Back in business at Darley Abbey Mills

PUBLISHED: 14:23 14 August 2015 | UPDATED: 14:23 14 August 2015

Darley Abbey Mills

Darley Abbey Mills

Ashley Franklin Photography

Determination and expertise have returned part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site to a vibrant business community supporting a range of exciting and creative enterprises

Darley Abbey MillsDarley Abbey Mills

When the Derwent Valley Mills area was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2001, it was confirmation of ‘the outstanding importance of the area as the birthplace of the factory system.’ However, when awarded World Heritage Site status, you can’t rest on your laurels. With designation comes duty: a World Heritage Site has an obligation to protect and conserve its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ with a specific pledge ‘to enhance its character, appearance and economic well-being in a sustainable manner.’

Fourteen years on, through the prodigious work of the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, World Heritage Site status has reaped benefits. Derby Silk Mill, site of the world’s first factory, has just secured £9.38 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund for its Museum of Making project. Cromford Mills has seen steady regeneration including, importantly, the saving of ‘Building 17’, a huge, iconic five-storey mill building which will be home to creative industries as well as a visitor centre for the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.

Whilst Belper’s North Mill continues developing as a Visitor Centre, it’s sad that the much larger, grander and more imposing East Mill has remained largely empty since being converted into a leisure, retail and business complex. However, the conversion of the old mills at Darley Abbey has become arguably the most remarkable success story in our World Heritage Site.

English Heritage describes Darley Abbey Mills – built by Thomas Evans in 1783 – as ‘the most complete surviving cotton complex in the Derwent Valley.’ Today, it isn’t just surviving, it is thriving as a place of work again. Alongside the loudly proclaimed success of Pride Park’s growth and establishment as a business centre, the quiet industrial revolution at Darley Abbey Mills is, in a way, even more pleasing, simply because it has seen the revitalisation of historic buildings that would otherwise have gone to rack and ruin; and it has fittingly returned a hive of industry to its former glory, one that is buzzing with a wide and varied colony of workers.

Angela Douglas, Justine Carlier and Karen Wade of Allestree Health & Home Care ServicesAngela Douglas, Justine Carlier and Karen Wade of Allestree Health & Home Care Services

If all of this country’s disused mills had been converted similarly, there would be fewer ugly industrial estates lined with concrete and corrugated iron sheds. Furthermore, the ‘dark, satanic mills’ of Blake’s Jerusalem were far from my thoughts as I visited businesses with freshly designed interiors, many with light, bright, airy spaces, and some with attractive beams and high windows inviting shafts of sunlight.

The lion’s share of this proud achievement belongs to Darley Abbey resident Anthony Attwood, whose family has a long association with the mills from basing their engineering business, Patterns, there in 1947. Anthony’s vision of incorporating affordable modern working conditions within 200-year-old buildings has gradually been realised, with 55 businesses now present, soon to rise to a maximum of 70, including a wedding venue that has already attracted excited interest and substantial bookings.

When the last of the five mills closed in 1969, Anthony’s father Samuel glimpsed the potential around him, buying up the East and Middle Mills to let out space. Refurbishing the buildings was long, arduous work: there were leaking roofs, cracked and crumbling plasterwork, holes in floors and inadequate wiring and heating.

Gradually, work spaces were made ready and businesses came to set up shop. Just over two dozen occupied the site when I last wrote about Darley Abbey in these pages, in 2008. In 2010, Anthony and his sister Janet Rose, a co-director of Patterns Properties, acquired the whole mills site, and set about the most exciting phase of the Darley Mills development.

Nigel Tissington of Mill Photography StudioNigel Tissington of Mill Photography Studio

In careful consultation with English Heritage, Anthony and his team have ensured that throughout the renovation the mill interiors have retained the industrial architecture of the 1800s which include barrel vaulted ceilings, exposed brick walls and cast-iron columns and beams.

As Anthony points out: ‘Our tenants love these units because they are one-off and individual.’ Indeed, whilst all the business units are unified as a pleasing mix of old meets new, each one has its own distinct character.

Birchover Residences Ltd, run by Carl and Lisa Bridge, has a bright interior with colourful artwork on the walls, a charming mezzanine used as a boardroom, and a lounge area for relaxation and informal meetings. For Carl, the office was a revelation right from the start: ‘Within ten seconds of walking in, I had revised upwards the ambition I had for the business, because I feel the office befits having a hugely successful business operating from it. Most clients says it’s the best office they’ve ever visited and several have enquired about hiring out the space to hold events or meetings. Moving here has truly been a catalyst for growth for our business. It’s a unique, inspiring place to work.’

So it has also been for Allestree Health & Homecare Services who occupy a roomy space within the old saw mill. ‘We love it here,’ says managing director Justine Carlier. ‘As we serve this general area, it’s perfectly positioned. Our clients are close by and, as we are an expanding care agency, the space enables us to accommodate the business, staff and training whilst also providing an informal area to chat with relatives.’

