On 7th November 2007, I made a pact with Newsome Mill. I promised to keep it standing, in exchange for it not falling down on my head. We would do our best to keep each other safe. It was a private arrangement between the two of us, which gave me the strength to go quietly about the business of finding out how to get a building listed.
I did my homework to the best of my abilities. I looked very carefully at the advice available online, and I persevered through evasive instructions and pressing button B until I finally managed to speak to an advisor at English Heritage.
It was a sobering conversation. The chap on the other end of the phone told me that by asking for a new assessment of the mill, I might inadvertently end up getting the clock tower de-listed, which would give the owner permission to flatten the whole site. I felt the weight of the responsibility that I’d taken on very keenly then. Losing the mill is so unthinkable to me that being confronted with this possibility really stopped me in my tracks. But in the end, my decision was simple – this was already an all or nothing situation. So I pressed on.
To his credit, the scary man on the phone also gave me a fantastic piece of advice. He said that photographs are the most important part of any listing application. The more information about the building that can be conveyed in those photographs, the better.
What I had grasped very quickly was that buildings are listed either because of their architectural significance or because of their special historic interest. The relationship between Newsome and its mill was therefore very important – not just important to those of us who live here, but important in terms of meeting the criteria for Listed Building status. Those ties between the mill and the community that has grown up around it are unmistakable, and I set out (with my camera) to demonstrate this.
I had lots of recent photos of the mill already, as I’d been documenting the work on site. But now I needed to step back from my subject a little, to find out what other people see. That weekend I walked around the neighbourhood capturing images of how the mill sits within the local landscape. I realised that everywhere you go, the mill goes with you. It occupies your vision and your imagination – it tells you where you are.
I got advice from lots of different people over the next few days. I contacted the only person I knew who had been through the process of getting a building listed, and he told me that there are organisations who can help.
This is how I found out about the Victorian Society and the Georgian Group, who I had never heard of before. Both organisations had regional representatives who responded quickly to my queries and who were both helpful and encouraging. Talking to them was reassuring, because they were independent from the local situation and I felt that I could talk to them openly. Just by listening, they made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
The council’s Conservation team gave me some very specific and useful advice. They also introduced me to the murky concept of curtilage. As one part of the mill was already listed, anything attached to that part of the building should also be considered to be listed (as it falls within the listed building’s obvious boundary, or curtilage). The mill was an unusual case though, because it wasn’t the main part of the building that was listed. This made it difficult for us to argue that the four-storey mill was a subsidiary building to the clock tower. Hence the legal debates that continued whilst I was out taking my photographs.
I quickly lost count of the number of people who I spoke to that November. How many people does it take to get a building listed? Many certainly, but also just one. Because I was the only storyteller. The mill was standing silent and it needed just one person to stand up and give it a voice.
The clock was ticking (metaphorically of course, because the mill clock itself remained frozen in time), but I found myself waiting. A week passed, and still I waited. Just a bit longer, I thought. Could I risk another day, or two? Every day that I failed to speak was a day closer to demolition. So what was I waiting for?
I was waiting for the day that the sun came out.
17th November 2007 was the day that the sun came out. I walked through the village with my mother, taking more photographs of the mill in context, but today it was standing out proudly against the bright blue sky. This was the day that people could see what I see – what Alex Baldwin from the Victorian Society later called “a sleeping giant of Yorkshire’s industrial past”. The mill looked magnificent that day.
As we approached the mill yard I noticed that the metal gate to the old car park (what was previously the approach to the mill house) was unlocked. It shouldn’t have been, but there was a lot of carelessness with the mill’s security at the time, so it didn’t surprise me.
I went through the gate, and stepped into a space that I’d never stood in before. And I took the photograph that would go on the front page of my listed building application. I snapped it in a hurry, because I felt like I was intruding. I’ve know this building all my life, but I had never seen it from that angle before. And in all the photographs I’ve taken of the mill, before and since, I’ve never held my breath quite like that.
It was our moment, mine and the mill’s, and we had to make it count.
I was so lost in thought that I nearly fell down a half-uncovered manhole on the way out – one that was big enough for me to fall properly in at that. So the day could have ended very differently, and I immediately got told off by my mother. But we were almost home, and I had taken my last photo. I also knew what I wanted to say. I would give all the facts in my listing application, but I would also talk about giving this building its voice back.
After the day when the sun came out, that time of research, confusion, exploration and deliberation came to an end. I had told the story. I had 3 x A4 pages of text, 33 x A4 pages of images, and one short letter. I signed it, and put everything carefully into the envelope.
Please do not bend. Please do not break. Please do not let it all be in vain.