Mamiya 645 Pro TL / Ilford FP4 / Rodinal 1+99 60 minutes
Richard’s Bicycle Book was my bible when I was a teenager. This was a time before cyclists flew round the streets in soulless tinted-goggled packs. As the cover says, this is a manual primarily of enjoyment. There was no need for state of the art gear or comical, overpriced clothing. You just pulled on a pair of jeans and a chunky jumper, and off you’d go. When you felt like it you could stop for a pint or a roll-up 1. Riding a bike was Richard’s way of combatting disaffection with modern life and the alienating effects of cars. “Now look at what happens to you on a bicycle,” he wrote. “It’s immediate and direct. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalised. As you hum along, you fully and gloriously experience the day, the sunshine, the clouds, the breezes. You’re alive!” I do sometimes feel that these days the only thing the typical street cyclist experiences is the lycra-clad buttocks of the dude in front of him. But each to their own.
In the summer of 1983 I was 16 and preparing to sit my ‘O’ Levels. Back then there was much talk about the unfairness of five years of work being measured on a single three hour exam, and the Board decided to include additional forms of assessment. For me and my English Language exam, that meant having to give a presentation on a subject of choice to my classmates. I was an idealistic hippie back then, and as my friend Suzie often tells me, I still am. Inspired by Richard and his ecological ideas, my talk was about the building of extensive cycle paths and the banning of cars from city centres, with free bikes available for anyone to borrow.
Fast forward 30 years or so and things haven’t worked out quite how I’d hoped. To be fair though, if you’d asked me in 1983 how I honestly thought we’d be getting round in 2016, I would have said personal jet packs. Nevertheless, there has been quite a bit of progress. In 1984 the Bristol and Bath Railway Path was opened. This is a 15 mile cycle path on a disused railway, and was the first part of what was to become the National Cycle Network. The NCN now comprises around 15000 miles of signed cycle routes. Not a great deal of this is on dedicated cycleways, but the aspiration has been to minimise contact with motor traffic through the use of pedestrian routes, disused railways, minor roads, canal towpaths and traffic-calmed routes in towns and cities. All the routes should be suitable for an unsupervised 12 year old.
As it happens NCN 4 runs right by my front door. A couple of miles down the road road it meets up with the Thames Path, a national trail that runs alongside the Thames, much of which can be cycled. These photos are from a few weeks back and my first cycle ride along it this summer.
A few miles from my house along the Thames Path the tow path peters out. Enter the Shepperton Ferry. There’s been a ferry across the Thames from Shepperton for around 500 years, even being famously mentioned in the 1897 HG Wells novel War of the Worlds. These days it’s operated by this small skiff and crossings are every 15 minutes.
When I got to Hampton Court I took a short detour from the river over to Bushy Park, which I thought would be a good spot to eat my sandwiches. And I ran right in to what turned out to be the annual Chestnut Parade. I’ve still no idea what it’s in aid of, but nevertheless it was very enjoyable.
1. [Thinking about it, I’m not entirely sure that’s in the book. It might have just been me.]↩
When I previously visited Brookwood Cemetery, I bumped in to an old guy who, like me, was wandering around the graves. We chatted for a while, and he told me that many years before he’d come across the gravestone of novelist Dennis Wheatley, but had never been able to find it since. I was skeptical. Before leaving home I’d scanned the cemetery website and seen no mention of him on the list of famous residents. I assumed the chap was mistaken, and besides, you do meet some strange people hanging about in graveyards. Which is probably exactly what he went home and told his wife 1.
As with so many things, I was of course wrong. Back home, a small amount of searching revealed that whilst he was cremated in Putney, his ashes are indeed buried in Brookwood. But what struck me was how little interest there appears to be in this. Wheatley was one of the world’s best-selling writers from the 1930s through to the 1960s, and his Gregory Sallust espionage and adventure books are reputed to have been the inspiration for Ian Flemming’s James Bond. Several of his occult novels were made in to movies, including Hammer’s incredibly successful 1968 production of The Devil Rides Out (which I’ve previously mentioned here).
