories.

I have experienced Cane Hill in only one way; as a derelict building. For those who experienced it as a home, a workplace, a community, a place of sanctuary, disorientation or alienation, the demise of the physical structures associated with those emotions will elicit a huge number of different responses. It’s superficial to want to keep hold of a ruin for a personal emotional purpose.

I have at times asked myself whether preserving the physical geography of mental healthcare serves any great purpose? Although the buildings may be deemed worthy of preservation on the grounds of architectural merit, the buildings’ relationship and physical impact on its local community also merits a record being created, along with a record of the social impact of such institutions, both locally and in a wider, collective sense.

Netherne Conversion

Netherne Asylum, just 4 miles south of Cane Hill, has been turned into an upmarket village, complete with surviving ward blocks, chapel, main hall, water tower and administration block. Driving around Netherne feeds you no sense of how the community of the hospital was, just how the developers have chosen to use the buildings.

I would not argue that as the original purpose of these buildings is no longer relevant, the buildings themselves must go, but as they lose their original construction and constraining social and physical geographies, they inevitably do not reflect themselves as originally built. Should that mean they’re destroyed, or is it simply another step in the building’s life, part of that transcience being about the buildings changing usage to reflect the society that now surrounds them?

At the time of it’s arson attack, the administration building was one of just three remaining buildings of the main Cane Hill Hospital complex, following demolition of the majority of the site in 2008-09. It was the one that left the strongest memory; the imposing, unforgettable facade with the tower and a wall of windows, featured on Bowie’s album cover for ‘The Man who Sold the World”, built from South London stock brick and garnished generously with red. Although I didn’t see the images of the carcass until that night, those reported online matched those in my head, of a tumbled clocktower, the datestone of 1882 standing highest amongst the debris of fallen rooftops and the elegant clock tower tumbled.

(A very rare open gate)

I was sure that the attack on the admin block would spell the end of Cane Hill as we knew it, anticipating that demolition must be announced shortly and the building declared unsafe. It seemed a hugely convenient end to the building at a time of economic concern and the dissolution of English Partnerships, the government development agency associated with the former mental hospital estates. By 2020, plans have been made to convert the remaining parts of the building and build a generally sympathetic extension to provide 14 flats.

My first experience of Cane Hill came one summers day in 2006. Bored in my university summer holiday, I browsed the internet and stumbled upon Simon Cornwell’s excellent website, heavily featuring Cane Hill. Although this caputured my imagination, my summer was spent watching another abysmal World Cup campaign for England and I returned to Winchester unaware that this would be the seminal moment that would lead me to partake heavily in a pastime that would lead me to Cane Hill.

Ideas for a final year project bounced around at the start of the academic year, and my 20 year old imagination returned to Simon’s site, something that could perhaps be interesting to make a film about. Like every other curious noob on the urban exploring forums, I sent Simon an email asking if he would take me to film there, so I could make a documentary about Urban Explorers. A polite rebuttal was sent, explaining briefly the hazards of Cane Hill.

“a personal choice”

I signed up to 28 Days Later and joined a local with the handle of Fire-fly in exploring parts of Park Prewett, my local Edwardian asylum that was being converted. I’d taken to reading through the forum’s seemingly endless reports about the warren of rooms and artifacts at Cane Hill, a different type of experience than that which could be had when exploring buildings which were diligently cleared out upon closure. Further adventures in abandoned asylums followed, with Severalls, St Ebbas and Harperbury, before I hatched a plan with fellow relative noob Hairy, to venture into Cane Hill early one morning in October 2007. We’d reccied the site before, 4 of us stumbing around the path before bumping into an uncompromising guard, fully aware of our intentions. We were asked to leave.

Recce day.

