‘I’m worried there’ll be no historical buildings left’

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Joyce Bishop speaks to urban explorer Rob Eland, who has a passion for Whittingham Hospital

As a boy Rob Eland need only jump on his bicycle and he could be in the grounds of Whittingham Hospital within minutes.

In those days the sprawling institution provided great fodder for his young imagination.

He and his friend would roam at will through the long-abandoned and slowly decaying buildings, dodging non-existent doctors.

“We used to call it the haunted hospital,” laughs Rob now, 15 years on from his early explorations.

“I can vividly remember the main corridor and the shine on the marble floor.

“Then I could walk down it quietly, now it’s an 
obstacle course ankle-deep in rubbish.”

Since those early days when Whittingham was the default destination for the bored teenager, Rob’s 
relationship with it has 
become more focussed – in every sense of the word.

In 2004 he ventured inside for the first time armed with a camera, with the idea of documenting what he saw.

It was the ideal way of combining his growing interest in photography and a fascination with urban exploration, a hobby that encompasses exploring man-made structures, often abandoned ruins.

By then the building had been closed for almost a decade and Rob, now 27 and a technical adviser with an e-cigarette company, was concerned that some of Preston’s local history was being lost.

“I took a map in and marked off where I’d been,” says Rob, who admits that he began to look at things differently after he was given his first camera at the age of 14.

“It’s about keeping memories alive,” he says.

“When I’m an old man I’m worried that there’ll be no historical buildings left in Preston; they’ll all have been developed into something modern.

“Last winter drove a stake through the heart of Whittingham; it’s crumbling and the floors are dangerous. I haven’t been in for about a year.

“It’s so sad that this is happening; it’s a piece of Lancashire history that will be forever lost.

“The building is too far gone now to save, except maybe a facade or two.”

Witnessing the decline of the structure prompted Rob, who lives on Whittingham Lane, only about a mile from the site, to carry out more research and, inevitably, he was soon faced with records of the patients who inhabited Whittingham.

“Every building has a history, but I wanted to personalise it and that’s where the patient stories come in,” he says.

Hours of research in the Lancashire archives have provided him with more than enough case studies and these, along with his photographs, form part of the website Rob has built to accommodate not just his Whittingham investigations but also his other local history projects.

He hopes that his work will inform people about what life was like in the hospital and is now hoping to find former staff willing to talk about their experiences.

“It’s meant to be a record of life there - the people, the building, everything,” he says. “It’s addictive when you begin reading the case studies; not because you enjoy it but because you want to see how deep the river runs.

“It was a community with its own brewery and train line - the largest asylum in Europe at one time. People were admitted, fell in love and lived their lives there.

“I want to show the full Whittingham story - the good and the bad - and I’ve tried to be impartial. I don’t want it to be all negative.”

But he admits that some patient records are worrying, showing an admission - and then nothing more. “Where did these patients go?” he says.

Despite his long association with Whittingham, Rob denies that he is obsessed with it: “It’s more of a passion,” he says. “It will never end for me; I’ll always find a new angle as long as the building is still there. It will always be my main project.”

Rob’s passion for urban exploration has taken him inside buildings around the country as well as in Lancashire.

Locally he has investigated the former Odeon Cinema in the city centre, Vernon Carus, which was originally Penwortham Mill, and Lancaster Moor Hospital, which he describes as looking like the Adams Family house.

One old building that left a real impact on Rob was St Joseph’s Orphanage in Mount Street, Preston.

“I don’t believe in ghosts, but St Joseph’s Orphanage nearly persuaded me they existed,” says Rob.

“We went in the operating theatre in 2009 and the number of bangs and creaks and noises we heard was unbelieveable.”

He is also compiling information and amassing photographs of the Preston to Longridge Railway for another major project on his website.

This single-track ran between Tootle Heights quarry in Longridge and Ribbleton and originally used horse-drawn vehicles.

The line eventually evolved to take steam engines and extensions were added – including one to Whittingham in 1889.

It closed to passengers in 1930 but continued to take goods traffic until 1967.

Further afield Rob has explored bunkers from the Cold War era, another area of history that fascinates him.

You can see his photography, which also includes old and new pictures of Preston sights blended into one image, on his website – http://www.rjephotos.co.uk

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