Award- winning author Philip Hoare uncovered some remarkable facts about Netley in the course of writing his evocative book Spike Island: the Memory of a Military Hospital.
He shares his love for Netley and the Hamble Valley in this interview.
“Netley is tucked away in a funny little corner of Hampshire and yet it’s remarkable because so many famous names have visited over the years.
“Royalty and the likes of Lloyd George came, Noel Coward entertained the troops, and Lord Baden-Powell spent his honeymoon here.
“The military hospital was the first place where women served in the army, the poet Wilfred Owen was brought here for treatment during the First World War – and Britain’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner did a painting of a sluice gate and the woods and shore, still recognisable today,” said Philip Hoare, with an unreserved passion for the place where he grew up.
The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley was the largest hospital ever built, stretching for a quarter of a mile along the banks of Southampton Water. A Victorian folly, its overblown scale led Florence Nightingale to criticise it and while impressive as a landmark, it simply didn’t function well as a place to care for the sick and wounded.
When he started to dig into the history of the hospital, Philip was initially amazed to discover so little information survived from the records of the time. But rather than being discouraged, it only served to heighten his curiosity.
“Being a writer is a bit like being a detective – and ironically Netley appeared in the first Sherlock Holmes story, too.
“When I went to the public record office, I discovered there were only 11 documents indexed that referred to the hospital – so there was an element of mystery.
“My interest in the hospital really started from the stories my mother told me – she used to visit the grounds as a child with my great-grandfather in the 1920s.
“She could remember looking through the railings and seeing men being wheeled about in what she described as prams – in fact, they were extended chairs for paraplegics.
“ I have personal memories of attending mass in the chapel and having to check in with the sentry at the gate,” he said.
Philip is a frequent visitor to the grounds, which now form the Royal Victoria Country Park and it was during one such visit that he had the idea for the book.
“I’d just finished my book about Oscar Wilde and while I was looking at the chapel, which is all that remains of the hospital, it struck me that I didn’t have to write about a person – I could write the biography of a building.
“The hospital has an incredible history, full of stories and narratives – it’s amazing that nobody had written about it before,” he said.
“My favourite place to visit, that never fails to astonish me with its sheer beauty, is Hamble Country Park.
“If you walk down to the river, you really could imagine you were in Maine in New England or looking out over the Zambeze – rather than a couple of miles from the centre of Southampton.”
Philip Hoare was born and brought up in Southampton, where he still lives. His books include biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noel Coward, Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Consipiracy and the First World War; England’s Lost Eden (about the New Forest Shakers) and Spike Island. Leviathan or, The Whale was published in September 2008 and won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. His new book, The Sea Inside, will be published in June.
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