Monday, 8 August 2022

Blind Rehabilitation Workshops

There's an interesting little cluster of concrete buildings that have had my attention for some time. They're right next to a very popular part of Shropshire, but few people seem to know that they're here. Fewer still know what they were built for. The council have no record of them. Even the landowner inherited them from his father and hasn't got a clue what they were for.
The concrete suggests military, but I'm not convinced. It's eccentric in layout and doesn't always make sense.

The buildings don't appear on maps in 1927 but they are on maps in the 1930s so they were clearly built in the years between the wars, allegedly by a guy who made cement. According to scraps of local hearsay, he was commissioned to supply some pre-fabricated buildings, and these structures were his prototypes.The grounds actually had a large concrete wall circling it, and allegedly the wall once had recesses in it that were decorated with cement statues, none of which seem to have survived into the present day.
 
It seems that the military did have these buildings for a bit. They diverted public right of way, and a single line of dialogue mentions that they "handed the land over" when the nearby hall and hotel became a hospital and rehabilitation centre for blind soldiers. The organisations newsletter mentions that "huts" on the grounds were used as workshops to teach blind people braille, basket making, boot repairing and more. While the hospital is now a hotel, and won't feature in this blog, the ruins are still dotted around its former grounds and make for a good mooch.
 
 
This is the most prominent of the buildings, winning no beauty contests, unless it was standing next to something objectively hideous, like a job centre or slow walkers. The brickwork would suggest someone once put effort into providing additional structural support, but the deliberate curvature of the little wall there doesn't feel very military. Of course it's possible that this was added later too. 
 
 
Due to being built on a slope, the buildings two floors aren't connected internally, but actually lead to the outside. The upper floor has a larger door indicative of vehicular entry, but the exterior terrain doesn't seem to support vehicular access. Of course it has been ninety years since these buildings were used, and nature can really cover shit up if nobody cares enough to stop it.
 
 
Some parts of the lower floor are in ruins and clearly had more to them once. In all likelihood there were quite a few other structures that have vanished entirely.
 
 
So it was in 1940 that the blind rehabilitation started in the area, the organisation evacuating here from the south coast once the second world war was in full swing. The nearby hotel became their base of operations and the hall was converted into a hospital for blind servicemen, many of which were also suffering from other injuries and even amputations from their time at war. 

The organisation itself dates back to 1913 when a newspaper proprietor discovered that he would lose his eyesight due to glaucoma, and set out to make blindness an obstacle to be overcome, and teach other blind people to retain their quality of life in spite of their disablity.
 
 
The lower portion of this building seems to have a barn vibe to it, but from what I understand one of the workshops here taught blind people agriculture, so maybe this has something to do with that.  

The other possibility is that the brickwork in the middle was added by a farmer after the building fell out of use, but we'll likely never know.
 
 
As you can probably expect from people who had lost their eyesight during the war, some of the folks who used these old workshops were pretty depressed. A railway watch was even established, because sometimes the blind soldiers would hear the trains approaching and attempt to end their lives. 
However, the  culture of this environment was overall positive, and there was a lot of comradery. The blind servicemen learned skills that could be applied to the workplace, regained their confidence, and some even said that their time here was the happiest of their lives. 
 
They integrated well into the local community, frequently heading into town and occupying the local pubs and taking part in activities. The town installed a wire attached to posts about waist-height so that they could find their way around, and it was also pretty common for them to ride on the backs of tandem bikes with an able-sighted support worker on the front. Many of the locals said that they brought life to the town, and made the war years a lot more pleasant. One pub even had braille dominos commissioned so that the blind men could feel included. 

Prince Phillip even made an interesting remark about the blind folks here, saying "They can't ride a horse, I can't speak Russian. We're all disabled in some way."
I kinda like Prince Phillip, even though his scrotum turned out to be a nonce factory. I mean, he's not been excused from my usual dark humour directed at the royals, and that did upset the boomers of Facebook who think freedom of speech is only a valid excuse when they're having tantrums over the gender identities of people they'll never meet, but I think Prince Phillip would have been cool with it. He liked dark humour. Just not dark people. 
 
But I digress...
 
 
The upper floor of this building has a big sliding door that leads to a large nterior room.
 
 
There's some interesting graffiti in here.
 

