With its low gables and sunny verandahs, the empty former cottage hospital of Winsford is a building like no other in the world. The result of a philanthropic dream shared by a rich widow and a leading Victorian architect, in the 119 years since the ailing people of north Devon were first welcomed under its slate roof, the place has aided many a recovery, including shell-shocked soldiers seeking sanctuary from first world war trenches.
And soon Winsford, at Halwill Junction near Beaworthy, will be helping people again. The disused hospital, designed by Charles Voysey as a gift from the wealthy Maria Medley to the surrounding rural communities between Dartmoor and the coast, and now being restored by the Landmark Trust, is the latest example of a growing faith in the healing powers of heritage buildings. For in the same way that walks through Britain’s forests are now being prescribed as an effective way to help counteract anxiety and stress, so the conservation trusts and charities of the heritage industry are starting to promote the power of ruins and historic buildings to improve mental wellbeing.
“It is a common theme we get back from all our stayers,” said historian Caroline Standford, of Landmark, a charity that rescues, restores and then rents out significant historic buildings. “So many say how much calmer they feel. It is so appropriate that we can use Winsford next year, because it is a place that has such a strong sense of nurturing about it.
“It is so much more welcoming than what we think of as a medical centre today. Before Voysey built it, his only cottage hospital, the villagers in the 13 surrounding rural parishes who fell ill had to travel all the way to Exeter or Okehampton.”
From next year, not only will a third of the old hospital be restored for continued use as a community health resource, but each year the remainder will be offered out at no cost for selected dates, along with some of the trust’s other buildings, as a place for those in need, including bereaved children, traumatised veterans and carers, to come and recuperate.
The scheme, called 50 for Free, has been running for five years and was inspired by the way that visitors to the trust’s buildings commented on how their mood was boosted by a stay in an ancient place, or unusual historic venue, away from the trappings of modern life. Applications for the next charitable visits open next month.
English Heritage and Historic England, two of Britain’s other major heritage and conservation charities, are also exploring the therapeutic side of their properties. English Heritage has set up days for people living with mental health problems and on low incomes at Stonehenge, a site it maintains jointly with the National Trust. Human Henge events focus on the site’s strong associations with natural healing and contemplation, much as the Japanese therapy of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is now being prescribed by some doctors treating depression.
Historic England has also found that visits to historic towns, ancient places of worship and archaeological sites have the same beneficial effects on blood pressure and general wellbeing as social sporting activity.
Research by University College London five years ago was among the first to make the link between heritage sites and mental wellness. It showed that contact with a heritage site, whether as a visitor or a volunteer, frequently improved mood and even promoted a sense of citizenship among isolated and disadvantaged groups.
And this weekend, at the culmination of the annual Heritage Open Days week, many of Britain’s local authorities will be encouraging families to visit nearby museums, stately homes and historic sites as a healthy way to break the repetitive pattern of work, shopping and domestic chores.
While a period of respite in a beautiful castle or folly would probably benefit anyone, Stanford believes that Winsford, offering a moment “out of time”, with no phone or television, was always destined to be a haven of peace and healing again. Now, as the last nails are hammered in by conservationists, it is a place of restoration in both senses of the word.