Notes from a Small Island
Author:Bill Bryson

chapter Five
MY FIRST SIGHT OF VIRGINIA WATER WAS ON AN UNUSUALLY SULTRY afternoon at the very end of August 1973, some five months after my arrival in Dover. I had spent the summer travelling around in the company of one Stephen Katz, who had joined me in Paris in April and whom I had gratefully seen off from Istanbul some ten days before. I was tired and road-weary, but very glad to be back in England. I stepped from a London train and was captivated instantly. The village of Virginia Water looked tidy and beckoning. It was full of lazy late-afternoon shadows and an impossible green lushness such as could only be appreciated by someone freshly arrived from an arid clime. Beyond the station rose the Gothic tower of Holloway Sanatorium, a monumental heap of bricks and gables in parklike grounds just beyond the station.

Two girls I knew from my home town worked as student nurses at the sanatorium and had offered me sleeping space on their floor and the opportunity to ring their bath with five months of accumulated muck. My intention was to catch a flight home from Heathrow the next day; I was due to resume my listless university studies in two weeks. But over many beers in a cheery pub called the Rose and Crown, it was intimated to me that the hospital was always looking for menial staff and that I, as a native speaker of English, was a shoo-in. The next day, with a muzzy head and without benefit of reflection, I found myself filling in forms and being told to present myself to the charge nurse on Tuke Ward at 7 a.m. the following morning. A kindly little man with the intelligence of a child was summoned to take me to stores to collect a weighty set of keys and a teetering mountain of neatly folded hospital clothing - two grey suits, shirts, a tie, several white lab coats (what did they have in mind for me?) - and to deliver me to Male Hostel B across the road, where a crone with white hair showed me to a spartan room and, in a manner reminiscent of my old friend Mrs Smegma, issued a volley of instructions concerning the weekly exchange of soiled sheets for clean, the hours of hot water, the operation of the radiator, and other matters much too numerous and swiftly presented to take in, though I was rather proud to catch a passing reference to counterpanes. Been there, I thought.

I composed a letter to my parents telling them not to wait supper; passed a happy few hours trying on my new clothes and posing before the mirror; arranged my modest selection of paperback books on the window-sill; popped out to the post office and had a look around the village; dined at a little place called the Tudor Rose; then called in at a pub called the Trottesworth, where I found the ambience so agreeable and the alternative forms of amusement so non-existent that I drank, I confess, an intemperate amount of beer; and returned to my new quarters by way of several shrubs and one memorably unyielding lamppost.

In the morning I awoke fifteen minutes late and found my way blearily to the hospital. Amid the melee of a shift change, I asked the way to Tuke Ward and arrived, hair askew and weaving slightly, ten minutes late. The charge nurse, a friendly fellow of early middle years, welcomed me warmly, told me where I'd find tea and biscuits and cleared off. I scarcely ever saw him after that. Tuke Ward was inhabited by long-stay male patients in a state of arrested insanity who, mercifully, seemed to look entirely after themselves. They fetched their own breakfasts from a trolley, shaved themselves, made their own beds after a fashion and, while I was momentarily engaged in a futile search for antacids in the staff loo, quietly departed. I emerged to find, to my confusion and alarm, that I was the only person left on the ward. I wandered puzzled through the day room, kitchen and dormitories, and opened the ward door to find an empty corridor with a door to the world standing open at its far end. At that moment the phone in the ward office rang.

'Who's that?' barked a voice.

I summoned enough power of speech to identify myself and peered out the office window, expecting to see the thirty-three patients of Tuke Ward dashing from tree to tree in a desperate bid for freedom.'Smithson here,' said the voice. Smithson was the head nursing officer, an intimidating figure with mutton chops and a barrel chest. He'd been pointed out to me the day before. 'You're the new boy, are you?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Jolly there?'

I blinked, confused, and thought what odd turns of phrase the English had. 'Well, actually it's very quiet.'

'No, John Jolly, the charge nurse - is he there?'

'Oh. He's gone.'

'Did he say when he'd be back?'

'No, sir.'

'Everything under control?'

'Well actually' -1 cleared my throat - 'it appears that the patients have escaped, sir.'

'They've what?'

'Escaped, sir. I just went to the bathroom and when I came out-'

'They're supposed to be off the ward, son. They'll be on gardening detail or at occupational therapy. They leave every morning.'

'Oh, thank Christ for that.'

'I beg your pardon?'

'Thank goodness for that, sir.'

'Yes, quite.' He rang off.