 
"I'm on the town tonight. I'm keeping secrets of a childhood sight. Never wanted blah blah blah"
Are these song lyrics? I guess that's a step up from the usual badly drawn genitals. I don't know what the song is, but I like the font.
 
 
This wider room comes out on the other side of the building, and it has little steps. On the left is another doorway.
 

 
This room has a fireplace, which is odd because not only does the building not have a chimney, but I trust this room to retain heat about as much as I trust Kate McCann to babysit. The fireplace seems to be purely decorative.
There's also some graffiti here saying that Satan is a dick.
 
 
Poor Satan. If you look at evil through the eyes of an organisation that values obedience and servitude, then the devil is really just someone who won't jump through hoops. So the entire concept of the devil being evil is actually really silly. Satan could easily be loving. Satan could totally be charitable. Satan is absolutely capable of behaving selflessly. The diference is he doesn't require the promise of heaven and the threat of hell in order to do it. The devil is human nature before it's crammed into a box of do-as-you're-told-or-I'll-kill-your-kids. That's why pride is a sin. A person with pride won't let themselves become property.
 


 
Someone has stensiled loads of the revolutionary Che Guevara on the wall for some reason.
 
 
This little indent in the wall is right behind the fireplace.
 
 
There's a door on the side of the building that leads to some stairs, and a tiny room. 
 
 
This room is decorated by graffiti silhouettes, which is kinda eerie and cool. Unfortunately some of the vandalism has been re-vandalised by smiley faces and nipples. One person who won't have a smiley face is Zuckerberg.
 
 
 
Written on the wall of the stairway, it says "You cannot stay on the mountain forever. You have to come down." I assumed this must be a quote or a song lyric, so I gave it a google, and found that it's a quote from a book called Mount Analogue, which seems to be about climbing the titular mountain on a hidden island that is rendered invisible by the mountains sheer size causing a gravitational field that bends light. The islands entire population consists of the descendants of other travelers and explorers who have come searching for the mythical island.
The author, RenĂ© Daumal, died in 1944 while he was still writing the book, and as such it apparently ends abruptly mid-sentence. Someone published it for him anyway in 1952. 
It actually sounds like it might be an interesting read.

Also interestingly, the googling of the phrase led me to an instrumental track by someone called EL Heath. I thought maybe that is what the graffiti was referencing, but upon going on the musicians soundcloud, I saw a photo of this exact piece of graffiti, which indicates that it maybe predates and even inspired the music, rather than have it be made to promote the music. The music was recorded around 2007 but only published in 2020, and I really can't see the artist scrawling the words on a wall just to have a display image on soundcloud for an obscure bit of music he wasn't going to show anyone for over a decade.
 
 
The stairs continue up to the buildings roof, but it's built into the side of the the hill, so it's possible to literally just step off the top of the building onto the ground again.
 
 
It still looks cool though. I think this is probably the most photogenic part of the entire place. Something about stairs and nature, I guess.
 
 
In regards to these workshops, while it's impossible to know what specific tasks each structure and room was used for, I did dig into the lives of some of the people who might have used them as part of their rehabilitation, and found their stories to be quite interesting. 

Bob, for example, had five operations on his eyes, restoring his vision to some extent. But unable to walk, he remained at the facility for a while. His blind peers decided that he should be the one to take them to the pub, and linked arms to make a chair for him, and basically carried him into town while he gave directions. It sounds pretty hilarious and fun. He also trained a parot to swear, and once he was mobile again he left it on top of the buildings tannoy system so that it would abuse everyone whenever an announcement was made. Regardless of the fun and ganes, during his time here he trained to be a physiotherapist and opened up his own practice once the war ended. 

Another blind chap who had his hands amputated, named David, ended up in a relationship with a girl named Sibyl who worked in one of the local cafes, marrying her in Shrewsbury in 1944 and setting up a tobacconist. He also learned how to speak French, German, Russian, Dutch, and Spanish.
 

And these are just two people with entertaining and inspiring tales where people bounce back from injuries that could easily have confined them to misery and depression forever. An entire novel could be written because in the years that this facility was used, some seven hundred people were rehabilitated here.
 
