This rather foreboding building situated on the A67 in the small village of Gainford in County Durham, is not at all what you might expect. We were under the impression that it was a school - and clearly it has been one at some time. But once inside the building, and despite exploring the external gymnasium building, complete with thespian stage et all, first it immediately became obvious to us that Saint Peters was, at least in part, a care home for the elderly. We began our exploration wondering if it had a duel purpose - a care home across to the rear of the site and a school to the front - but by the time we climbed back out of the rot and decay into the daylight again we were in no doubt that at the time it was abandoned it had been very much, and nothing other than, a care home.
Why then is there still a gymnasium? I can't see OAP's doing rope climbs or the like really...
We are not sure why this part of the site has never been converted for use as something a little more in keeping with the care of the elderly! The presence too of wall bars, climbing ropes and netball hoops, would tend to indicate that it was still used as a gymnasium late into the life of the site before eventual abandonment. Our best guess is that this was a hang over from the site's earlier use as a school and that perhaps the gym was kept on and used by a local group such as the Boy Scouts or the like.
Built around 1900 by the Catholic church, Saint Peters was initially an orphanage for 300 boys and it functioned as such for almost 40 years. During the 1930s there was an appalling civil war in Spain and from the 17th. July 1936 to the 1st. of April 1939, the country became a cauldron of violence with many people forced out of their homes by bombing and the to and fro fighting of the opposing sides. The situation was made much worse by the interference of Hitler's Nazi Germany when he pledged men and material to support the Spanish Fascist Party led by General Jose Sanjurio. In response men flooded into Spain from all over the world to fight the fascists, or to fight WITH the fascists, and the war in Spain became what has been widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for World War II. In 1937 as a result of the Spanish Civil War Saint Peters took in 120 orphaned Basque children who's families had been torn apart by the fighting.
In 1940, shortly after the start of the Second World War, the orphanage had a change of purpose and became an approved school - better known as a Borstal in the language of the time - continuing in that role until 1984. Hence the title of "Saint Peters School" which we have come across frequently during our post exploration research. At that time the change of use of a public building or the like would be "gazetted" in The London Gazette, and to the right you can see the extract from the 17th. May, 1940 edition of the Gazette detailing the change of use.
Completely confused as we were by the apparent contradictions we were encountering at Saint Peters, our confusion was further compounded when we found a huge axle and wheel with chains descending to the courtyard below, attached to the wall at the back of the main building - it is clear now that this was the bell pivot from the time of the school but at the time we discovered it we could not be completely sure of it's purpose!
After closing it's doors in 1984 the building was sold on the private market and for a period of a little over ten years it was used as a care home for the elderly. It is the poignant relics of that time which still litter the building in abundance today. Just short of one hundred years of occupation and at almost the year 2000, the care home wound down and closed. Initially the building was not particularly well secured and several arson attempts were made upon the site, not least in the gymnasium building at the back which is quite badly damaged and extremely smoke blackened. Two housing companies - Blackthorn Homes and Kebbell Homes - own Saint Peters in a consortium, and they have received a great deal of very bad publicity as a result of their reluctance to spend money on properly securing the building after their planning application for the conversion of Saint Peters to a residential development was turned down. An increasing number of petty vandalism attacks upon the building ever since has caused it to rapidly become an eyesore, and the fact that the interior is crumbling from the actions of water ingress has created a severe risk to local children who by their very nature will inevitably explore old buildings such as this. The police have refused to set aside man power to watch the building and so eventually the owners were pressured into boarding up all the potential points of entry at ground floor level, and on the front and sides of the building they have painted false windows on the boarding they have applied in order to create some degree of aesthetics.
It appears that we were lucky on the day we went to explore Saint Peters. We wandered around the exterior of the building taking in the rather foreboding red brick architecture until we came to a section where the boarding had been prised off a window on the interlinking corridor between the two main parts of the site. Entry was very easy and we had a most relaxed explore, the only other presence on site that afternoon being a rather large and very sedentary ram who watched us with a marked degree of interest as we photographed the exterior at the culmination of our explore! Only a week later another subscriber to the urban exploration forum we frequent reported that he was quite unable to gain entry past the boarding, and a week prior to our visit another subscriber had reported the same problem! Thus we had found a window of time for a window of entry!
Some you win, some you lose!
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