Monday, March 21, 2016
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.