The award-winning restoration at Darley Abbey’s Long Mill
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 February 2020
Mike Smith visits the winners of Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust’s Deborah Devonshire Award, commended for their work on the Grade I listed Long Mill at Darley Abbey.
The industrial use of land formerly occupied by the Augustinian priory of Darley Abbey goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when several water-powered mills for the production of corn, flint, leather and paper operated on land between Darley Street and the western bank of the River Derwent. In 1778, land on the opposite bank of the river was purchased by Thomas Evans, a successful banker and businessman. Between 1782 and 1830, members of the Evans family developed the site to house one of the largest of the great cotton mill complexes built on a 15-mile stretch of the Derwent Valley - an area now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means it can rank alongside iconic locations such as Stonehenge and the Giza Pyramids.
The huge complex constructed by the Evans family consisted of five mills and various ancillary buildings. Three of the factories were known as the West, Middle and East Mills, whilst a fourth factory, which was by far the largest, was called the Long Mill. The benevolent Evans family also built over 100 comfortable dwellings, arranged in neat terraces on the western side of the Derwent, to accommodate their mill workers. The later addition of a church and a school made this settlement one of the most complete early examples of a purpose-built industrial village in the world.
With the death of Walter Evans II in 1903, the involvement of the family came to an end. Walter's mill manager, John Peacock, bought the factories and members of the Peacock family continued to run them until 1943, when the mills were sold to J & P Coats of the Viyella Group. Textile production ceased completely in 1970, but the sale of the mills for other uses had already begun in the previous year, when Sam Attwood acquired the East and Middle Mills.
Explaining how the purchase came about, Sam's son, Anthony, said: 'In 1947, my father had set up a business for the making of patterns for the foundry industry, operating initially from the family home in Margaret Street, in Derby, before moving his operations to Darley Street and then to premises in Darley Abbey Mills. When the last of the old textile mills closed, Sam decided to buy the East and Middle Mills with the idea of letting out spaces to businesses looking for a location that had good transport links and was well away from the congestion and parking problems in the city centre.'
Darley Abbey Mills
Darley Abbey Mills viewed from the west bank of the River Derwent
Anthony and Wendy Attwood receiving the Deborah Devonshire Award from the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust
Darley Abbey Mills viewed from the west bank of the River Derwent Photo: Ashley Franklin
Darley Abbey Mills viewed from the roadway over the River Derwent Photo: Ashley Franklin
Darley Abbey Mills viewed from the west bank of the River Derwent Photo: Ashley Franklin
A wedding at the Long Mill
A wedding in front of the Long Mill
Anthony Attwood, Managing Director of Patterns Properties Ltd, (left) and Andrew Rose, Founding Director of The West Mill Wedding Venue
The Bridal Dressing Room
The Dining Room at the West Mill Wedding Venue
Liam Nelson of Frogspark
The work space for NFU Mutual
Tim Winder of NFU Mutual
The fourth floor of the Long Mill currently undergoing renovation
Although making the mills fit for these new purposes, required a great deal of hard work in repairing the fabric of the buildings and upgrading their heating and wiring systems to modern standards, Sam's investment paid off, with over 50 spaces being rented out. Keen to build on this success, Anthony and his sister, Janet Rose and her sons, Andrew and Robert, acquired the North Mill and proto fire-type buildings in 2010. Leaving the engineering side of the business to other managers, they set up separate property companies, now called Patterns Properties Ltd and Patterns Developments Ltd, devoted to letting and operating their real estate. Once the North Mill was renovated and filled with new tenants, the Long and West Mills were purchased in 2012.
After careful consultation with English Heritage and Derby City Council, CTD Architects were hired to convert the West Mill into a wedding venue and the Long Mill into creative offices. Andrew Rose, Anthony Attwood's nephew, who is the founding director of the wedding venue, says: 'By using the entire mill, we are able to provide a reception room where guests can meet, a well-appointed bridal dressing room, a room set aside for the ceremony, a dining room and an evening room. And the courtyard and garden area, located between the mill and the River Derwent, with its sweeping views over the historic weir, is a stunning south-facing setting for photographs. Our industrial-style venue has won five restoration awards and has proved so popular that we are hosting two to three weddings per week.'
Andrew explained that the conversion of the West Mill had been inspired by the styling of converted warehouses in London. The cast-iron columns and beams of the mill have been preserved, the old brickwork has been left exposed and industrial-style lighting has been installed to imitate as closely as possible the lights that were used to illuminate the working spaces in the former factory. Those same conversion principles are now being applied to the much bigger task posed by the Long Mill, a building comprising five storeys and also an attic that had been used as a classroom where young workers had lessons, before and after the working day.
Clearly enthused by his mission to rescue the important physical legacy left by the Evans family, Anthony Attwood refuses to be daunted by the difficulties presented by the Long Mill, which had been registered by English Heritage as a 'Grade I listed building at risk'. The leaking roof was badly in need of repair and so many pigeons had made their home in the building that opening a door into some floors was like witnessing a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. A completely new heating system would be required, as would the installation of super-fast broadband.
The Attwood family's aim has been to make entire floor-spaces available to potential occupiers, not only to preserve the original form of the cotton mill, but also to provide each of the businesses with a separate, dedicated floor and ample room in which to operate. Where small meeting rooms and entrance places have been created, these areas have been defined with clear-glass partitions, rather than walls, to preserve the impression of uninterrupted open spaces.
Although the uppermost fourth floor is still undergoing conversion, all the other floors have already been occupied. The businesses that have set up home in the Long Mill are: East Midlands Business Services, a talent recruitment specialist in IT and engineering; Frogspark, a digital marketing and website design company; GCI, an ICT service provider; and NFU, the National Farmers' Union mutual insurance society.
Clearly delighted with his new office area, Tim Winder, Partner Agent at NFU, said: 'The character and history of the building sits nicely with the ethos of our company, which prides itself in being a local insurer. We love the 'industrial chic' of the space where we work and, having relocated from the Cattle Market in the centre of Derby, we appreciate the parking provision here and the good transport links.'
Liam Nelson, who set up Frogspark with Rob Twells seven years ago, also operated originally in the centre of Derby, but relocated almost two years ago to the Long Mill, where he employs ten people. Liam said: 'We are delighted with our space in the mill. As well as having tremendous heritage value, the place has a real 'wow factor', which fits perfectly with a creative company like ours.'
Given these unsolicited testimonials, there is no doubt that the conversion of the Long Mill has been a great success. The way in which this has been achieved whilst protecting the heritage value of an important historical site has been suitably recognised by the accolade of the Deborah Devonshire Award, presented to Anthony Attwood on behalf of Patterns Developments Ltd by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust for the Best Overall Project for 2019.
The development of the Darley Abbey area by the Evans family from 1782 to 1830 has been matched by the transformation of the mills made by the Attwood family since 1969. Anthony said: '500 people were employed in the heyday of the cotton mills. We hope to equal that figure.'
Patterns Properties Ltd and Patterns Developments Ltd at Darley Abbey Mills, can be contacted on 01332 364242, firstname.lastname@example.org. The West Mill Wedding Venue can be contacted on 01332 229029, email@example.com.