But that's just the clientelle. The people who worked here are inspiring too, because the braille lessons, the boot repairing, the basket making, all of it was taught by men who had been blinded in the previous World War, and had come back here to apply their skills to help the younger generation who were in the positions they were once in. 
And outside of the practical lessons, they also organised events and clubs. It was the amateur dramatics group that saw the rise of one of the more prominent blind men to come through here, Esmond Knight. 

He was on the HMS Prince of Wales when it was hit by a shell from the German battleship Bismarck. His captain was killed, but he survived. However the attack had left him blind. Nevertheless he came here, he learned braille, and he joined the amateur dramatics group, eventually going on to have a career in acting. 
Ironically one of his most well known roles was in the 1960 film, Sink the Bismarck, an adaptation of the event that had led to his blindness to begin with. In the movie he played his own deceased former captain. The film is actually on youtube for anyone who is interested.
 
One of his later roles was in Superman 4 in 1987 where he played one of the elders of Krypton wh appeared as a big trasparent head in the fortress of solitude. Here's a link to that clip.
 
 
The chaplain of the entire facility was a chap called Andrew Nugee, the first war-blinded man to ever be ordained. He lost his eyesight, and nearly his life, at the battle on the Hooge Chateau in Belgium, a conflict so brutal that they've since renamed it the Hooge Crater. Moments prior to losing his eyesight, he witnessed the first use of flamethrowers in warefare. But it was a whizbang that injured him, a shell that bursts into small fragments on impact. One such blast broke his leg, and he took a splinter fragment right between the eyes. He somehow remained conscious and was taken to hospital. A week later his brother John was also admitted to hospital. When the nurse told him that they'd had a man with the same surname only a week ago, John said "Thats my brother," to which the nurse responded "He won't live."
 
Proving her wrong, Andrew made it to 1977, but he was still undergoing surgery long into his later years, as chunks of the whizbang were found throughout his body, one even emerging in the roof of his mouth in the 1950s. He was ordained in the 1940s, and reluctant to leave for Shropshire, but felt obligated to help out the new generation of blind sericemen.
 
 

So the stairs of this building are very much pointless given that one can just walk up the slope behind the building. From here we can see the next building.
 

This one looks pretty odd too. I mean I can see why people would think that they were built for military use, but I've been to loads of military ruins from the era and never seen anything quite as weird-looking as these.


 
The thing about the mountain is written here again in the same style, probably by the same person. But this time there's a retort questioning the statement.
 
 
The building is long and has some steps at the back. 
 

 
And at the back is a smaller raised room with nothing in it, but because it's raised, it has forward-facing windows out onto the rooftop of the lower bit. 
 

 
The floor is caked in dirt, but keep n mind that with no real doorway and wondows wide open, this place has had ninety years of wind bringing shit in.
 

 
At first glance  I thought that there was a ladder pointlessly placed here to grant access to a platform I can literally step onto, but on a closer look this is just a metal fence. I wonder why someone dragged this up here.

 
"Boxing is just show business with blood." This is a quote by the boxer, Frank Bruno. It's written by the same person who wrote the quotes about mountains, but the main question now is why? Why these quotes in particular? There's no obvious correlation between Frank Bruno and René Daumal.
 
 
So once again, the building was probably used as a workshop for teaching some sort of skill to the blind, but I don't know what precise activity took place here, and the place is so decayed that it's impossible to tell. Presumably in the 1940s there would have been other fixtures that gave it some character and indication of what they were for. Presumably there were work benches, and even telephone exchanges for telephony workshops, but these are long gone, leaving only the concrete shells of the buildings. 
 
In 1942, the first female admissions came here, which was relatively unexpected. Women were a little more involved in the second world war than they were in the first. Among the new arrivals was Gwen, who had been blinded in 1940 after an accident in a munitions factory in Bridgend. Gwen was 22 and newly married when it happened, and on top of losing her sight, she also had to have her hand amputated. Apparently she'd spend the next two years isolating herself in her room, hiding from the world until she was persuaded to come here. 
While initially shy, David the future tobacconist came to shake her hand, and as a prank handed her his prosthetic and just walked away, leaving her shaking the disembodied limb in thin air. After the initial surprise, the humour won her over and the two became friends. She went on to have a musical career. 

