Most evenings I make the short walk from my family home on Hart Street to the house nearby that I live in now. Tonight, as usual, I walked through the mill yard (which is present day Ruth Street). The clocks changed yesterday, so it was my lightest evening walk for a while. Dusk was falling. Bats circled the weaving sheds. And the lights from the last remaining fire engine shone out along the approach to Newsome Mill.
They’ve been there since just after 4pm, putting out the fourth suspicious fire at the Newsome Mills site since these buildings have been standing empty. The fire hoses are still running now, cooling down the little office building which stands just through the stone gateway arch, and which this afternoon was set alight. Just beyond the fire engine, there’s the beginning of a police cordon along the rest of Ruth Street, with a Police officer standing guard each end.
So I had some company on my walk this evening, and not just the bats. And not Smokey the cat who tried to follow me through the mill yard last night, and who stubbornly refused to come away from the mill (I swear that cat’s psychic). No, there were some new watchers this evening, including the police officer who took the time to talk to me for the second time today, and the fire officer who told me how much he likes the buildings at Newsome Mill. Their reassurance means a lot to me.
I’ve had my fair share of heart-in-the-mouth moments since I began my attempt to save this mill. In the second week of January 2008, I tentatively opened a white envelope bearing a red English Heritage stamp. I’m not sure that I was breathing as I unfolded the letter. What I found inside that envelope was hope. And immense relief.
On 9th January 2008, English Heritage amended the list description for Newsome Mills, giving legal protection to the four-storey mill, the weaving sheds and the lodge, along with the already-listed clock tower and stone gateway arch. This meant that January 2008 would not be a month of demolition – I had put a stop to that.
But there was one thing missing from that list: the office, the small slightly-wobbly looking building that greets you when you walk through the gates of Newsome Mill. The planning service had made a lot of effort to get this building included in the proposed housing scheme, and I thought that they were entirely right to do so. The office building completes the frontage of the mill as seen from the village, and keeps the character of the site’s entrance intact. So surely leaving this building off the list was a mistake?
I took another deep breath and contacted the assessor at English Heritage. What would they make of me saying that this great gift they had just awarded Newsome was even then not enough? But I couldn’t just leave it alone, and that was that. And what the lady at English Heritage said was: “That’s a mistake”. It was a clerical error, and to English Heritage’s credit they rushed to correct it, just as they had rushed to carry out their assessment of the site. The paperwork went straight back to the Secretary of State, and the office building was put on the list.
I know that I’m a pedant, but sometimes correcting a typing mistake can help keep something in the world that simply wouldn’t be there otherwise. By asking the question and getting that clerical error corrected, I preserved the office building at Newsome Mills. I have kept it standing these past four years, along with every other building on the site. And today West Yorkshire Fire Service and West Yorkshire Police have kept it standing a bit longer.
I can’t tell you how my heart sinks when I get a message saying that Newsome Mill is on fire. Practice has not made it any easier. From the south-facing windows of our civic centre, you can see Newsome Mill standing on the hillside. When I anxiously looked out of those windows today, at least I couldn’t see any smoke. I called home to be told that there were four fire engines on site, but it was all quite calm. It was under control. I came home early even so.
The police tape across the road was something I hadn’t prepared for, nor the rumours of gunmen on the loose just around the corner from the street that I grew up on. Yet it was the smoke rising from the gaping hole in the office building’s roof which held my attention.
So I stood quietly in the mill yard on this really hot March afternoon, just watching for a while. I could feel the cooling water from the fire hoses permeating the still air. The sun was shining. The fire officers were in good spirits, posing for the Examiner photographer. Kids on bicycles looked on. And I felt a curious mixture of relief and calmness, with the sadness lingering underneath. Just like when I opened that letter.
My mill is still smouldering (and dripping), but it will be watched over tonight. Council officers will take over to secure the site once the fire brigade leave. The police officer who is standing nearest to the mill stopped me on my evening walk to tell me this, so that I knew not to worry. “You were asking earlier”, he said, “about securing the building. I just wanted to let you know that someone is taking care of it.”
Then he lifted up the police tape to let me take a shorter route home.
Sir, whoever you are, I thank you.
There have already been many heroes of Newsome Mill, and it may need many more yet.
But tonight, it’s definitely you.