Behind the façade
In 2010 American photographer, Tom Hussey, created an award-winning project ‘Reflections of the Past’for a pharmaceutical company, to advertise their prescription medicine for the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia. Inspired by a WW2 veteran who said ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be 80, I feel like I just came back from the war. I look in the mirror and I see this old guy’, this powerful series comprises images of elderly people, looking at their reflection in a mirror or window and seeing their younger selves looking back at them. One image in particular shows a stiff-backed lady in a care home, looking at her young reflection – herself once a nurse.
The message is clear: sometimes we find it hard to see beyond the grey hair and wrinkles, seeing only the old person – unable to hear, to remember the past or climb the stairs. What we don’t see is that the very same person was once an energetic, vibrant young man or woman, living life to the full, working hard, socialising, raising a family.
You could say the same applies to our building, as Birchwood House itself has had a rich and colourful life, dating back to 1841.
Etherton Hill, as it was originally known, was the home of a local farmer named William Stapley, but was eventually sold to a retired civil engineer called Edwin Winton. During WWI, Winton and his wife ran The Speldhurst War Dressing Association, making dressings for the troops, together with nearly 70 other women volunteers. After the war, the house was sold to a Swedish timber importer, but was vacated at the outbreak of WWII when the house was requisitioned for a Light Infantry Regiment – a secret unit that later took part in the Normandy invasion. Hollywood actor David Niven was billeted at nearby Langton Green and was sometimes seen visiting his troops at Etherton.
By the end of the war, the house had fallen into terrible disrepair and the owners were advised to demolish it. Instead, they sold it for a nominal fee to Christian faith healer, Dorothy Kerin, who was looking for a home for the nine war orphans she had adopted, and a place where she could treat her patients. The village Red Cross hut was bought and converted into a chapel, and during an official blessing in 1948, Etherton was renamed Chapel House. Patients were cared for there until it was sold in 1958 (the Christian hospital having been successfully established at Burrswood in nearby Groombridge). The house was turned back into a private home under the new name of White Lodge, and some time during the 1970s, the estate was broken up and the main house became Birchwood House Rest Home.
Try taking a little time to find out what lies behind the façade – you might just learn something unexpected!
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