The truth is that even when I was enjoying his books as a kid in the late 1970s, they were already rather dated. Wheatley’s characters inhabit a world of cravats and worcester suits, pink gins and martinis, and leather armchairs in wood-paneled gentlemen’s clubs. His villains are villainous simply by nature of being working class or (heaven forbid) being one of those Johnny Foreigner types. None of this mattered to me as a child of course. I doubt I even noticed. And even today I’m still able to enjoy his books with the knowledge that he was a product of his time. Context is everything. I was quite pleased to see recently that after years of being out of print, many of his books have now been reissued.
Of course, all of this was a good reason to go back and make another visit. Because hanging round graveyards is something I really need to find an excuse for.
1. [Following recent legislation, other gender combinations of spouses are now available. This is A Good Thing.]↩
You could say this story started nearly two hundred years ago, but for me the beginning was just a few weeks back, round about the start of August. That was when my new neighbour invited me round for a drink.
The evening was heading towards its conclusion and conversation was starting to get a bit thin on the ground. We’d both done the whole life story thing and encouraged by the wine, I’d started on and then exhausted my supply of disastrous relationship anecdotes. It was at the point when I was thinking about calling it a night that she asked me. She’d heard there was an abandoned orphanage up in the woods on the edge of town, and did I know anything about it? I didn’t, and to be honest I was sceptical. Whilst it’s true that technically we do live in a town, to me it has always seemed more like a large village. In the four years since I first moved here I thought I’d pretty much explored most of it, either on foot or by bike, and I’d never come across anything remotely like that.
At school I was always marked out as being a bit of a daydreamer. If somewhere out there any of my school reports still exist, and if you should come across one of them, you’d find it filled with comments about being ‘present in body but not in mind’ and ‘has his head in the clouds’ etc etc. One comment from a crusty old maths teacher I still remember to this day: ‘Lessons are just a minor inconvenience in Gerald’s day’. I was particularly aggrieved by that one, not only because it got me grounded for a month, but because I’d always considered lessons to be more like a major inconvenience.
I haven’t changed much over the years. There’s still a movie of my life continually playing inside my head. Black and white of course, with moody noir lighting, sunshine streaming though venetian blinds showing up the dust in the air, plus the inevitable voice-over. It’s also set in an alternative reality where I am in fact quite good looking.
But getting back to the orphanage, my next move was to ask around one of the local pubs. As I entered The Slaughtered Lamb the rain was lashing down and the sky ripped apart with frequent jabs of lightning. I stepped across the threshold, shaking the rain from my hair, and the pub that two seconds before had been filled with noisy chatter suddenly went silent, everybody stopping dead as if a pause button had been stabbed. The middle-aged guy at the dartboard turned to glare at me, dart still poised in hand. The four old boys playing dominoes round the corner table stopped their game and looked round at me with stony faces, hard as granite. The barmaid, a large no-nonsense woman in her early sixties, stood stock still, her hand still inside the glass that she’d been drying with a cloth
‘Er, good evening,’ I stammered. ‘Mind if I come in?’
Everyone remained frozen stiff for a few more seconds, and then gradually turned back to what they’d been doing. Relieved, I approached the bar and realising that ordering a Manhattan in place like this would probably get me beaten up, I asked for one of whatever the locals drink.
‘A pint of Old Dog’s Scrotum it is then,’ she said in a generic non-specific country accent, filling a none too clean pint pot with several swift tugs on a hand pump. She slammed the glass down on the bar and the brown liquid slopped over the top and on to my hands.
‘Listen,’ I said in a low voice, not quite sure why I was whispering, ‘I’m after some information. About the location of the old orphanage. I-’
There was a loud thump as a dart missed the board completely and stuck in the wall next to it. I could feel the force of 20 hostile glares upon me. Once again, dead silence, only to be broken a few moments later by a sort of blowing noise and a thick wet thwack as a wadge of slimy tabacco landed at my feet.
The barmaid grabbed my arm urgently, pulling me close. ‘Folk round ‘ere,’ she hissed, ‘they don’t like talking about the orphanage. Nobody’s been up there for years. At sunset it’s shadow touches the church and you can feel the evil, even after all this time.’
‘But what happened up there?’ I hissed back. ‘There must be someone who’ll talk to me about it?’
She leaned in conspiratorially, ‘Old Bert Fry, ‘e were the last one to go up there. That were many years since, and he were nowt but a lad.’
‘Well, can I talk to him? Can I see him?’