Andrew Turner and Richard Walters of LoveveloAndrew Turner and Richard Walters of Lovevelo

As consultants to the energy and natural resources industries, it seems fitting that Norton Straw occupy the Steam Engine House. As Technical Manager David Fielding states: ‘The office is a very pleasant environment to work in, with the high ceilings and large windows providing a lot of natural light. At the same time we have essentials like high-speed fibre-optic internet access. It is inspiring to work in a place that, when built, was at the forefront of innovation, and the great scale of the buildings makes it an impressive place to come to work each day.’

That same view is held by the microelectronics company Brewer Science who importantly introduced fibre-optic broadband to the mills when moving here in 2012, thus catalysing the further occupancy of the mill units. One might expect to see a high tech company in a sleek, stylised corporate cityscape but as Vicki Smith of Brewer Science states: ‘We were excited by the opportunity to bring an old building back to life and love the juxtaposition of working in a historic building while bringing leading edge technology to the world. We have embraced the features of the original building by leaving the brickwork and clay floor tiles exposed, and our boardroom is lined with photos of the mill during its days as a cotton mill.’

Although retaining those original features and being encased in a 200-year-old building, Brewer Science’s offices still feel fresh and contemporary. As Vicki further explains: ‘Being environmentally responsible is very important to us, and reusing an old building fits well with our philosophy. In fact, one of the first things we did was plant 20 trees on the approach to the mill to mark our 20th anniversary of being in the UK.’

Vicki also points out the advantage of the mills’ location, on the fringes of Derby: ‘Being outside the city centre makes for an easier commute for our employees. We can take a walk in the park during our lunch break while still being within easy reach of the railway station, hotels and airports for our visitors.

Ben Edmonds with apprentice Jack Stevens of Blok KnivesBen Edmonds with apprentice Jack Stevens of Blok Knives

‘Our visitors, too, are delighted by our location and, after a busy day at the office we can treat them to a pint in the Abbey pub or a gourmet meal at Darleys restaurant, both just a stone’s throw from the mill.’

Another advantage of Darley Abbey Mills, says Vicki, is ‘the sense of community both within the mill complex and Darley Abbey village.’ That is certainly felt by John Baldock of the award-winning Derventio Brewery. ‘Being part of this business community has enhanced our profile,’ says John. Derventio also supports village activities like Darley Abbey Day.

Nigel Tissington of the Mill Photography Studio was also very involved in the recent Darley Abbey Day, organising a photography competition. As he approaches his tenth anniversary at the mill, he couldn’t be more satisfied: ‘I’ve worked in commercial premises in central London, Birmingham and Derby, from Victorian to state-of-the-art but I’ve never encountered a work area that has such character, energy and magic as this mill.’

As a photographer, Nigel has found the mill to be an ideal working environment, and a flexible one, too: ‘When I do child portraits, the youngsters are thrilled by the sheer physical amount of floor space in the South Studio area. It’s 50 feet in length which makes it great for large family groups and allows a flattening of perspective in the photography, producing flattering images. That’s probably unprecedented in social photography studios in Derbyshire. And when it comes to my fashion portraits, I explore the photogenic quality of the building, like the original sash windows, quarry-tiled floor and uneven plaster walls, particularly in the North Studio area, with its natural soft window light. It produces unique images. What’s also great for my clients is the free parking and the proximity to the city centre, and they are also impressed by the historic location, which is both traditional yet fashionable.’

Simon Mackney Photography, also located at the mills, likewise points up the flexibility of its studio space – 2,200 square feet – in a contemporary unit.

In more traditional surroundings eminently suited to Ben Edmonds’ trade, sparks fly again in the old mill forge as Ben handmakes his exclusive Blok kitchen knives.

Slaters are, again, ideally located at the mill. Their product – wood burning stoves – is like this mill: traditional in appearance yet modern in flexibility. ‘I love this traditional setting,’ says owner Adrian Manley. ‘There’s plenty of room for visitors to walk round and the mill setting itself is good for business.’

There are multifarious other businesses on site, including Lovevelo with its custom bikes, Pure Fitness gym, Classic Autos, Indigo Signs, Allestree Cleaners, Darley Classic Period Mouldings, ADH Building Services, design and marketing agency Fluid Ideas, Peach Upholstery, Jon Jepson Judo and Fox Graphic Design.

Restoration and refurbishment work continues apace: the West and Long Mills are currently receiving a makeover, ready to house amongst its new tenants a distinctive wedding and hospitality venue which will cater for up to 170 guests. The mill setting with the dramatic weir will provide stunning backdrops for wedding photos, with a landscaped garden and walkway also being created by the riverside. The venue is a phenomenal success even before opening: 80 weddings are already booked, the first one taking place at the end of the year.

By this year end, Darley Abbey Mills will have reached a poignant milestone, as Anthony Attwood explains: ‘Back in 1900, these mills employed around 500 people. Once the businesses start filling up the West and Long Mills, we will reach that same number. It will be a proud moment for us and everyone connected with the mills who has helped make these historic buildings come alive again.’

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