Monday, March 21, 2016

Widford, Oxfordshire

A small surprise

My British readers, and many of my other readers too, probably have a fairly clear idea of the Cotswolds. A largely rural region of rolling hills, green fields, and limestone villages with the occasional small country town; an area in which much of the architecture, from roofs to flag floors, from fireplaces to garden walls, is in Cotswold stone. We expect to see cottages, churches, and barns, but not industrial buildings, the woollen mills of the Stroud valleys being the major exception. Here in rural Oxfordshire, the pattern is generally true to form – but as in many quiet Cotswold corners there has been industry. The area is full of fast-flowing streams and mills of various kinds, first water powered, later driven by steam or other engines, have been part of the local scene for centuries.

So if this mill by a river a short distance away from the main Cheltenham to Oxford road is a surprise, it should’t be. For most of its history it was not a corn mill like so many country mills. It was first a mill for fulling cloth and then a paper mill.* Paper was produced in Widford from the late-18th century and through the 19th. Various generations of the Hart, Holliday, Ward, and Milbourn families ran the business and these buildings date to some time in the 19th century.

The mill buildings are a mix of Cotswold stone walls with industrial style metal windows. The roof is not of local stone but slate. Purists complain about slate roofs in the Cotswolds. But slate is light, strong, durable, and practical and although local limestone roofing ‘slates’ look best in the context of a village full of limestone houses and walls, grey Welsh slate doesn’t offend me here. Welsh slate has been brought to the area for years, so its use in combination with limestone walls has a long history.

Widford feels like a backwater. It’s a tiny hamlet with just a handful of scattered houses and farms and a tiny church in a field. But the mill wasn’t a backwater in industrial terms. By 1852, the History, Gazetteer and Directory of Oxfordshire reported that it was ‘fitted out with some splendid machinery…worked by steam power’. Samuel Milbourn, who was then the miller, was also associated with patents and innovations in paper-making.

The mill at Widford, then, is a small surprise that overturns some of our expectations about the Cotswolds, but, architecturally at least, does so in a way that is hardly noticeable to the casual passer-by. Such passers-by may not even notice this modest building. I’m glad I did.

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*A believe that when paper milling ceased here, the building had a period as a corn mill, then had some other industrial use before being converted to housing.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Bare winter trees and the section of lane - and the farm walls - add so much to the beauty of this shot! Buildings and trees often complement one another most successfully. Welsh slate mining of course has its own saga, and at least one Welsh novel not-so-affectionately recalls the exploitation and unfair working conditions and the society that endured it. I noticed that the playground equipment my grandchildren were playing on today was made in the ex-slate-mining town/village of Bethesda - a much nicer trade!

Joe Treasure said...

Living in Monmouth, we used to walk in the Forest of Dean. It doesn't have the obvious architectural charm (nor, I assume, the historical prosperity) of the Cotswolds, but plenty of natural beauty and lots of abandoned industrial remains. Coming across evidence of an old mine or mill in a clearing always added interest to a walk.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph Biddulph: Yes, slate mining could be a tough, exploitative business; I get the impression that limestone quarrying in the Cotswolds was carried on at a gentler pace, with a more natural, seasonal rhythm to the work (though even here some of the stone was mined underground in conditions that must have been tough and dangerous). But the fact that I'm more aware of these issues in the context of the slate industry is maybe more to do with the fact that the trade was more concentrated, involving more people in a tight geographical compass. In a similar way we're more aware of industrial exploitation than the plight of farm workers. Country workers are often isolated and their stories themselves are less easy to 'mine'.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe Treasure: Yes, the Forest is an atmospheric place, and that atmosphere is in part due to a long industrial history. All those miners ('Free miners') for a start. By the 1960s a lot of them had given up or their pits were worked out, and they got on works buses to the nylon factory at Brockworth among other places, where they got paid quite well for shift work but had to endure the deafening racket of spinning and 'drawtwist' machines. Most returned at the end of their shift to the forest, which they'd refuse to leave for the convenience of, say, a house in Gloucester, because it was home.