She laughed, a dry humourless cackle that chilled my bones
‘Oh, you can see him my boy. Over there, in the corner. Oh yes, you can see him. But he can’t see you.’
She gestured with a nod of her head, and I turned round. There, in the corner, seated at a small wooden table, alone and with a beer in hand, was a man. That’s all I could say for sure. He was shrouded in the shadows and all I could make out was the dark indistinct shape of his outline. I stared intently, willing my eyes to adjust. Suddenly there was a huge crash of thunder and a crack of lightning lit up the whole room.
It could have only been for a split second that I saw him, saw his face. But it’s etched in my brain forever, scorched in to my retinas. He was old. How old I couldn’t tell, but his skin was wrinkled like the texture of old brown paper. Beneath the swollen drinker’s nose was a shapeless, empty mouth with a manic toothless grin. But it was the eyes I couldn’t look away from. Oh God, the eyes. Two, dark, black gaping empty sockets, sightless yet seeming to fix right on to my own. I was dimly aware that the barmaid was saying something.
“He were found stumbling along the road. Don’t know what it were that ‘e saw up there; he ain’t never spoken a word since. But whatever it was, it were too much for him to bear. When they found him, he’d pulled out his eyes. Pulled out his own eyes with his own bare hands.’ She gave that laugh again. ‘Oh yes, you can see him. Her laugh seemed to ratchet up several pitches, and then they were all joining in. Crazy, insane laughter that felt like it was reverberating round the inside of my head rather than round the pub, drowning out the scream that took me several seconds to realise was coming from my own throat.
All of this happened exactly as I have described, albeit in my own head.
The reality of today’s world is that things are a lot easier, although easier isn’t necessarily better. We have the Internet and Google Earth, and using these I was surprised to learn that it was true; there is an abandoned orphanage up there in the woods. Moreover, it’s a grade II listed building that was built sometime around the 1820s. There’s surprisingly little history available out there on the net, and what there is seems to all come from a single source that I haven’t been able to trace. Below is the only non-contemporary photograph I could find, dated circa 1914.
Originally, the manor house that became the orphanage was built for Vice-Admiral the Rt. Hon Sir Frederick Hotham, sometime around 1820. It changed hands several times over the years before becoming the new home for the Actors Orphanage in 1938. The children in the Orphanage wern’t always technically orphans. Often it was the case that their parents were unable to care for them given the demand from their careers in the stage and film industries.
In 1947 the St. Peter’s Training School for Nurses was formed. This opened with three student nurses and ran alongside the buildings used by the Orphanage, before finally in 1958 the Orphanage ceased to exist. The building remained a nursing school up until it closed in the late 1990s.
A few years later in 2001, Silverlands was in the news when plans were put in place for it to house the relocated Wolvercote Clinic for convicted paedophiles. The locals weren’t happy and there followed a series of candlelit vigils, the first of which took place on October 26th 2001. BBC News covered the event as 300 protesters remained there in the rain. This was repeated every Friday evening and whilst this was going on, the former orphanage was enjoying a refit to the tune of around £3million.
In response to a Parliamentary Question tabled 4th July, 2002, it was confirmed by Home Office Minister, Hilary Benn, that Silverlands would NOT become the new home of the Wolvercote paedophile clinic. It has been empty ever since.
A further bit of research suggested that although it’s currently well guarded by CCTV and motion detectors, with a bit of stealth and creativity it might be possible to get inside and take a look round – if you’re prepared to take the risk of getting kicked out by security.
I’ve previously written about growing up watching cheesey haunted house and horror movies. And as a kid in the ’70s I watched all those documentaries, the ones with the great dane and the hippie who were always hungry. Going in to old buildings never seemed to work out too well for them. So the chances of going on my own into some old abandoned orphanage – an orphanage for God’s sake! – seemed absurdly unlikely.
Nevertheless I was curious, and like the hapless victims in so many horror films, that curiosity got the better of me.
When a building is listed, it means that it’s deemed to be of significant cultural or historical interest. As such it can’t be altered or demolished without explicit consent. In my naivety I’d assumed that this means the owners have a legal responsibility for its upkeep as well. Sadly that turns out not be so. It’s not unknown for a site to be deliberately neglected, and in some cases even helped on its way, so the building can be legitimately demolished and the land redeveloped.
