Landscapes and Madness

In 1804-06 Dr Long Fox built a private lunatic asylum to the south of Bristol, one of the earliest purpose built institutions for the insane, and which included landscaped grounds to help the treatment of his patients. Dr Long fox was a respected local physician, and like many was also concerned with society at large; he was one of the campaigners for an investigation into the shooting of rioters a decade earlier when militia opened fire at protestors against the Bristol Bridge tolls.

Mental illness had long been treated as a physical disease, to be treated by physical means such as restraint. The London Bethlehem hospital, or Bedlam where visitors paid to watch the insane, has long been held up as an example of the horrors of the 18th century. A huge breakthrough came from philosophers such as John Locke who suggested in 1690 that madness was caused by misassociation of ideas, so treatment began to move towards finding methods on how to change their thinking, one of the foremost was the association of ideas, described b Samuel Tuke as ‘the cultivation and extension of the remaining healthy feelings and associations forms one of the most important parts of moral management’.

The new asylums incorporated the ideas that patients needed to see the countryside, even when restricted to exercise courts, so Brislington and others included a raised hill there, often with other landscape designs. From the mid 18th century, everyone with any wealth planned a landscaped garden on their estates, with romantic views of the countryside. But not the working landscape, but an improved one with walks, water features and views. These ‘improvements’ were included in the designs of these asylums, and at Brislington these included a walk beside the River Avon and some scenic walkways. The asylums were built with large windows, large day rooms, verandahs, and sports and recreational facilities to encourage patients to interact with the landscape.

From the early 19th century there was also a strong and widely held view that nature had curative powers; this may in part have been a response to the inceasing filth and ill health in the cities. This also coincided with the passion triggered by Marie Antoinette with cottages being placed in the grounds, and several were included at the Brislington asylum and others, to allow a degree of privacy and to accommodate servants for the more wealthy or frail inmates.

Btu this was an asylum for the wealthy – the poor were seen as less educated, so would be less aware of these features so gain less from them. Fox had toured Europe, visiting the best asylums before he built his own, and must have been aware of Philippe Piinel, the pioneering French doctor famous for unchaining the patients at Bicetre at the end of the 18th century in Paris. He suggested that ‘patients be situated in locations most appropriate to counteract their delusions’ so the depressed should, for example, be placed in attractive landscapes. Rev Archibald Alison explained in 1790 the theory of associations, that when a person was presented with an object of beauty this would trigger their imagination, and help to correct their thought patterns.

All these ideas are fine, and for historians now, dealing with written and drawn records, this is as far as their visual investigations can go. Yet surely, there is more to this story?

A landscape is not just about visuals. It is about walking on soft earth, it is about smelling new mown hay, honeysuckle and even horse manure. It is about feeling the wind on your face, the sun and the rain, about breathing deeply, about being able to  walk without dodging traffic, without the cares of work, family and responsibility. It is about sounds, especially those of birdsong. Who can ever hear these creatures, especially those known by naturalists as CBT’s, or common brown things, darting about singing the most incredible songs, without feeling their spirits soar higher than the birds themselves? Who can stand and listen to a lark rising, see swifts darting about at feeding time, of a peregrine, out of sight  but still crying.

For years the old rural asylums have been closing down, moving to new urban premises more convenient to staff and visitors, and palliative care, just allowing people to rest, no longer exists. Instead, the only treatment for most is that of psychotropic drugs.

But there is a growing trend within mental health professionals that this change should be reversed. Many people  go mad just from being overwhelmed by modern life. We have too much to do, too much to remember, too much stuff in our heads. No wonder so many people snap.

When I was campaigning to save Castle Park I found a quote from a policeman up north somewhere, talking about the high suicide rate in tower blocks. He said all it took to stop them was a bit of green space, that access to nature could actually save lives.

That was the core of our campaign to save the park. That, and the fact that taxpayers were entitled to a break in the urban landscape, somewhere to eat their lunches on a sunny day, to get a traffic free stroll on their way home from work, to walk their dogs, or just to be.

Loving nature and wanting to be part of it is not about being a granola chomping hippie, though that would be no bad thing. It’s about being a human being.


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