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Grand old hospital set to take its final bow

By This is Kent  |  Posted: August 06, 2010

  • FAREWELL: The grand entrance to the Kent & Sussex Hospital, which is no longer used and, inset, ward manager Guat Rickwood PV0605042/50

  • ROYALTY: The then Duchess of York lays the hospital's foundation stone in 1932

  • QUIRKY: The eye-catching fire escape 113176/36

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WHEN the Kent & Sussex Hospital opened its doors in 1934, it had unmistakable star quality.

With its eye-catching curves, bright shiny details and light-filled windows, it seemed to capture the spirit of an age when everything was brighter, faster and newer.

Already presented to royalty – the Queen Mother, then Duchess of York, had laid the foundation stone two years earlier – the new building, designed by local architect Cecil Burns, was a world away from the huddling old shops and matronly brick houses surrounding it, and seemed to offer a whole new vision of health care in the modern age.

However, time passes and, now in its eighth decade, the building is showing its age.

Despite major surgery, numerous facelifts and the odd injection of botox to plump up its appearance, it is close to the end of its long life.

For quite apart from the surface wrinkles, the pre-war hospital struggles to cope with the demands of modern life.

Hospital historian John Weeks, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust's emergency planning manager, explained: "It was an excellent design for the time, but since then there have been medical advances of which no-one could have dreamed.

"For instance, who would have known in the 1930s that we would have electro-cardiogram machines and huge monitors and suchlike?

"There are no storage facilities for equipment like that, so it stands in corridors and gets in the way."

He added: "The old theatres are too small for all this equipment, too. They were designed in a hexagonal shape because it was pleasing, but these days we need big square spaces with plenty of storage for specialised equipment nearby."

The south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows on all the wards were installed to pick up every drop of sunlight from early morning till sunset.

At a time when infectious diseases like tuberculosis were still rife, fresh air and sunshine were the new religion, and the children's ward also included a verandah where young patients could be wheeled outside.

"These days, climate change means the wards would be unbearable without blinds to cover the windows," said Guat Rickwood, ward manager of the 22-bed female medical ward seven which, with its bright 1930s nursery tiles, was the original Princess Elizabeth children's ward.

For Mrs Rickwood, who trained at the Kent & Sussex and has worked there for 20 years, one of the key elements on offer at the new Pembury Hospital is the move away from the traditional "Nightingale" wards with their rows of beds on either side.

She said: "The stark fact that most people today would never choose to stay in a dormitory suddenly hit me.

"Maybe we haven't been as aware as we should that it's very hard for people to adjust to the lack of privacy.

"It's made me really believe that patients will recover more quickly in the calm environment of single rooms at the new hospital, where they won't be disturbed by other patients and can just switch the light on and read if they can't sleep."

The hospital, built on the site of Decimus Burton's Great Culverden mansion, also struggles to cope with the constant traffic of people and cars, ambulances and delivery lorries.

"When the hospital bought its first supply of penicillin, one of the porters went up to London by train to collect it," said Mr Weeks.

"And if they needed sugar or bandages, they would usually be supplied by local traders. These days, everything is ordered centrally and delivered by national carriers, so there are always big lorries trying to manoeuvre."

The original hospital, built on three sides around quiet lawns, has been stretched and in-filled and covered over so many times through the years that its bold, clean lines are all but lost.

Inside, the story is much the same, with Burns' swirling Art Deco copper banisters on the main stairs now largely obscured by stud walls, long airy corridors lined with 21st-century equipment and snaking cables and divided by fire doors, and the grand main entrance which is now closed to the public.

The main outpatients' department remains, but its huge, curving glass roof, designed to ensure that the waiting area was flooded with cheerful light, was long ago dismantled to make way for building above.

In fact, the hospital footprint began to change shortly after its completion when six wartime emergency huts were added.

Four are still in use as wards, while the other two were demolished in the 1980s to make way for the new Culverden Accident & Emergency wing.

"That wing was always intended to be temporary," said Mr Weeks. "But the money for a new hospital planned for Sherwood Park never materialised, and so it stayed."

The fact is that, for most of its life, the Kent & Sussex has had to work flat out to keep up with the galloping changes of the 20th century.

And so while there is nostalgia for the old place, where demolition is due to begin next summer, many look forward to the move to the new super hospital at Pembury as a chance to stretch cramped wings in a new building built to fit 21st-century demands.

For as Mr Weeks pointed out: "We have used every inch of space in every direction at the Kent & Sussex; we just can't squeeze in any more."

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