It’s after dark, you’re on the bus home and you’ve just remembered there’s no milk in the fridge. And even if there was, there are no clean cups, which you know because you were drinking Pernod out of the last one in the early hours of the morning. Balls, is this what it’s come to? You can’t even have a cup of tea in your own stinking kitchen?
And then, through the steamed-up windows, a sign appears. A sign that advertises the presence of an institution where you will be sure of succour: Sustenance, light, warmth, a spot of wifi, perhaps even a chat with interesting people in their pyjamas.
A sign that reads, ‘Hospital’.
As Samuel Goldwyn noted, a hospital is no place to be sick. Let’s face it, it’s wasted on them. What do the ill need with the 24-hour buzz of newsagents, cashpoints, nurses, cafés, smoking areas and bistros. Yes, it’s a self-contained mini-city, with all the hustle and bustle of life and, indeed, death. A million stories a day just waiting for you to be part of them, for free.
And what stories. Once in King’s, while assisting a porter who had got into difficulty attempting a 3-point turn with a bed outside Nephrology (now Renal), I knocked a bag of blood to the floor. It burst and in his frantic efforts to limit the damage the porter slipped over in it. I’ve lost the photos now but the aftermath looked like he’d been torn apart by lions. I was subsequently called as a witness to his disciplinary hearing, which he sadly lost. But on a more positive note, I dined out on the story for weeks. And I’d only popped in for a cappuccino.
Listen, there’s no point being sniffy about it, we’re all going to end up in hospital at some point so we may as well give them a spin and get used to them. And in London, of course, we’re never far from one, which helps. Not like in the country, where you can drive for days without seeing so much as a chemist.
The big city hospital offers mile upon mile of warm, dimly lit corridors featuring exciting directions to wards named after songbirds, or mysterious ‘wings’ and coloured zones that combine to create impossibly exotic breadcrumb trails: ‘You are in Nuthatch, Cerise, Keats Wing’.
In no other country in the world can you wander into a hospital, buy a Danish and a Ribena, take a lift to the TV lounge and spend 30 minutes with five strangers in slippers. You could stay there all day, and perhaps would if it wasn’t for one of your new friends producing a pouch of tobacco and suggesting you all head out to the bins. Thanks, NHS.
Hospitals even have chapels if you’re religiously inclined. I’m not, but I do find them an excellent place for having a good sit down and checking on your accumulator. They are welcome little oases of peace in what, as we have seen, can be a quite exhausting environment.
Anyway, here is our round-up of some transpontine hospital action.
The original 1720s forecourt at the St Thomas Street entrance to Guy’s Hospital, SE1, now serves as a car-park for surgeons’ Porsches, sadly, but it leads on to two charming cloistered quadrangles, after which you find yourself in a leafy square filled with benches, ideal for exterior urban relaxation, as previously noted.
The forecourt itself is home to our favourite hospital bar, known simply as Guy’s Bar.
Home of the £1.70 hot dog, it offers subsidised drinks and a pleasantly grimy student vibe. We liked it before it was refurbished but this low-ceilinged basement bar has still, late on, the feel of a health and safety disaster waiting to happen. But who cares? You’re in a hospital.
As it’s part of the King’s College Guy’s Campus, in theory you will need to know someone from King’s to gain admittance. In practice, a white coat and a stethoscope will do the trick. (Warning: You may be the oldest person in the place.)
Also within Guy’s is the Quintiles drug research unit which gives you the opportunity to take part in clinical trials for new drugs, offering you the apparent Deserter dream of getting paid a couple of grand for spending two weeks on your arse playing PS4.
While it all sounds great in principle, after ten days of single-sex internment, headaches, catheters and shit food you start to feel like maybe this isn’t what your parents had in mind for you and that you might actually be coming last in the human race.
Despite now being a fully-blown TV star, with its own show and everything, King’s College Hospital, SE5, remains friendly and unpretentious.
Once famed for its legendary Penthouse Bar, sadly this much-loved local institution, where cleaners would routinely find bras and discarded prophylactics amongst the beer glasses and fag butts, is no more. Instead there are five (5) coffee bars on offer along with its own restaurant, the Spice of Life, which incorporates the rather alarmingly named Goodness Me food bar, which we hope is not named after what people say when they see the food.
But for the best hospital coffee, you need to go across the road to the other side of Denmark Hill…
The Maudsley Hospital, SE5, provides healthcare for nutcases from Southwark, Lambeth and across the UK. But are they really that gone, or have they just heard about the coffee at Café at the Ortus?
Located off a footpath called Memory Lane (who says psychiatrists don’t have a sense of humour?), Café at the Ortus provides the finest coffee we’ve found in a hospital, as well as good grub, wi-fi, plug-’oles aplenty and fabulous shitters. If the weather’s good, there are outside tables and even padded blankets for nurses who wish to sunbathe on the grass. Honestly, it’s like being back at university. Except (did I mention?) the coffee is good.
University Hospital Lewisham is worth a visit if only to cock a snook at Jeremy Hunt who tried – unlawfully – to cut the services available there in order to ‘improve patient care’. Jeremy, twunt.
However it also offers a restaurant – with balcony – and a cafe, both of which have uplifting views out over the River Ravensbourne and Ladywell Fields.
But for the the king of hospital views we have to head back into town…
Named after St Thomas Beckett and re-launched by Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lump, St Thomas’ Hospital, SE1, lies in Lambeth and sits directly across the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster.
And so it is that from its Shepherd Hall restaurant you can look out over the Thames towards the Houses of Parliament while you enjoy what must surely be the best-priced riverside meal in town. It even gets 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor.
What better place, once you get past the smell of iodoform, for a romantic meal à deux? Perhaps even a first date? You can comfort your reluctant partner with the knowledge that the patients upstairs are forgetting about their illnesses long enough to post pictures from their hospital beds. And if you fancy heading upstairs afterwards to enjoy the view together, George Perkins ward is a cracker.
So, South London’s hospitals have much to offer the cold and the lonely, the thirsty and the peckish, as well as those simply in search of an off-centre afternoon out. If you do choose to accept the hospitality of the NHS, don’t forget to drop a pound in the donation box. If everyone turns up for a piss-about in the hospitals they won’t be able to cope. But if everyone gives a pound, who knows, we could build a few more.