Milling Things Over

After Christmas and New Year we find it a good thing to have something to look forward to in the gloom of January so we have for a number of years treated ourselves to a long weekend away in late January. The advantage of this is that the range of places you can afford to stay in – we always do self-catering – can also be higher as it tends to be one of the cheapest times of the year, for obvious reasons.

In particular we look at Landmark Trust properties, an organisation I have a lot of time for as they pretty much do what I used to dream I would do when I was a kid, which is to acquire or take out a lease on historic buildings as holiday accommodation which otherwise might fall into disrepair and be lost. Some of their buildings are of historic importance, many are just quirky or fun – like the Pigsty above Robin Hood’s Bay, which was indeed home to a couple of pigs originally but was built to look like a Grecian temple. Or The Music Room, which is the miraculous survival of a garden pavilion mysteriously stranded in the middle of Lancaster, bereft now of any sign of the big house or garden it was built for. There are also larger properties, castles in Scotland and Devon for example and Pugin’s The Grange in Kent. One of the more recent projects was Clavell Tower in Dorset, famous from P D James’ ‘The Black Tower’ a folly that Landmark first had to move brick by brick a few meters in shore before turning it into a holiday cottage. They open up a window onto the people who built or lived in them, and this year was no exception.

This year we were in one of their earliest acquisitions, in Derbyshire. North Street, Cromford was built in the 1760s by Sir Richard Arkwright to house workers from his water driver mills. Arkwright was a hard businessman who to some extent revolutionised the spinning business with his huge water powered mills by use of automation on a previously not seen scale, allowing for use of fewer, unskilled workers. This usually meant women and children, and it was dangerous and tiring work. That said, it meant their husbands – often skilled weavers- could then work on their own while their families worked in the mill, so the possibilities for income became much greater. And there was no shortage of people willing to work, when the likely alternative was the work house. People came from all over the country to work in Arkwright’s business empire.

One of the reasons was the accommodation. We were staying in number 10 North Street which is the house Landmark retained as a holiday let (they own several other houses in the street that they saved from demolition in the 1960s and have permanent tenants). While it has been sympathetically extended to meet modern requirements (easy enough here, but how they have made some of their other properties habitable – especially those which were never meant to be lived in, even for a short time, can be quite ingenious) it is clear to see what might have tempted a family to take the deal even considering the hard work and very real risks of injury or death. It is a three story terrace, one ample room to each floor of good solid stone construction, where the range on the ground floor would have heated the bedroom above together with a light and airy upper story where perhaps they would have installed a loom. Compared to what was available elsewhere this was a nice place to live. Looking out of the back window you can see down to the mill buildings, and out the front houses continue up the hill and then stop as the Derbyshire countryside takes over. Apart from the traffic going past the end of the road on A6, not a lot has changed about the place.

Thankfully, a lot has changed about what is acceptable in working conditions. Or has it? Certainly here in the UK that is true, but elsewhere people are still exploited, and often without the trade-offs that working for someone like Arkwright clearly entailed. This weekend was a lovely one, and it was a privilege to stay in such a place and think about the people it was built for, but that’s also the point; I’m very lucky, and need to remember that sometimes.