On 6th November 2007, the last remaining weaving sheds at Newsome Mills lost their roof. This incident has taken its place in the sad sequence of loss and neglect which forms the modern history of the most prominent building in Newsome, our mill.
The roof slates weren’t the first thing we lost, and they wouldn’t be the last, but I think of the day that they took the roof off the weaving sheds as the beginning.
The mill was founded by John Taylor in 1827 and was a working woollen textile mill up until 1983. The whole manufacturing process was carried out on site, starting with the raw wool and ending with the fine worsted cloth. It’s perhaps easy to think of the days of North lights and tenterhooks as being long gone, but when I was born, the mill’s order books were still full.
I grew up in the shadow of Newsome Mill. It stands at the very centre of Newsome – because the village grew up around it. The history of the mill is the history of Newsome itself, but it is also our very recent past. There are so many local families with a direct relationship to this mill. It has remained part of our everyday lives, each of us glancing up regularly at the massive four-storey main building to check the time on the mill’s landmark clock tower.
I continue to do this at least twice a day, although the clock was stopped five years ago.
In 2007, work had begun to convert the Newsome Mills site into housing. The planning service had worked patiently with the developers, going through several different schemes before a successful planning application was eventually produced. It was a sympathetic scheme, clearing some of the site for new town houses, but preserving the main buildings and retaining the character of Newsome Mills in the process. I wished that more of the weaving sheds could have been retained and put to new uses, but on the whole this seemed like a good way forwards.
It was an unsettling year, which began with the stopping of the clock. A strange silence fell over Newsome then. The hourly chimes had sounded steadily all through my life, with only the occasional hiccup when the mechanism hadn’t been wound enough, or when it got a bit carried away with itself and added a few extra chimes for good luck. People started looking towards the mill uneasily when it fell silent. We were told that the clock had been stopped to protect its workings, but one of the clock faces was damaged almost as soon as the site clearance began. It was a painful process from the start.
By the Autumn, the mill had got knocked about a fair bit more. Even the stone gateway arch bearing the site’s name now had a big dent in it. All the low standing buildings marked for removal had been cleared. The back of the mill was exposed in a way that none of us had ever seen, and both the weaving sheds and the office building were sliced clean through. Everything started to look (and feel) a bit precarious.
It was in this uneasy atmosphere that my mother went looking for Smokey that November morning. Our youngest cat, Smokey had fast become known for wandering off and getting himself into bother. He’d get so far then realise that he didn’t know where he was and would suddenly get into a panic. I would go off to work in the morning wondering if he’d still be in one piece when I got home. He also had a bad habit of trying to follow me to work, so around this time my mother would often be seen out in the street making wild gestures, trying to distract the cat whilst I sneaked off to work.
On this particular morning, he’d bolted off somewhere and my mother was out looking for him, knowing that I’d be heartbroken if I got home to find him missing. We were both worried about him getting onto the mill site, so my mother had gone over to the weaving sheds to search for him. She wondered what the men were doing on the roof. She stopped to ask them if they’d seen a cat. Whilst she was there, she asked a few more questions too.
My mother never calls me at work unless it’s something urgent. When I picked up the phone and heard her voice, I immediately thought that something had happened to Smokey. But she was calling to tell me about the conversation that she’d had with the men on the weaving shed roof. “It might be nothing,” she said, “but the thing is, they say that they’re taking the slates off the roof because they’re knocking the mill down in January.”
Smokey was back home safe and sound, but in the course of his morning adventure he had managed to alert us to the fact that the most prominent building in Newsome was a few weeks away from demolition. And nobody who lives here knew anything about it.
I sent messages to our ward councillors and to the planning service, and I waited in a state of complete agitation for a reply. Late in the afternoon, I spoke to the planning officer for the case. He told me that the owners had indeed decided to knock the mill down. The mill’s listed building description, which we believed protected the whole site, only specified the clock tower and the gateway arch (both of which were already damaged). The owners were arguing that this gave the mill itself no legal protection.
The owners had already had a lengthy debate with the planning service, and both sides were seeking legal advice. They’d also had a structural survey carried out to assess whether they could remove the four-storey mill from around the clock tower (which is part of the same building), leaving the interior walls of the mill exposed on two sides of it. And leaving no mill. The planning officer said there was nothing he could do to stop it.
I was horrified. Until this point, I had believed that planning processes are open to the public. I believed that people are kept informed about what goes on in their local area, what is proposed, and what is decided. Our councillors had successfully campaigned for planning notices to be placed on bright yellow boards, so that they are easy to see. Our council also provides planning alerts by email and text. So surely, if the most important building in your neighbourhood is about to be demolished, the council will tell you about it, won’t they?
What I didn’t know was that only applications and decisions trigger any kind of public notification. Developers can change their minds, owners can demolish buildings, and you can lose a massive part of your heritage without anyone lifting a finger to tell you about it. This situation has since deteriorated further, with our council now no longer writing to residents to let them know about planning committee meetings, and no longer using the yellow boards. Put this lack of transparency together with the drive to release more land on the open market, and tell me whether that adds up to neighbourhoods having more say in the planning process. I think not.
It was dark when I got home from work that day. I walked along Hart Street, glanced up at the silent clock, and carried on towards home. As I approached the weaving sheds, I could see in the amber streetlights the shape of the roof slates stacked up in piles dotted here and there, and the exposed roof structure letting the cold November air into the building.
I arrived in my mother’s kitchen with tears streaming down my face. I’m not sure that I understood what Newsome Mill means to me until that moment. I felt utterly helpless. And then my mother said something that I’ve never forgotten. She said: “There are some things in life that you just can’t do anything about”. And what I found myself thinking was: I don’t believe that.
I can only liken this moment to a particularly wretched day many years earlier, when a lady called Joanna found me in floods of tears in the basement corridor at the Slade. She took me over to the refectory and sat me down in a quiet corner with an improbably flouncy cream cake – one of those that is so precariously perched that it’s impossible to eat. As I sat there, sobbing uncontrollably into this implausible edible with a glacé cherry teetering on the top, she said to me: “You have such strength, it comes off you in waves.” I’ve never forgotten that either.
Standing in my mother’s kitchen that evening, for some strange reason I suddenly believed in myself. And I believed that my mill had a future. Without knowing anything at all about the listing process (and as it turns out, knowing not as much as I thought I knew about the planning process), I made a rough calculation that if I got embroiled in trying to save Newsome Mills, it might take five years of my life. That’s almost certainly turned out to be a gross underestimate.
But would I do it again? In a heartbeat. With a glacé cherry on top.