It is hard to overstate the importance of history and heritage to the people of Aldershot, who are rightly proud of the town’s long and distinguished military connections.
You need only glance at the Historic Aldershot Military Town group on Facebook to see there are already thousands preserving the minutiae of the town’s fortunes, past and present.
However, one thing many hold in common is perhaps the most primal bond any person can have with a place, namely being born and bred there, specifically in the Louise Margaret Hospital.
A somewhat small and unassuming building, the Louise Margaret is dwarfed by its near neighbour, the famous Cambridge Military Hospital - arguably Aldershot’s best known landmark.
Opened in 1879, the Cambridge served the town’s military and civilian communities until the late-1990s when it finally closed, superseded by modern facilities such as Frimley Park Hospital and also the Aldershot Centre for Health.
Over the past 20 years, the structure of the Cambridge has been left to decay and it is now little more than a husk. But that’s all about to change.
Work is afoot to restore the building to its former glory and further cement its legacy in the town.
Grainger is planning to convert the Cambridge into 134 units of housing, some 47 of which will be affordable. Public exhibitions and consultations will be held later this summer and a formal planning application could be lodged by October.
With asbestos works due to get underway later this month, the News & Mail on Monday (June 8) was invited to document the building for one last time before it is given a new lease of life.
We were met by Grainger’s development director John Beresford and development manager Alan Chitson at the company’s HQ in nearby Smith Dorrien House on Monday afternoon.
Suited and booted in protective gear, hi-vis and the obligatory hardhat, we took our first tentative steps into the dark and dank underbelly of the Cambridge where, after a just few twists and turns, we emerged into a dimly lit corridor extending as far as the eye could see.
“There’s a lot of folklore about this corridor,” said Mr Chitson. “I’ve had people tell me it’s a mile - even two miles long when it’s actually only about 250 metres.”
To our left, along the external wall, there are frequent openings to smaller rooms and wards, while to our right, there are staircases and dusty, abandoned lift shafts, which lead to the airy, spacious wards above.
Everywhere you look, there are daubs of paint – markings both by those contractors tasked with profiling the building ahead of the redevelopment, and also graffiti left behind by the many urban explorers who have visited the building over the years.
Mr Beresford said that Grainger had to adopt something of a love-hate stance with these intrepid interlopers: “From an objective, personal point of view, some of the photos they take and share are absolutely brilliant,” he said.
“But we can’t encourage it. Anything that happens to them here is our responsibility. They are trespassers. There have been so many rumours going around over the years that the building is going to be demolished, it naturally creates an interest.”
Every bank holiday, Mr Beresford added, saw new break-ins, with the site now littered with day-glo stickers fixed to some of the least accessible parts of the building – even the clock tower.
Despite the desolation, months of work has already gone into making the hospital safe, with work to strip out tons of toxic asbestos almost ready to begin.
During the near 20 years since its closure, water leaks, damp and just a simple lack of light, air and ventilation has seen thick clumps of fungus build up: “It was like something from the X-Files when we first got in,” said Mr Beresford.
Wisps of feathery cobwebs still festoon the darker corners of the hospital, which are infested with spiders and littered with dead flies.
Our tour continued into the more spacious environs of the hospital kitchen and cookhouse, which were spookily handed over to Grainger complete with Christmas decorations said Mr Chitson, not to mention a floor thick with guano due to a pigeon infestation, he added.
At every turn, there are reminders that we’re not in a haunted house, but what was once a clinical and professional environment.
We pass the dispensary, where medicines would have been handed out, and then the surgeons’ offices before shimmying up the narrow, winding staircases leading to the clock tower.
Set to be restored as a viewing and heritage area, the tower is one of the highest points in the town, the hospital already perched on the eponymous Hospital Hill, with landmarks like Guildford Cathedral are clearly visible in the distance.
From the clock tower, however, we quickly descend to the basement. One of our party mutters dryly ‘there’s poo on the wall’. And they were right, kind of, as torchlight revealed a vast mural of Winnie the Pooh and friends.
We had arrived in the children’s wards, which are littered with dated and faded childhood comforts including paintings of a handful of Disney and Beatrix Potter characters.
Mr Beresford explained isolating all the different wards was typical of the era the hospital was built, when infection control was far more primitive and important in stopping the spread of disease.
The design of the building was heavily influenced by Florence Nightingale, heavily informed by her work during the Crimean War (1854-56), where she observed the benefits of rest and recuperation outside the hospital ward.
As such, many of the wards were built with south-facing balconies to catch the sunlight and allow the returning soldiers to convalesce in fresh air.
We ascended once again to the main hospital wards, which despite dating back the best part of 150 years, demonstrate some of the developments and mod-cons that the hospital gained over the years.
Spot lamps hang limply from the walls, with the curtain tracks above delineating individual berths, each coming equipped with a channel selector and volume knob.
Throughout the hospital, there are reminders not only of the age of the facility and progressive efforts to modernise it, but also of the clinical role it served.
A myriad of signs tell their own little stories; one door bears ‘treatment room’, a cupboard ‘urine testing equipment’, a control panel ‘bone conductor’.
Cupboards that once groaned with antiembolic stockings, suction catheters, blood bottles, climfeed equipment and IV fluids are now bare; Cupboard Five is without markings. It invites you to imagine.
The Cambridge as it stands is a smorgasbord of where old once met new, and now, even just 20 years hence, manages to sound and look severely dated.
We emerged a good two hours later and took a chance to study the building in the round; its imposing stance, its Victorian architecture, its faded glory.
Together with Mr Beresford and Mr Chitson, we talked of how, with a little work, the hospital could once again be brought back to the fore, as Grainger intends.
“When you walk through those derelict wards and you see the Beatrix Potter characters and Winnie the Poohs on the children’s wards, it brings it home to you how important this building was,” added Mr Beresford.
“We don’t really have to do anything to this to make it the iconic building of the development; we’re lucky to have a handful of them. But this is obviously the most important. It’s been boarded up for too long. We intend to do something about it.”