I was five and visiting a psychiatric hospital. I had the time of my life!

I was two when my mum became a consultant psychiatrist at Lancaster Moor hospital. Opened in 1816 as Lancashire’s first “lunatic asylum”, it was a forbidding place, looming over the M6 like a gigantic haunted mansion. It had neo-gothic towers and echoey corridors and always felt deserted, even though there were still a thousand patients when Mum started working there.

At its peak, there were 3,200 people living inside its blackened walls, many in locked wards. Some had transferred from Lancaster Castle, a prison right in the centre of the city where the Pendle witches stood trial. The hospital complex was like a village: there were two churches, one Anglican and one Catholic, and it had a farm, a bowling green and its own generator.

One of Mum’s patients had been at the Moor for 60 years when she arrived. She remembers a trio of ladies from Rochdale who had clocked up 153 years between them. Alan Bennett’s mother was given electroshock therapy there, but that was before Mum’s time – not that she would tell me if she had treated a famous patient. It was only decades later that I realised the reason so many people would say hello to her when we went shopping in town was that they had been in her consulting room. She never let on how she knew them.

I always knew she was a doctor, but I didn’t know what kind. Children are remarkably uncurious about their parents. I knew she used to go into her study after tea and would look through big sheets of paper covered with wiggly lines she called EEG reports, which we were not allowed to draw on. But I had no idea that EEG stood for electroencephalogram and was a test used to find problems related to the electrical activity of the brain.

The first time I remember going with her to the hospital was on Christmas afternoon, when I was only about five. My older sister, Karen, was there, too, and my dad. I didn’t really want to be there, knowing I had not yet opened all my presents at home. But when you are five, you have no choice. Anyway, Mum gave me and Karen a big tub of Quality Street each, which we were told to distribute around the psychogeriatric ward.

Our household was the sort where treats were strictly controlled: one packet of crisps a week, pop only on Saturdays. So being entrusted with a ginormous box of chocolates was exciting indeed. I toddled around the ward, operating a “one for you, one for me” policy as I went from bed to bed, wondering why no one I talked to made sense.

When you are little, so much of life is new and strange that you quickly accept even the strangest things as being perfectly normal. But I remember thinking it was odd that so many of these very old women were clutching dollies and teddies, and also that they were draped in jewellery. Most of them had no family, received no visitors and were not able to go out to a shop, so a charity would send them beads and brooches, which they would wear over their nighties.

On the way home, feeling slightly queasy after all the chocolate, I asked Mum why the old ladies had dolls and why they had talked such nonsense. I can’t remember her exact explanation, but it was the first time I learned that people could be poorly without having a plaster cast or a sick bowl by their bed.

That Christmas taught me not to be afraid of people with mental illness. I wasn’t even bothered when she used to put me on the trolley in the corridor outside her office if I was off school unwell and she couldn’t cancel a ward round (something she insists now happened only in childcare emergencies).

When I was 18, the Moor closed for good, with care transferred into the community. The hospital has now been turned into luxury flats. But every time I am driving north on the M6 I look left and think about my Christmas on the psychogeriatric ward.


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