I’m not sure what the situation with Silverlands is. What shocks me is how quickly in our absence Nature reclaims what once was hers. It seems apparent that it’s on the cusp. It’s teetering on the edge, about to topple over in to that state where it will no longer be financially viable for anyone to rescue it. I hope it’s not too late.
It’s well known in these parts that hanging round cemeteries is one of my guilty pleasures. Unsurprisingly I have many more, most of which I’ll keep to myself if you don’t mind, thanks for asking anyway. But there is one other I’m prepared to admit to: old British horror movies. For me, the golden era is the 1950s to the mid-seventies, and I’m particularly fond of the classic Hammer and Amicus pictures.
Way back in the seventies when I was a kid we were lucky enough to have a second TV, an old beat up black and white portable that a family friend had given us. It didn’t have any buttons for the channels, just a dial that you had to twist to tune in to one of three stations – that’s all we had in the UK back in those days. Most of the time this TV lived in the kitchen where it kept my mum company whilst she cooked, but on the weekends I was allowed to take it up to my room on the condition it was lights out and TV off by ten. Dear Mum, in the unlikely event you ever read this, I’m sorry. I’m a bad son. Yes, the lights did go out at ten, but the TV stayed on, and it was round about midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings that these films were shown. I’m sure my parents would have been horrified if they had known what I was watching. They’d have worried that I’d scare myself witless. As it turned out, I scared myself witless. Nowadays many of these old pictures come across as camp and creaky, but I still love them.
I was probably around ten when I first saw Theatre Of Blood (1973), a wickedly black comic picture starring Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, and a host of fine British character actors. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor whose performances are savaged by the critics and thus is driven to drown himself in the Thames. Unbeknownst to all he survives and proceeds to exact a bloody revenge on all of them. Those critics who gave him poor notices become the victims of a series of inventive and gory murders imitating Shakespearean death scenes. Price hams it up big time in a number of different guises, not least his insanely memorable portrayal of a camp hairdresser with an afro. If this film was made today, that haircut would have it’s own Twitter account. Oh, and did I mention Diana Rigg was in it?
One thing that’s quite unusual for the time is that (as far as I can tell) every scene is shot on location, in and around London. There are no studio sets at all. And it was whilst watching it again recently that I realised that one of the scenes is shot in Kensal Green Cemetery, a huge gothic style graveyard in West London. So, a classic horror movie filmed in a local graveyard – was there really any chance that I wouldn’t pay a visit with a camera? Seriously?
Four other movies that kept me awake as a kid:
Horror Express (1972)
Bonkers Anglo-Spanish production redeemed by Christpoher Lee and Peter Cushing. A monster from another world is loose aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, sucking out the brains of some dodgy 1970s actors and taking over their bodies. Telly Savalas turns up half way through for no reason other than to chew up the scenery. Best quote:
Policeman:The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Peter Cushing: Monster? We’re British, you know.
The House that Dripped Blood (1971)
Actually it didn’t. Not a single drop of it in fact. Director Peter Duffell wanted to call the film the more appropriate and refined ‘Death and the Maiden’, but producer and head of Amicus Studios, Milton Subotsky, wanted something more dramatic. This is one of those of Portmanteau horror films – several separate stories connected by a single theme or a location – that were popular ever since 1945’s Dead of Night. In this case, the four stories are linked together by a creaky old house. Beautiful Queen of Horror Ingrid Pitt turns up in one of the segments and takes a bite or two out of a pre-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. When I was a kid, Ingrid Pitt playing a seductive vampire gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I didn’t know quite what it meant.
From Beyond The Grave (1974)
Another Amicus Portmanteau flick, this time the linking device is Peter Cushing’s seemingly doddery old antique shop proprietor. Think you can put one over on him? Think again. My parents couldn’t understand why the electricity bill went up for the following year after I’d seen this film, but it was that long before I could sleep with the light off. Bits of this still give me the willies even to this day.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Christopher Lee plays against type as the good guy in Hammer’s adaption of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 occult novel. Contains all the elements that Wheatley is famous for. Devil Worship? Check. Sacrificing animals? Check. British superiority and causal racism? Check. I actually own an original publicity photograph of Lee and fellow actors in the scene where they spend the night in the chalk circle whilst Satan’s legions are mustered against them. If I could have my time over again, that would be my ideal job – an on-set photographer.