Sunday, April 24, 2011
Kings Stanley, Gloucestershire
We get into the habit of pigeon-holing the areas and counties of England. It’s too easy to think of Cornwall as all picturesque fishing villages (forgetting the widespread poverty) or to imagine Staffordshire as consisting only of decayed former industrial towns (ignoring the rural beauty). The popular view of the Cotswolds, of course, is of a rural idyll full of the country houses and cottages of the stars. Stone villages do a great deal of “nestling” and green valleys their fair share of “girdling” on a thousand chocolate boxes and souvenir calendars.
It’s easy to forget, therefore, that most of these picturesque villages once had a mill, and that a thriving cloth industry made the region what it was in the Middle Ages. And in later centuries there was industry on a larger scale too, as shown by the wealth of larger textile and other mills scattered around, especially in the Stroud valleys, but also close to such towns as Chipping Norton, Winchcombe, and Painswick.
This cloth mill at King’s Stanley is a case in point. Stanley Mill’s brick-walled grandeur marks it out as different from the usual stone of the Cotswolds and its large scale sets it apart too. Built in 1812–14, it was designed to house spinning mules, looms, and other textile-manufacturing equipment, all powered by five water wheels fed from a 5-acre mill pond across the road. The identity of the mill’s architect is unknown, but he gave the building a certain grandeur that fits with its large size, from the rich red brickwork to that row of round-headed windows on the top floor.
It’s the interior, though, that makes it really special. This is a metal framework building, in which most of the weight of the structure is taken by a system of iron columns and trusses made by Benjamin Gibbons of Dudley. These trusses in turn hold up the shallow brick vaults that make up the floors and ceilings – the whole creating a fireproof structure of the kind that was more and more current in factory construction since 1779, when Abraham Darby showed the potential of cast iron by building the first iron bridge at Coalbrookedale
The columns are designed in an elegant form, something between classical Doric and Tuscan. The trusses form a delicate openwork pattern of pointed arches, semicircles, and circles. This layout makes for a spacious interior, with the narrow “arcade” of columns flanked on either side by more generous spaces, which were no doubt once loud with the racket of spinning mules. The “fireproof” construction was put to the test too. In 1884, part of the building caught fire. The roof was destroyed and the upper floors damaged, but much of the structure survived.
It all makes a wonderful and quite unexpected sight just a few miles from the baaing inhabitants of the hill farms that supplied the wool that made it all possible. For farming and industry, the known and ignored aspects of the region, were in the 19th century inseparable.