Haunted by the past

FOR Sharmaine Mansfield, this is personal. “In 2015, I saw something at the Willow Court asylum that couldn’t be explained, then or even now,” she recalls.

“From that day on, I’ve been part of tours and investigations seeking answers to the unknowns here.”

Even closer to home, this is an exploration of her own family. “My father was admitted here,” she says, quietly.

The Willow Court Asylum tours begin with an overview, a walking tour of the core elements of the complex’s buildings and its long, sad history.

A local, Mrs Mansfield has an intricate understanding of the place, down to its bricks and mortar, its beginnings in the convict era, even little details like where the military sentry stood.

Some of the aspects are straightforward: “This is the administration section, where the doctors’ offices were, and over here, nurses quarters, kitchens and showers,” she’ll tell you.

And then there’s the oddity, what appears to be pencil writing on an exterior wall.

A university study is still trying to unravel whose work this is, and what it means.

The physical buildings, both exteriors and interiors, provide a backdrop for more human elements, including stories about what previous tour guests have themselves experienced.

It’s not uncommon for reports of both visual and aural phenomena. There are those who’ve seen figures such as apparitions of a nurse in uniform.

“The empty wards and corridors here make our tour guests especially receptive,” she says.

“We’ve had occasions when all of them heard a single noise. Even though there was no rational explanation, they were convinced someone, something, was in there with us.”

Because its role in the Tasmanian mental health system ceased just 22 years ago, Willow Court retains a special hold on the public imagination.

For many individuals in and around the Derwent Valley, their personal experiences of the place remain both profound and close to the surface.

“What we’ve set out to do is ensure we’re respectful of the physical structures of Willow Court, as well as the psychic energy that remains,” she says.

“The recent interpretation guidelines established by Derwent Valley council have been very helpful.”

The climax of the tour takes visitors into the maximum security ward, completed in 1908. Even now, with the inmates of this place long gone, everywhere are echoes of their existence.

Every aspect of the physical structure is designed to restrain: over-thick doors with tiny observation windows, bars and unbreakable glass, smooth walls and all- concrete floors.

Where there are windows in cells, they have steel draw-down curtains to shut out the light. Furniture is screwed to the floor or wall.

Every aspect evokes an unsettling mix of beauty and fear.

This is also the point of Sharmaine Mansfield’s tour when she falls silent. It’s now that Willow Court speaks for itself.

Tours are available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Up to 15 people per tour. Tours are at night; lanterns provided.