I spent the rest of the morning wandering alone around the ward, looking in drawers and wardrobes and under beds, exploring store cupboards, trying to figure out how to make tea from loose leaves and a sieve, and, when my constitution proved up to it, having a private world skidding championship along the well-polished corridor that ran between the patients' rooms, complete with whispered and respectful commentary. When it got to be one-thirty and no-one had told me to go to lunch, I dismissed myself and went to the canteen, where I sat alone with a plate of beans, chips and a mysterious item later identified to me as a Spam fritter, and noticed that Mr Smithson and some of his colleagues, at a table across the room, were having a discussion of considerable mirth and, for some reason, casting merry looks in my direction.

When I returned to the ward, I discovered that several of the patients had returned in my absence. Most of them were slumped in chairs in the day room, sleeping off the exertions of a morning spent leaning on a rake or counting Rawlplugs into boxes, except for one dapper and well-spoken fellow in tweeds who was watching a test match on the television. He Invited me to join him and, upon discovering that I was an American, enthusiastically explained to me this most bewildering of sports. I took him to be a member of staff, possibly the mysterious Mr Jolly's afternoon replacement, possibly a visiting psychiatrist, until he turned to me, in the midst of a detailed explication of the intricacies of spin bowling, and said suddenly and conversationally: 'I have atomic balls, you know.'

'Excuse me?' I replied, my mind still on the other type of balls.

'Porton Down. 1947. Government experiments. All very hush-hush. You mustn't tell a soul.'

'Ah . .. no, of course.'

'I'm wanted by the Russians.'

'Oh ... ah?'

'That's why I'm here. Incognito.' He tapped his nose significantly and cast an appraising glance at the dozing figures around us. 'Not a bad place really. Full of madmen, of course. Positively teeming with lunatics, poor souls. But they do a lovely jam roly-poly on Wednesdays. Now this is Geoff Boycott coming up. Lovely touch. He'll have no trouble with Benson's delivery, just you see.'

Most of the patients on Tuke Ward were like that when you got to know them - superficially lucid, but, underneath, crazy as an overheated dog. It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane, and, if I may say so, a particularly useful grounding for life in Britain.

And so my first permanent days in Britain passed. At night I went to the pub and by day I presided over a mostly empty ward. Each afternoon about four o'clock a Spanish lady in a pink coverall would appear with a clattering tea trolley and the patients would stir to life to get a cup of tea and a slice of yellow cake, and from time to time the elusive Mr Jolly dropped by to dispense medicines or re-order biscuits, but otherwise things were very quiet. I developed a passable understanding of cricket and my skidding came on a treat.

The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its ownmortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn't involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.

One day, during one of Mr Jolly's periodic visits -1 never did discover what he did during his absences - I was despatched to a neighbouring ward called Florence Nightingale to borrow a bottle of thorazine to keep the patients docile. Flo, as it was known to the staff, was a strange and gloomy place, full of much more seriously demented people who wandered about or rocked ceaselessly in high-backed chairs. While the sister went off with jangling keys to sort out the thorazine I stared at the jabbering masses and gave thanks that I had given up hard drugs. At the far end of the room, there moved a pretty young nurse of clear and radiant goodness, caring for these helpless wrecks with boundless reserves of energy and compassion - guiding them to a chair, brightening their day with chatter, wiping dribble from their chins - and I thought: This is fust the sort of person I need.

We were married sixteen months later in the local church, which I passed now as I made my way down Christchurch Road, shuffling along through papery leaves, under a tunnel of lofty boughs, humming the last eight bars of 'Nell Gwynne'. The big houses along Christchurch Road were unchanged, except for the addition on each of a security box and floodlights of the sort that come on for no reason late at night.

Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the Twenties and Thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden.

But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again. Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn't act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker's declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I'm still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.

Among the five hundred or so patients at the sanatorium was a remarkable idiot savant named Harry. Harry had the mind of a small, preoccupied child, but you could name any date, present or future, and he would instantly tell you what day of the week it was. We used to test him with a perpetual calendar and he was never wrong. You could ask him the date of the third Saturday of December 1935 or the second Wednesday of July 2017 and he would tell you faster than any computer could. Even more extraordinary, though it merely seemed tiresome at the time, was that several times a day he would approach members of the staff and ask them in a strange, bleating voice if the hospital was going to close in 1980. According to his copious medical notes, he had been obsessed with this question since his arrival as a young man in about 1950. The thing is, Holloway was a big, important institution, and there were never any plans to close it. Indeed there were none right up until the stormy night in early 1980 when Harry was put to bed in a state of uncharacteristic agitation - he had been asking his question with increasing persistence for several weeks -and a bolt of lightning struck a back gable, causing a devastating fire that swept through the attics and several of the wards, rendering the entire structure suddenly uninhabitable.

