Behind the scenes at British Spirals & Castings in Chapel-en-le-Frith

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 March 2019

The magnetic power of a perfect spiral

The magnetic power of a perfect spiral

spiral castings

Mike Smith visits a Chapel-en-le-Frith firm with an impressive list of national and international clients ranging from Jeremy Paxman and London’s Science Museum to Disney

Meryl Streep as Cousin Topsy in Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, on the Spiral Castings' upside down spiral staircase  Photo: Disney Enterprises/ Jay MaidmentMeryl Streep as Cousin Topsy in Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, on the Spiral Castings' upside down spiral staircase Photo: Disney Enterprises/ Jay Maidment

One of the most memorable sequences in the recently-released film Mary Poppins Returns is a visit made by the Banks children to their cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep. The day of their visit happens to be one of those ‘second Wednesdays’ when Topsy’s world becomes topsy-turvy, with everything in it turning upside down, including the ornate spiral staircase in her room. Knowing that they would have to find a manufacturer of spiral staircases who would not be daunted by a request to create a prop suitable for this scene, the producers of the Disney film turned to British Spirals & Castings, a company based in the Peak District town of Chapel-en-le-Frith.

Sales Director Ben Harding said, ‘We have been producing bespoke spiral staircases for over a quarter of a century and we are used to dealing with unusual design requests, but this is certainly the first upside-down staircase we have been asked to create! The production team came to us with some very specific requirements, including gaps in the balustrade so that Meryl Streep would be able to dance on the staircase as part of a big musical number. Once we’d flipped the design, it was relatively straightforward to make.’

Tracing the history of the company, Ben’s father Richard Harding, the firm’s Managing Director, said: ‘I bought the business from Tony Pittam in 1992. Although we began as a two-man team, with myself and just one employee working out of a shed in my garden in Chinley, we managed to produce 200 staircases in our first year. We were using metal supplied by Milton Non-Ferrous of Stoke-on Trent, a company that I eventually acquired and rebranded as Milton Aluminium Castings. Three years later, we relocated to a barn at Gorsty Low Farm near Chapel-en-le-Frith, and in 2007 we formed Tilley’s London Castings Ltd with Gloria Tilley, in order to increase our market share in London and develop a new side to the business in railings and cast balustrading.’

When Tilley’s London shop outlet closed in 2010 due to Gloria’s illness, the company did not see any reduction in the impressive number of annual sales it had built up in the capital, and those figures remain very high to this day. Bringing the story up to date, Richard said, ‘In 2013, we relocated to Peak Buildings, our present manufacturing base and showroom in Chapel-en-le-Frith. We now have an enormous range of different patterns and I believe we have become the market leaders in the world for cast stairs and balconies, which we export to countries all around the globe.’

The four company directors, l to r: Josh Took, Ben Harding, Richard Harding and Antonia HardingThe four company directors, l to r: Josh Took, Ben Harding, Richard Harding and Antonia Harding

Putting some figures on those exports, Richard’s daughter, Antonia Harding, who is the Commercial Director of this highly successful family-run firm, said, ‘We have supplied bespoke spiral stairs in response to orders received from people and organisations in 28 European countries and 15 countries outside Europe. Our famous British customers include Ryan Giggs, Gary Lineker, Gary Barlow, Jeremy Paxman and Bobby Zamora. We can even count the Queen as a customer, because we created products used in the refurbishment of Windsor Castle after the devastating fire in 1992.’

The props made for the film Mary Poppins Returns are not the firm’s only involvement with high-profile productions. The High Peak company has produced staircases for use in the film Wanted, starring Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, and has regularly made props for use in theatre productions, including West End plays and productions at the National Theatre. Other commissions include new railings for London’s Science Museum, designed to be placed in rooms where the original fittings had been lost, as well as stands made for Nike’s exhibition at the London Olympics and staircases used as shoe displays for the famous brand Alice and Olivia for their stores in California, New York, London and Liverpool.

Aside from these prestigious commissions, the bulk of the company’s business is concerned with making hand-crafted spiral staircases produced in response to the specific requirements of individual clients. Many people see a spiral staircase as a great addition to their home that is both practical and eye-catching. The practicality stems from the spiral’s clever ability to achieve height without taking up the amount of floor space occupied by a conventional staircase, and the beauty results from the aesthetically-pleasing helical shape and the hand-crafted detail.

The detail can be anything from elaborate Victorian decoration to a clean-cut contemporary design, depending on the setting of the staircase and the preference expressed by the individual client. With a glut of extensions and loft conversions being added to existing properties, particularly in London, the demand for staircases and balconies crafted by the High Peak firm has never been higher. Illustrating this trend, Antonia showed me a photograph of a superb combination of a long balcony and stairs made for the external wall of an extension to a property in the capital.

Victorian spiral staircase in a Stockholm wine bar Photo: Simon DoniniVictorian spiral staircase in a Stockholm wine bar Photo: Simon Donini

Antonia also showed me photographs of a small selection of some of the firm’s most eye-catching products, including a spiral staircase made for an alcove in a wine bar in Stockholm which features a stairway that twists its way to the floor above by rising through an aperture in the ceiling. Another picture I saw showed a black straight staircase attached to a flight of steps constructed in pure-white marble, which is a beautiful study in contrasts, as was an image of an open marble balcony surrounded on all sides by black railings. And another picture that particularly caught my eye was an illustration of a wooden spiral staircase set around an unusual twisted central column.

The majority of the stairways, balconies and railings made by British Spirals & Castings are fashioned in aluminium, powder-coated in a colour chosen by the customer, with grey being a popular choice at the moment. Those constructed in wood are made from sustainable, kiln-dried timbers. Richard Harding said, ‘For every set of timber stairs we build, we plant five trees on the family farm situated below South Head, a hill to the north of Chapel-en-le-Frith. So far, we have planted over 2,000 trees in an area which was once part of the Royal Forest of the Peak.’

This resolve to enhance the local environment is matched by the firm’s policy of recruiting and training local people. Richard said: ‘Most of our employees joined the company as young people, often straight from school. Many are long-serving, including Josh Took, who now works alongside the three family members as Manufacturing Director of the company. With regard to our products, all of them are hand-crafted and designed in response to the specific requirements supplied by our customers, whether they be individuals or organisations – including the Walt Disney Company.’ u

Bespoke cast-iron with a wooden rail fits perfectly in this period settingBespoke cast-iron with a wooden rail fits perfectly in this period setting

British Spirals & Castings is based at Peak Press Building, Eccles Road, Chapel-en-le-Frith, High Peak SK23 9RQ (01663 750716). The showroom opens daily from 8am to 4.30pm.

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