Surprisingly the youngest girl to come here was five-year-old Sylvia, who had been attending a tea party with her family when the Luftwaffe bombed them while looking for an aluminium factory. 63 people died, and 43 people were injured. Both of Sylvias parents were blinded, and their infant daughter Anne was killed. Because Sylvias father was with the home guard, he could be admitted to this facility, but given the loss the entire family had suffered, it was decided that they shouldn't be split up. 
Sylvia's father trained here in telephony, while Sylvia had a number of operations to restore her sight and apparently went on to have a relatively normal life.
 

Over there is the previous building.
 
 
And over here is a tiny little building. It's literally just one room but it's attached to a wall which gives the field this raised tier thing.
 

 
Presumably it was for parking a small vehicle, but this is just fields around here with no obvious road. A lot can change in a century though.
 

 
This hut definitely looks the most "logical" out of all of the buildings. It's easy to imagine this one actually serving a purpose. It's also missing the steps up to the doorway, which I presume were wooden and are long gone. But that just serves to make a point. While the buildings do look scattered and random, and illogical at times, there probably was a lot more to see at this place back in the 1940s. There could be footpaths under the grass. There could have been wooden cabins on the ground too. It might have all made a lot more sense visually back in 1942. 
 
 
In 1943, the place admitted 72 blind POWs who had been freed from German camps. Among them as Jimmy Shepherd, who had been blinded at Dunkirk and taken prisoner to Stalag 8B, where he was taught braille by another prisoner who happened to be Lord Normanby. Lord Normanby had some influence among the Germans, due to his nobility. He was a prisoner, but they were a little more lenient with him. Motivated by the success he'd had with supporting Jimmy Shepherd, he ended up pulling strings at Stalag B to have as many blind POWs sent there as possible, eventually amassing 28 who he taught, in a sort of POW camp version of this place. 
They ended up being taught braille by a retired German soldier who had been blinded in World War One, who they nicknamed Captain Adolf. Now there's a nickname that hasn't aged well!
But it's said that Captain Adolf took this nickname quite lightheartedly, and being able to speak English he actually befriended a few of the POWs. Certainly an angle to World War 2 that we don't usually hear about.
 
By 1946 some 700 blinded soldiers passed through here, including Americans, Estonians, Frenchmen, Netherlanders, Poles and Serbs. But with the war over, it was safe for the facility to return to its original grounds, and so they left.
The main base and hospital survive as hotels to this day, but the smaller concrete outbuildings, with no real purpose, were left to decay into the countryside. Few people know what they were ever used for, or that they're even here. 
 
With the absence of all the blind servicemen, a lot of the townsfolk say that it was too quiet without them, and it took a while for them to adjust to being a small Shropshire town again. It was the end of an era. 
 
There is one final piece to see, and I thought it was an air raid shelter at first, but it seems to be something to do with the waterworks. 
 
 
That's not to say it couldn't have been used as an air raid shelter during the war. Things were repurposed all the time back then. I've blogged about railway tunnels that were turned into shelters. Whatever's handy in a crisis.


 Alas, this one is impossible to access, but not impossible to see inside!
 
 
In the end there were no air raids in the area, but it was still considered a potential landing spot for an invasion, back when an invasion seemed imminent. As such, I do wonder if there are any pillboxes in the area. I havent found or heard of any, but I wouldn't be surprised.
 
Anyway that's all I got. This blogs a little bit different to my usual ones. The ruins, while on private ground, are clearly frequented by local kids, and make for a good casual mooch. Anyone interested in abandoned places but not quite at the abseiling-down-mineshaft stage, or even the climbing-through-window stage could have a stroll around here with minimal risk. 
 
It's a bit of a shame that there's not more recognition for these structures. Even a sign acknowledging their history would be better than nothing. These workshops, and others like them that are long gone, all served a purpose of restoring the quality of life and self esteem to seven hundred soldiers who lost their independence. Here they learned new skills that allowed them to function and even thrive in society. That's pretty awesome.
 
Also, I always say that these concrete structures could be put to use as canvases for graffiti artists. And I mean real street art, not this "Satan was here" "Dave is a nob" Jeremy-Kyle-Show-guest level graffiti that dominates. We saw it at the massive barracks I went to a while back, where the large featureless rooms were decorated with fantastic art. There was still a bit of my-parents-are-siblings graffiti but there was enough actual art to make it worthwhile.
 
My next blog will be underground in Shrewsbury, and then I'll be doing something I haven't done in a while and visiting another ROC bunker. 
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Thanks for reading!