On a recent trip back to London I visited most of the places I used to live and took pictures of the doorways. It had been four decades since I last trod those particular pavements, walked up those steps, slid my key into the lock and pushed open the door to places I once called home. These flats and bedsits were all in Chelsea or Pimlico, Kensington or South Kensington. The few times I lived in North London were brief and unhappy, and not worth the trouble of going back. My home is now Brooklyn, and I hadn’t been back to London in twenty-eight years. All I had was a week, so each foray into the past had to count.
The last doorway I went in search of was nowhere to be found. St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital. How could an entire hospital disappear? I’d only spent a week there too, back in 1976, but it was such a memorable week that I wanted to go back and see the place.
I took the tube to Kensington High Street and walked the short distance to St. Mary Abbot’s Church. For some reason, probably because they had the same name, I thought the hospital might be behind the church, so I began walking around the block. There was no sign of it. I even enquired in a shop. The women proprietors were middle-aged and elderly; surely they would know where the hospital was. But no. They’d never heard of it. So now I Googled it on my phone, which is what I should have done in the first place, because now I learned it had been torn down, replaced with luxury apartments in a gated community called Stone Hall Gardens nearby on Marloes Road.
This was a blow, but I took myself off to Marloes Road anyway, hoping something might be left of the old hospital. It had originally been the Kensington Parish Workhouse before being converted to a hospital from 1871 to 1992. During my scrolling, I also learned that Jimi Hendrix had been brought there DOA in 1970.
I walked up and down Marloes Road, looking for something, anything that might stir a memory, but recognized nothing. Though the gateposts and part of the brick wall from the workhouse had been left standing, I didn’t remember them from my brief stay. Not to be outdone, I rang the bell and asked the gatekeeper if I might come in and look around as I’d once been a patient at the hospital. But he said no, there was nothing left of the old place now. I know when I’m beat. Time had moved on without me. Coming back at all after twenty-eight years was an accomplishment in itself, and I’d have to forget about St. Mary Abbot’s.
But how could I forget that place where I’d experienced my first spiritual awakening? That little white room with the iron bedstead and bars on the window. The sink in the corner crawling with ants. The lovely walled garden where I floated around barefoot on the grass in my long silk kimono, pretending I was Ophelia. I’d gone to the hospital because I’d wanted to die, and instead I found a beautiful new life! The place was no longer there, but the ground was, along with the memories I would never forget.
When I was back in New York the visit seemed worth writing about. The doors that were still there, and the one door that wasn’t. St. Mary Abbot’s Church would be a stand-in for the hospital that once bore its name. I began a drawing of the church. I’d write a little, then draw some more, and meanwhile I thought to look up the old hospital again to get my facts right. Now that I was more relaxed on my laptop at home rather than wandering around Kensington while I anxiously Googled the history of the hospital on my phone, I noticed the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki. It seems that Hitchcock used the exterior of St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital for footage of the character Blaney (Jon Finch) entering and then escaping from the hospital in his film, Frenzy (1972).
I had actually seen the film on You Tube not long ago and quickly found it again. I fast-forwarded, and near the end, an hour and twenty-some minutes into it, I saw the entrance to the hospital. There was no mistaking it. The shot took place at night and it was dark, but I recognized the spacious, empty parking lot. (It had been night when I was admitted there too.) Though it was a bit fuzzy, when I saw the plain, modern-looking, unfussy entrance, I recognized it at once. It was more than I expected. I happily finished the drawing of the church, thinking all the while of God’s Grace…
It was probably that, the thought of God’s Grace, which brought my mind back to the bombing of the hospital during WW2. I went back to the website, Lost Hospitals of London, and read about the bombings again.
In 1940, during WW2, the Hospital suffered bomb damage. Four people were killed and one of the blocks was destroyed. Then in 1944 when a bomb scored a direct hit, five nurses, six children and seven adult patients were killed. There were thirty-three casualties in all. The patients were evacuated and St. Mary Abbot’s was forced to close. After the war the hospital gradually opened its doors again.
Could it have been those deaths and the bombing which caused me to have the dream of death the night I came home from the hospital?
Being a patient at St. Mary Abbot’s in the 1970s, though only for a week, had been a life-altering experience. But the dream I had the night I was discharged was even more cataclysmic. I described the events which led up to my being a patient, along with my stay in hospital and its aftermath, in my memoir, The Nancy Who Drew; the memoir that solved a mystery (2011).
In brief, the dream involved a past-life memory of death in WW2 on board a British civilian aircraft shot down by the Nazis. I was no stranger to dreams of death, though this one was far more complex than the nightmare which haunted part of my childhood. Now I wondered if being lodged on a former bomb site had stirred up the memories again.
You can clean up the rubble and bury the bodies and build something new over a scene of destruction, but the past is still lodged in the energy field. Those who are attuned to such things pick it up.
The circumstances of my being a patient involved a complete surrender of self. In this voluntary surrender, and due to the kindness and understanding of the hospital staff (as well as the lack of medication) I experienced an opening to my Higher Self. This new openness astonished me. At the time, I thought some kind of filter had been removed, because of the way my senses were suddenly able to take in so much more. And then I went home and dreamed about a past death, the dream that would change my life forever.
Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock, for preserving the entrance on celluloid. And thank you, St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital, and the NHS, and the staff who were there in late spring, 1976. I remain forever grateful.