Milling around

Lydia La Strode marvels at Stroud District’s historic workplaces.

First-time visitors to the Cotswolds are often bowled over as much by the wealth of historic architecture as by the surrounding natural beauty of our hills, valleys and woodlands. From great houses to picturesque cottages, handsome ‘wool churches’ to antique industrial buildings, there are many more stone survivors of previous centuries here than in some other parts of the country.

The reason for this good fortune lies in the region’s past as a centre of sheep-farming and wool production. In the middle ages, wool clothed the nation. The Cotswolds were sheep-farming country, and the natural geography, rich in rivers that could power woollen mills, meant that the wool economy flourished, aided by an influx of artisans, such as Huguenot weavers fleeing religious persecution in France. Farmers and merchants grew rich, endowing grand churches and building weavers’ cottages in local stone on their estates.

When the cotton trade became king during the 19th century, Cotswolds wealth subsided. While Victorians elsewhere were ‘improving’ their surroundings by knocking down their old buildings and putting up new ones, the privations of the Cotswolds’ local economy meant that our historic edifices remained untouched. So today, when we look back at the times when the Cotswolds were a flourishing hub of the wool industry, we can still see and touch the places where yarn was spun and cloth was dyed.
In the Stroud valleys alone, some 150 woollen mills plied their trade, and although they no longer produce fabrics dyed in shades of ‘Stroud Scarlet’ or ‘Uley Blue’, many of them are with us still. Think of Ebley Mill, today the home of Stroud District Council; Egypt Mill, a flourishing Nailsworth inn; and Ruskin Mill, now a residential college for students with disabilities. Many other mills have become private homes or apartment buildings.

The Stroudwater Textile Trust conserves and maintains Dunkirk Mill, Gigg Mill and St Mary’s Mill, and opens them to the public on selected dates during the summer. You can visit them to see ancient water wheels, a weaving shed, carding machinery, fulling stocks and spinning mules, and enjoy an evocative taste of working life in a typical Stroud cloth mill. See stroudtextiletrust.org.uk for details and opening times. And when you enjoy our beautiful and scenic local architecture, remember the workers in wool who left it to us.