This time, we arrived fully aware of the security situation. 8 guards worked on a rota of 4 on, 4 off, all with dogs. Some guards were more hostile than others but there were never any concessions. The site was surrounded by a 9 foot Palisade fence, topped with barbed wire. A public footpath ran past perhaps a third of the site. Believe me when I say we’d studied the maps. We’d printed them out, colour coded where the corridors where, where various locations of interest and particular danger were, and on the reverse, a list of advice that had been dished out by various parties. Despite visiting the other derelict hospitals mentioned above, Cane Hill was the one that I just couldn’t stop thinking about. I felt that I had to get inside, whether to prove to myself that I could do it, or to fill some sort of gap in my life that appeared to be missing.


We parked on Portnalls Road and walked down the footpath in the pitch black to the perimeter path. We heard barking noises and legged it, assuming a guard was right there with a dog. It was most likely a fox. 10 minutes later we walked back in and quickly found our way through the fence close to Browning/Blake ward, and then through a ground floor window into a dormitory of Blake, largely stripped of anything. With our hands covering most of the light from our torches, we tip toed around for 45 minutes or so, picking our way through the debris strewn corridors before finding ourselves in a ward I later identified as Andrewes. We slept for an hour on the cold floor of an isolation room, eventually rising as the sun came up.


Having looked at the pictures I took that day, I realised quite how little of the site we’d actually seen. Some obvious areas were the Chapel, parts of the Admin Block and surrounding facilities, the famous corridors and then maybe 3 of the 52 wards that made up the bulk of Cane Hill. For all the tip-toeing and quietness we had exercised, we didn’t very see much at all. We left at midday, having entered the site at 5am. On the way out we bumped into 3 somewhat shady looking fellows on the footpath, and we quickly agreed between ourselves we wouldn’t discuss access with them. They turned out to have also been inside the buildings that morning, yet each party had missed the other due to the scale of the complex. We became friends with Jack and Jon and made several return visits together.

Corridor on Female side

That first visit capured my imagination, but we didn’t return for several months. I eventually went back with Fieldy, Riddlers, Rooks and Rigsby at 5am on a cold February morning. It was the knowledge of the others present that allowed me to see a lot more of the site, and for that I’m grateful to this day.

Rooks relaxing in Queens Ward

By the time we left the site, I had been shown several of the male ward blocks, including Queens, known for having a lot of artefacts left. Browning/Blake, known for its beds left in situ, Vincent/Vanbrugh, known for the vistas granted from it’s arson attack in 2002, ‘The Train Room’, with its mural, the mortuary and the art therapy room.

I’ve been torn between writing an in-depth account of as many of the trips I made and as many different experiences as possible, but I also feel that writing down too much (which I may have done already) would devalue those memories I choose not to commit to paper. I also feel like putting up as many pictures down as I can to produce a record of the hospital but again, that feels incomplete and possibly gratuitious. So here’s some notable memories and some pics that sum of the experience of Cane Hill for me.

  • Running from the barking on the first ever trip I made here.
  • The early mornings parking in the freezing cold and entering in the dark
  • Engaging in conversation with the guards, and finding them to be just as interested in the buildings as we were.
  • Finding myself up at Cane Hill at all times, just for a mooch around the perimeter to chat with the guards or an interested local.
  • Spending hours reading the documents found on site.
  • June-July 2008, with at least two visits a week made.
  • The commencement of the demolition, with the Squibbs guards washing in a bucket outside the much ignored John Hutchinson centre.
  • An impromptu visit with Rooks and Speed one night, just after demolition had started.
  • The day we had 16 people inside, playing cat and mouse with security and eventually, finally(!) ascending the water tower.
  • The sheer scale of the site, which led to getting lost on more than one occasion
  • The time we had to run from the guards, which resulted in a convoluted escape route only worked out from studying the maps so much
  • Meeting Ray, talking for hours about his time spent working at Cane Hill in a quiet pub in Winchester. You can read it here along with memories from other staff members.
  • The final visit I made onto the half demolished site, in February 2009.

I’ll leave you with a poem, found on site…

“Intensity of Judgement
Attacked on a hot summers Day
Stiffiling uncomfortably
Numbed with prickly Sensations”

Written by Winch

March 23rd, 2011 at 1:31 am

Leave a Reply