The place where I grew up doesn’t exist anymore. It was bulldozed earlier this year and on its foundations is sprouting a new configuration of bricks and mortar that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but will continue to watch with interest as it develops all the same.
In 1968 when I was transported through its gates “Penhurst” was a residential institution for an assortment of children for whom normal life was not a given. However, that didn’t stop the school’s headmaster regularly reminding me,“There is no such thing as normal Jazz,” if he heard me use the words, “normal children”. A truly insightful attempt to correct my thinking that was only going to materialise with the benefit of maturity. But given that none of the children housed within Penhurst’s boundaries had normal working bodies, you’d think that some allowances would have been made if we didn’t quite make the connection.
Located in a secluded part of Chipping Norton, Penhurst Residential School was made up of a collection of single storey dwellings: a school, a workshop, the chapel, a Scout hut, and a hospital as well as my own family group, Grenfell. However, at the heart of what my mother once described as “a little village”, screaming ‘institution’, was The Big House.
As long as I can remember that was its name: The Big House, a four storey Victorian mansion, and while being large, impractical, and very likely not fit for purpose as an appropriate residential setting for the mobility challenged it did provide a magical haven to which I could escape. Grenfell had been the only family group to be relocated from it to a newly built, self contained block in 1970 in a bid to prepare for the more seriously disabled children that would eventually be admitted when the long stay children’s hospitals shut their doors. While we children enjoyed the light, spacious rooms of Grenfell’s new and modern surroundings the other four family groups continued to occupy the various large day rooms and dormitories, sleeping up to eight, in the Big House completed with rickety lift, secret corridors (or so I imagined), windowless attics and it own supply of ghosts. Suffice to say the Big House contained all that was denied me in Grenfell and I spent as much time as I was allowed up there hanging out with friends who were considered far too much of a bad influence on me to live with.
I wasn’t surprised when I was told that Penhurst was to cease operation as a special education facility. Mainstreaming had taken hold and disabled children were no longer being sent to isolated institutions miles from their families. But to discover that it was being sold to private developers and turned into a posh retirement complex was a slap in the face to my childhood memories. While at one end of life’s laundry genetic counseling, terminations and various normalising surgery means that congenital childhood disability in the UK is decreasing, but at the other end of it people are living longer and are playing as hard as ever in a bid to out live their own life expectancy.
Penhurst has gone from one extreme to the other in a matter of months. It will be a nasty turn of fate if I find myself back there. But there again I don’t believe in fate.