"Near it begin those tortuous, gorge-like valleys; each of which, as it winds upward into the mass of the hills, breaks into numerous smaller lateral valleys and into combs, dens, and glens, having their own local names and peculiarities, and all being beautiful exceedingly."
Of the 150 mills, which once crowded these valleys, only 2 are still woollen cloth mills, although many now serve a very different purpose than yesteryear. Every part of Stroud's district bears an imprint of the international industry, which evolved here between the Middle Ages and the 19th century. Weavers' cottages were carved into Chalford's hillside, and the gracious Cotswold stone villages of Painswick, Bisley and Minchinhampton were built with wool merchants' profits. But the most impressive legacy is the 'string of pearls' - the collective name for the fine line of mills - which once roared with the deafening sound of fulling stocks and water wheels.
Although there is evidence of Stroud's mills as long ago as the 1086 Domesday Book, the earliest reference to a fulling cloth in the area was a 1270s court case. Ralph the Fuller of Rodborough was accused of illegally felling trees! Within 30 years another manorial document demonstrated how cloth-making pervaded the Minchinhampton area. At the time fulling was the only powered stage of the clothmaking process, benefitting from the power of the streams to work the fulling hammers and using fullers earth to cleanse the cloth. None of these simple mills survive though their sites are often still busy with industry.
The industry has undergone countless transformations, adapting to the Industrial Revolution because it had already become an international business. High quality merino wool, imported now from Australia has been the basis of the product for 150 years. Equally the cloth has been exported to North America for centuries and to India and China by the East India Company. Most famously, the dyers mastered the difficult business of making scarlet cloth. Known locally as Stroud Scarlet this became standard for the army and the royal family. Ever careful to ensure as wide a market as possible they also specialised in making the cloth for the Royal Navy. Two paintings in the Museum in the Park show the cloth drying on the tenters or racks in the fields.
Profits from this business led to the building of much larger mills. Ebley and Stanley Mills are the outstanding examples of this phase. Stanley Mill, near Stonehouse is an industrial complex of 'outstanding national importance'. Cloth manufacture ceased in the 1980s and its interior is a remarkable example of an early fireproof roof. In this parish you can also see Bond's Mill, a Georgian building with a Victorian brick façade and a grey gable end. In 1837, apparently, the workforce was mainly women, because the men could not be persuaded to work a new power loom! Nearby Ebley Corn Mill - now The Snow Mill - is home to the highly successful Snow Business which makes more than 160 types of snowflakes for top international films. It has always been adaptable; it began as the Oil Mills, making rape seed oil for the cloth industry before being converted to a cloth mill.
Nailsworth is a good place to absorb the story of the industry. Intriguingly named Egypt Mill, thought to be named after one of its clothier owners, ‘Pharaoh’ Webb, was a prosperous cloth mill then a dyeworks and eventually a corn mill. Today it is a popular restaurant and hotel with an idyllic waterside terrace and accommodation.
Less than two miles away is another small cloth mill, Ruskin Mill, now a specialist further education college for students with learning difficulties and disabilities, inspired by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, William Morris and John Ruskin. At Ruskin Mill College the students follow an individual programme focusing on traditional crafts and land work that takes place in a beautiful wooded valley, in the fishery and on the farm. Members of the public are welcome to walk through the valley and to enjoy an organic lunch, coffee and cake in the Coffee Shop or on the balcony, overlooking a tranquil lake. Please park at Horsley Mill (400 metres further on) and walk back along the lake path.
Nearby is the Stroudwater Textile Trust’s Weaving Shed at Gigg Mill and going from Egypt Mill along the Cycle Trail (a former railway therefore nicely level) visitors will come to the Dunkirk Mill Centre where a powerful waterwheel still drives some of the machinery. See the section Mill Visits below for the Trust’s programme of mill openings. Carding and mule spinning are demonstrated at Stanley. At St Mary’s its long history is told and the large waterwheel and steam engine can be seen. Then there is the mill trail in Nailsworth as well.
Towards Avening stands a large complex, Longfords Mill, that has now been converted into housing. From the road can be seen a maze of stone buildings where until 1990 championship quality tennis ball cloth was made for Wimbledon and other tournaments.
Another easy walk that gives a rich taste of the past is taking the canal towpath up the Frome valley from Stroud. Besides the interesting canal structures there is a succession of former mills. Around Thrupp and Brimscombe these are larger than the Nailsworth mills and Ham Mill, still empty, was spinning carpet yarn until 1999. Above Brimscombe Port the mills are smaller and Bourne Mill is being beautifully restored. Here you may rent a bicycle and even buy a snowboard!
Lodgemore Mills is still making cloth, along with its sister Cam Mills near Dursley. Both these mills originate in the Middle Ages and together they are still a leading manufacturer of cloth. Cam weaves the covering for tennis balls - for championships including Wimbledon – and felt for snooker tables while Lodgemore 'finishes' the cloth and uses dyes including vivid yellow, traditional green.
