25 Things to Do in a Dull Town at Lunchtime #7: go on the “Heritage Trail” (Part Three)

There can’t be many towns that boast a tourist trail that takes three days to complete, but in that respect, as in others, Dulltown excels.

Regular readers – both of them – will recall that the office culture lovers failed to complete Part 2 of the “heritage trail” the other day, due to getting distracted by the thought of food and going off-piste to buy potatoes.

So we agreed to resume another day. I hadn’t realised it would be quite so soon, but one bright and sunny day this week one of my colleagues suggested it would be nice to get some more heritage-based exercise. So off we went, resuming the trail where we’d left off, at the former railway embankment.

At the former railway embankment.

Dulltown was one of those places where the Victorians really spread their wings when it came to railway building. Dulltown was at one time blessed with three railway lines and their respective stations, and I admire them for it. The guest list for my fantasy dinner party includes Doctor Richard Beeching, the UK government’s offical railway vandal-in-chief, who closed down nearly a quarter of the country’s railway network in the 1960s. The man was notorious for axing such a massive chunk of what was a fabulously extensive railway system, and I’d like to invite him to dinner and give him botulism.

You could go pretty much anywhere in Britain by train from the height of the Industrial Revolution until the 1960s, and don’t believe anyone who tries to kid you it was much slower than today, ‘cause it wasn’t. Yes, we have our “high-speed” railways now but the averagely-endowed suburban train doesn’t trundle up into London much faster than it did a century ago. And now, most of us have to go everywhere by car, using up valuable resources and polluting the atmosphere as we go. If someone had strung Dr Bloody Beeching up before he could do any damage, we’d still have a world-class rail network and we wouldn’t have everyone panic-buying petrol, as happened last week.

Ooops, but of course then the oil companies wouldn’t make such enormous profits – sorry, I forgot we have to sacrifice simplicity and economy on the altar of greedy capitalism so a few can make a lot. Silly of me.

Anyhow, Beeching – or another profit-seeking arsehole like him – decided to rip down one of Dulltown’s lines but he left traces of the old embankment over which the line once ran. The embankment is easy to miss unless you are milling about in the municipal car park, as we were the other day, but traces of it are still there, witness to the town’s industrial heritage.

If you’re looking at the pictures accompanying this post, you might be wondering who are the gorgeous birds who came on the heritage trail. Basically, I was reluctant to embark on another blog-foddering tour without having the chance of some stupid photos, and I’d left the Action Men at home. My colleagues, understanding the dilemma, suggested we went round the charity shops first to buy another Action Man, and we ended up going one better and finding two girly dolls. Dulltown’s charity shops are really excelling themselves at the moment and are worthy of another blog post very soon.

Exciting: the beverage recycling bank is apparently one of a few of its kind.

Anyhow, dolls in hand, we visited the embankment and then spotted another tourist attraction that wasn’t in the guide book. I’d have passed it by without a second glance as it looked much like another overflowing, unfragrant recycling bank to my untrained eye, but my colleagues got terribly excited at seeing it, identifying it as one of London’s few Tetrapak recycling banks. Apparently there aren’t many of them around as beverage cartons are hard to recycle and most end up in landfill. From the look of it, the local authorities forgot it was there in about the year 2008, but it was still something to write home about, according to my companions, and we stood around admiring the aroma and taking pictures for a while.

The girls frolicking in the flowers outside the former Methodist Meeting House

Next it was the former Methodist Meeting House (now a motor repair garage) and then onto one of the existing stations. We’ve all been there before to catch trains so we gave it only a brief glance before walking up the public footpath through the fields and over the bypass to the former lunatic asylum.

En route there is some interesting graffiti. On the path someone has chalked: “Where has the hospital gone?”, adding “What is crazy? Might be a crazy man along the way”.The writer must have felt, as we did, that there’s something quite thought-provoking and moving about mental hospitals. This one is doubly so as it’s a derelict wreck that’s in the process of being demolished to make way for 800 new-build homes, out of which a property developer might, just possibly, make a shedload of money.

Graffiti: it’s hard to read but it says “What is crazy? Might be a crazy man along the way”.

The reason the developers think they can shoehorn 800 homes onto the site is because, like so many of its peers, this asylum was built to grand country-house scale and set outside the town, amidst rolling landscaped parkland and its own farm, which the inmates helped to cultivate, making the asylum pretty much self-sufficient. This fact brings home that while the practice of Victorian mental health treatment might not always have been what we’d approve of today (notably the lobotomies, straitjackets, electric shock therapy and much-publicised misdiagnoses of Down’s children, unmarried mothers and the depressed as insane), the intention was benign and enlightened.

So dull even traffic doesn’t want to go there: the Dulltown bypass.

The philosophy behind the Victorian approach to what were variously termed lunatics, cretins and imbeciles, according to their degree of mental affliction, was fundamentally that you gave them shelter, a bed, warmth, onsite medical attention using the latest techniques in treatment, fresh air, rural surroundings, useful and fulfilling occupations like farming and craftwork (for those able and willing to undertake them) – and most importantly the company of their peers. It cost money, but the Victorians reckoned it was worth it to provide state-run care to those who couldn’t afford private asylums and as a more humane alternative to starvation or the workhouse for those whose families wouldn’t or couldn’t look after them.

Meanwhile, the out-of-town locations protected the towns from the lunatics (which of course we think of today as “segregation”) but more importantly it was intended to protect the lunatics from the townsfolk, who, by contemporary accounts were not always tolerant and understanding of the mentally ill.

Pathos: the former lunatic asylum, once the home for the poor and disturbed, now destined as the home for 800 rich people.

Is our modern approach really that much more enlightened? We have taken them from their communal environment (one that we, to salve our cost-saving consciousnesses, choose to call institutionalisation), dosed them up with chemicals to make them placid and left them pretty much to their own devices. The lucky ones were placed in shared houses, where they at least have some semblance of community, but many were left to rot alone in grubby bedsits in even grubbier areas. Those who are not fearful of social interaction often roam around until bedtime, often at great risk to themselves from the less tolerant members of our communities. Those who are scared to mix stay indoors and fester, with no-one to talk to who will understand them, apart from the occasional visit from a social worker.

If this is truly “care in the community”, then the vast profits from the sale of the former asylums to developers and the subsequent vast profits from the sale of expensively desirable apartments in rolling parkland would surely have gone to pay for that care, wouldn’t they?

My views (as is not uncommon) might have been more extreme than the others’, but I think we all felt the pathos of the place, one way or another, and we all want to return another day before it’s completely demolished. The next day, two of my colleagues sent round links to websites about the asylum and a third brought in a book about it. We are starting to take a real interest in Dulltown and as a consequence it’s starting to be far less dull.

4 thoughts on “25 Things to Do in a Dull Town at Lunchtime #7: go on the “Heritage Trail” (Part Three)

  1. WSW says:

    Anyone who moves into a former lunatic asylum, no matter how opulently renovated, is playing Russian Roulette with some bad juju. Please excuse the mixed metaphor.

  2. Sue Fenton says:

    I reckon you’re right there. It must feel weird knowing you live in a place that was built with good intentions to help those in need, whose minds and lives were disturbed while they lived there.

    1. Sue Fenton says:

      Thank you – glad to hear people are enjoying my ramblings! I don’t name Dulltown, to spare its blushes and avoid the possibility of my current employer getting the hump, but it’s not actually all that far from Ewell – so we both understand the dullness that Surrey, otherwise a charming enough county, is capable of when it tries!

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