It would make an even better story if poor Harry had been strapped to his bed and perished in the blaze. Unfortunately for purposes of exciting narrative all the patients were safely evacuated into the stormy night, though I like to imagine Harry with his lips contorted in a rapturous smile as he stood on the lawn, a blanketround his shoulders, his face lit by dancing flames, and watched the conflagration that he had so patiently awaited for thirty years.

The inmates were transferred to a special wing of a general hospital down the road at Chertsey, where they were soon deprived of their liberty on account of their unfortunate inclination to cause havoc in the wards and alarm the sane. In the meantime, the sanatorium had quietly mouldered away, its windows boarded or broken, its grand entrance from Stroude Road blocked by a heavy-duty metal gate topped with razor wire. I lived in Virginia Water for five years in the early Eighties when I was working in London and occasionally stopped to peer over the wall at the neglected grounds and general desolation. A series of development companies had taken it over with ambitious plans to turn the site into an office park or conference centre or compound of executive homes. They had set up some Portakabins and stern signs warning that the site was patrolled by guard dogs, which, if the illustration was to be believed, were barely under control, but nothing more positive than this was ever done. For well over a decade this fine old hospital, probably one of the dozen finest Victorian structures still standing, had just sat, crumbling and forlorn, and I had expected it to be much the same - indeed, was rehearsing an obsequious request to the watchman to be allowed to go up the drive for a quick peek since the building itself couldn't much be seen from the road.

So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects' drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me. According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crosland House. The map of the site was dotted with strange names -Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza - that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started at £350,000.

I went back outside to see what I could get for my £350,000. The answer was a smallish but ornate home on a modest plot with an interesting view of a nineteenth-century mental hospital. I can't say that it was what I had always dreamed of. All the houses were built of red brick, with old-fashioned chimney pots, gingerbread trim and other small nods to the Victorian age. One model, rather mundanely known as House Type D, even had a decorative tower. The result was that they looked as if they had somehow been pupped by the sanatorium. You could almost imagine them, given sufficient time, growing into sanatoria themselves. Insofar as such a thing can work at all, it worked surprisingly well. The new houses didn't jar against the backdrop of the old sanatorium and at least -something that surely wouldn't have happened a dozen years ago - that great old heap of a building, with all its happy memories for me and generations of the interestingly insane, had been saved. I doffed my hat to the developers and took my leave.

I had intended to stroll up to my old house, but it was a mile off and my feet were sore. Instead, I headed down Stroude Road, past the site of the old hospital social club, now replaced by a dwelling of considerable ugliness, and the scattered buildings that had once been hostels for nursing and domestic staff, and bet myself £100 that the next time I passed this way they would be gone and replaced by big houses with double garages.

I walked the two miles to Egham, and called at the house of a delightful lady named Mrs Billen who is, among her many other selfless kindnesses, my mother-in-law. While she bustled off to the kitchen in that charming flutter with which all English ladies of a certain age receive sudden guests, I warmed my toes by the fire and reflected (for such was my state of mind these days) that this was the first English house I had ever been in, other than as a paying guest. My wife had brought me here as her young swain one Sunday afternoon many years before and we had sat, she and I and her family, tightly squeezed into this snug and well-heated loungewatching Eullseye and The Generation Game and other televisual offerings that seemed to me interestingly lacking in advanced entertainment value. This was a new experience for me. I hadn't seen my own family in what might be called a social setting since about 1958, apart from a few awkward hours at Christmases, s.o there was a certain cosy novelty in finding myself in the midst of so much familial warmth. It is something that I still very much admire in the British, though I confess a certain passing exultation when I learned that they were taking Bullseye off the air.

My mother-in-law - Mum - appeared with a tray of food such as made me wonder for a moment if she had mistaken me for a party of lumberjacks. As I greedily tucked into a delicious, steaming heap that brought to mind the Cairngorms re-created in comestible form, and afterwards sat slumped with coffee and a happily distended stomach, we chattered away about this and that - the children, our impending move to the States, my work, her recent widowhood. Late in the evening - late, that is, for a couple of old-timers like us - she went into bustling mode again and after making a great deal of industrious-sounding noises from every quarter of the house, announced that the guest room was ready. I found a neatly turned-down bed complete with hot-water bottle and, after the most cursory of ablutions, crawled gratefully into it, wondering why it is that the beds in the houses of grandparents and in-laws are always so deliciously comfortable. I was asleep in moments.