Rather like a treasured jewellery box, the Stroud District holds the 'string of pearls' that is the envy of its neighbours. The key to this box is in your hands as the visitor, and the challenge of creating your own mill trail is there to take up. In the 1920s a book described the valleys, admiringly, as a sort of little West Riding of Yorkshire. That evokes an image of concentrated manufacture with gaunt buildings, serried lines of smoking chimneys and a polluted greyness. Now “The Stroudwater and Thames & Severn Canals traverse some of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside, rich in mills and flowing water for the once prosperous woollen industry.” The valleys are:
Rich in mills and flowing water
During the height of textile success the Stroudwater Canal was born.The River Severn with its huge tidal bore - one of the highest and most spectacular in the world - was a treacherous waterway, and a navigator's nightmare. A parliamentary bill for the provision of a canal was eventually passed.
Not much imagination is needed to appreciate how busy canal life was as coal, sugar, corn, ironware, glass, salt and chocolate (the exotic luxury from the colonies) - journeyed through villages and hamlets.
As poet Sheila Simmonds puts it in 'Stroudwater Shades':
Once, vessels plied these muddy waters, Coal and salt and bricks their load, 'Betsy,' 'Perseverance,' and 'Good Intent' from Bullo Pill to Framilode.”
The Undiscovered Cotswolds has a multitude of assets - and owes much of her wealth to her heritage, 'rich in mills and flowing water for the once prosperous woollen industry.
Each year the Stroudwater Textile Trust publishes a programme of summer mill visits. This can be found on the Stroudwater Textile Trust website. The programme is also available as a leaflet from Stroud Tourist Information Office. At present four mills are opened.
The Dunkirk Mill Centre is a small part of a magnificent largely 19rth century mill. For many years it was run by Peter Playne and his sons. They made cloth for sale to the East India Company before concentrating on fine West of England materials. Although it closed in 1889 and is now largely residential the buildings remain much as they were. Three waterwheels out of the original five survive, and the largest of these can be seen powering a teasel raising gig.
The small Centre has been planned to demonstrate the important finishing processes that made West of England cloth so valued. The woven cloth was brought down to the mill and subjected to the pounding of the fulling stocks. Then it was stroked by the teasels before the cross cutter cropped it to a regular smooth finish. All these machines work and visitors are encouraged to handle the cloth at each stage.
High quality snooker cloth is still made locally by the same processes but with more modern machinery.
Visitors reach the mill by walking down the former railway line, now the Cycle Trail, a distance of about 1 kilometre. Disabled visitors can park in the car park.
The Weaving Shed, Gigg Mill, is designed to familiarise visitors with the processes of weaving and the technological advances made as weaving speeded up. Starting with hand looms visitors can try weaving patterns before having a go at working a flying shuttle on an old sample loom. Then a power loom is demonstrated.
Gigg Mill is a small cloth mill that was adapted to new uses during the Industrial Revolution. Once it processed cloth sold to the East India Company; by the 1900s it was reduced to fellmongering – removing the fibres from the skins of dead sheep. The remainder of the site is used for engineering.
Stanley Mill is ‘wholly exceptional’, part of a remarkable complex. It is the only local early fireproof mill and the interior was constructed to a most individual design. The mill is a grade 1 listed building and still contains some of the carding and spinning machinery that was working when it closed in 1990, on the collapse of the owners Marling & Evans.
The Trust opens it on three Sunday afternoons for booked tours. Visitors can see the carding machinery and spinning mules in action, demonstrated by a former lifetime employee who has a wealth of anecdotes.
St Mary’s Mill is ‘one of the best preserved millsites’ in the Stroud valleys, set in beautiful countryside. The early 19th century mill contains a large mid 1800s waterwheel and an early 20th century Tangye steam engine. Neither is in working order. Parts of the last working fulling stocks in Gloucestershire are also on show.
The site is rich in other, transport, interest as the road, railway and canal are squeezed together beside the mill. To access the mill from the road people have to cross by one of the few manned railway crossings surviving in Gloucestershire. Visitors walk along the canal towpath from the industrial village of Chalford, a distance of about 1 kilometre. Disabled visitors can park at the mill.
The Trust opens it on three Sunday afternoons for booked tours. Visitors can learn about the history of the mill and the processes involved.
Nailsworth Mills Walks
Nailsworth is a small town created by the textile industry. Around 1800 it flourished with a concentration of mills. The Industrial Revolution and the restructuring of the industry meant these mills gradually had to find new uses. Their success means that most of them survive in completely unrelated activities.
Buy your copy of leaflets Nailsworth Mills Walk 1: Streams of Cloth or Walk 2: Weavers' Yarns from Stroud or Nailsworth Tourist Information Office or from Nonsuch Books. You will be taken on a wander back to the past and you will find some of the town’s many beautiful corners. In September we expect each site to have extra information on History Boards.