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.