A drop in the ocean: The first half hour

20 October 2016

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum

This post is from Matthew, a resident of Bethlem Royal Hospital and an artist showing work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition.


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Matthew’s sculptural model of the grounds at Bethlem Royal Hospital.

Matthew has built up a practice of walking the site over several years, exploring the huge grounds as part of his daily routine. Through his physical exploration of the grounds, he uncovers hidden objects and remnants of past life. In ‘Reclaiming Asylum’, Matthew presents a sculptural map of the Bethlem Royal Hospital from his own perspective that includes areas of refuge, relaxation and opportunities for creative practice.

Over the course of the exhibition, Matthew will be adding various elements to the map that draw on his detailed knowledge of the grounds, it’s wildlife and fauna. The ongoing additions will also explore some of his ideas for the potential of the grounds and how they can be utilised artistically and therapeutically. Over to Matthew.

I have been here at the Bethlem Royal Hospital for over five years now, but it seems only a short time.

After waiting 15 months for ground leave, the first half hour was the most amazing and worthwhile, as I had waited for over 10 years just to touch a tree, feel the bark, wonder at its branches that seemed to be gently waving their leaves at me in the breeze. And to walk on grass with moss mixed in making it feel nice and springy. To be able to walk in a straight line for more than 25 meters.

For now the grounds are almost my home as l spend more time in them than anywhere else. Every time that I go onto the grounds there is always something different to see, as the seasons are forever changing, bringing untold mysteries; the wind answers my lost thoughts, emotions and feelings.

Though the squirrels can’t talk, they’re good to talk to. Sometimes the birds come and sit by me and sing a tune to me. Foxes come and play within sight of me as if I was just part of the scenery.

You could spend hours just sitting under a tree and watching the clouds drift past and not see a single person. And, if you were to feel down, there are always dog walkers around, for just to see a dog wagging its tail is sure to bring a smile to you.

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A blackberry picking walk, by Matthew.

As autumn draws slowly upon us we see the grounds change into a magical land with a host of colours from the trees: red, orange, yellow and brown. The leaves, when the weather becomes colder, become lovely and crunchy under foot.

 The Engine, paint on burnt out car found in the grounds.
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The Engine, paint on burnt out car found in the grounds, by Matthew.

Some people may find autumn a bit disconcerting or even depressing, but I find the grounds to be quite wonderful and it becomes more still and quiet with all the leaves off the trees. To think that all those leaves have come from that tree…and every year forever more. The hedgehog will use some of the leaves to wrap itself up in a ball along with bits of dried grass, tucked up under some old logs with some woodlice for company. The badger will also collect some; the squirrels will run and jump around and collect acorns and sweet chestnuts to hide in so many places.

When the trees have lost their leaves you rediscover some of the grounds; you can see some of its hidden aspects. Remains of old buildings, bits of old fence, old bits of furniture, the old bicycle frame that has been hidden from view, and old tins.

In one area of the grounds I have located the remains of the general tip for the original estate house. Where there are old Oyster shells, champagne flutes, bits of old pottery and old style milk bottles.

When winter sets in, we welcome the return of one of the marvellous streams that bubbles up (which right now is just a dust and sandy pit). It is so nice to take some time to watch it slowly bubble and gurgle its way up and create its own way into the larger stream. And following one of these little tiny streams through the undergrowth can feel like you are truly somewhere else.

You could go and stand on the same spot every day for a year and be sure to see something totally different each time. As the weather is forever changing, likewise the seasons are too.

As the nights draw in and with twilight coming earlier, there is an increasing chance of seeing a badger around 16.30, ambling along from bush to bush on the daily quest for earthworms and woodlice.

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Matthew spots a badger on the grounds.

Matthew conducts informal research and initiates ongoing dialogues and leads public walks around the site with a focus on the themes he has researched.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on at Wellcome Collection until 15 January 2017 and ‘Reclaiming Asylum‘ is on at Bethlem Gallery until 11 November 2016.