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A Styal-ish Day Out
Quarry Bank Mill & Styal Country Park (Manchester)
Member Name: collingwood21
Quarry Bank Mill & Styal Country Park (Manchester)
Date: 31/12/03, updated on 31/12/03 (3060 review reads)
Advantages: Suitable for all ages, Good restaurant, Interesting
Disadvantages: Shope quite pricey
Quarry Bank Mill is the best preserved Georgian factory colony in the country. It is owned and run by the National Trust, but is far from being what you may think of as the average NT property. Mention the words "National Trust" to most people, and images of Jane Austen type grand houses tend to spring to mind, great country piles with everything roped off and people talking in hushed voices. I hated such places as a child. Ruined castles were more fun to me, as at least there you behave like a child without anyone looking reprovingly at you. Quarry Bank Mill, however, is different. It is an active, exciting, noisy, hands-on place that positively encourages children. Perhaps that is why I have remembered it, whilst all those grand houses have merged together in my memory. The property consists of two separate buildings - the mill and the apprentice house - and also has a country estate suitable for walking in.
Nestled in a wooded valley, you do not see the mill building as you approach, either by car or on foot from the nearby village of Styal. It comes as quite a shock to sudde
nly be confronted by such a huge and imposing building in a quiet country area - and it is quiet, despite being virtually next door to Manchester airport. The mill was founded in 1784 by Samuel Greg, a Belfast textile merchant, and was placed in this now secluded valley to take advantage of both the fast-flowing River Bollin to drive the mill's water wheel, and by the proximity of the growing city of Manchester. Greg had the building purpose made to house the revolutionary new spinning machines of the time, and the mill was run as a profitable family business right until 1959, when the National Trust took it over and carried out major restoration work. It was opened as a museum in 1978, and in 1984 won the much coveted Museum of the Year award.
The mill building is run by the National Trust as a working museum. This means that alongside the "traditional" museum displays interpreting the social and industrial history of the property, there are working machines of the same types that once ran in the 1830s/40s period when the mill was in its heyday. The vast iron waterwheel has been restored to working condition, and machinery has been rescued from other mills to replace the lost originals that once ran in Styal mill. The National Trust employs a team of engineers to run the wheel and machines on a daily basis to give visitors an idea how the mill once worked, which provides an excellent accompaniment to the static displays and historical information provided in the earlier rooms of the museum. You can be told how noisy spinning mules are, but until you actually experience a room full of them in operation, you cannot really begin to appreciate what working conditions in this mill must have been like. The Trust also put the machines to good use in spinning and weaving their own calico, which is sold in the shop in the form of tea towels and other items for visitors to buy.
The mill museum is surprisingly large - it has 12 galleries
in all, each dealing with a different subject, ranging from the Greg family to the lives of the workers to how cotton was processed. The galleries to vary a lot in style; some have been in place since the museum first opened, and tend towards being a "book on the wall", while others are newly installed and filled with interactives to get stuck into. The curator (who I have spoken to as part of my PhD research) laments that this is all rather a piecemeal approach, but I rather like it as it means there is something for every kind of visitor. Those who like to read can do so. Those who like to listen to recordings to get information can do so. Those who prefer a more practical approach to learning can try out interactive activities and talk to the engineers running the machines. Technological types can find out about industrial history, while those less interested can learn about social history or watch costumed experts demonstrate spinning and weaving. There is something in this mill for just about everyone who likes to learn something new - and children can run about and get their hands on things, too!
**The Apprentice House**
One of the main problems of locating a mill in a rural valley was a shortage of labour. It was therefore not uncommon for mill owners to have apprentice houses near their mills - these buildings housed pauper children brought in from local workhouses, who served a period of indemnity (usually for 7 years) learning one of the trades of the adult mill workers. The apprentice house at Quarry Bank Mill was built in 1790 and could house up to 100 children at any one time. Children were usually around 9 years old when they arrived, and were given food, clothing, lodgings and a basic education in return for their work. The child workers were a valuable contribution to the running of Greg's mill, as they were unpaid labour and having people trained to the discipline and long hours of factory work at an early
age meant he had a reliable and skilled workforce when they grew up.
Interpretation of the apprentice house is rather different to that in the mill museum. Costumed guides - all very knowledgeable about the property and period, I might add - take around groups of up to 30 people at a time in tours that last 30 to 40 minutes. Tours run once an hour throughout the day, but it is advisable that you book your place at the ticket office when you arrive as places fill up quickly, especially on busy days. The apprentice house is a short walk from the mill, and you need to make sure that you arrive there a few minutes before the printed start time of the tour.
Unlike most tours of historic buildings, you are allowed (indeed encouraged) to handle things. The apprentice house has no original items in it, and is a mixture of antiques brought in from elsewhere and replica items that visitors can interact with. Although it is acknowledged that it is not 100% historically accurate (the kitchen grate is Victorian rather than Georgian, for example), the purpose of the apprentice house is to create an atmosphere for visitors, to show just how young working class children would have lived as an 1830s apprentice - it is a far cry from the cosy nurseries of Trust mansions, I can tell you. Child visitors have the opportunity to dress up for the tour as apprentices if they want to. Although you can buy a "mill visit only" ticket, I strongly recommend that you try to get a place on one of these tours, as they really are excellent. I think children in particular get a lot out them, as seeing how kids their own age lived in the past really seems to engage them.
**The Country Park**
Unfortunately, it rained on the day of my visit - making the pathways around the estate unpassably muddy. I was a little disappointed by this, but I can tell you that there are a number of clearly marked paths and wooded areas to go walking in on the Styal e
state (even if I couldn't get to them myself). Guided walks are offered on the second Sunday of each month at 2pm, and dogs are allowed in the park as long as they are kept under control. From what I could see, the area is very attractive and popular with local walkers, but it would be a good idea to wear good shoes or walking boots if you plan to venture out into the estate.
** Visitor facilities**
Quarry Bank Mill is equipped with a newly refurbished licensed restaurant that is open for meals, snacks and drinks for most of the day. As with most Trust eateries, a lot of the food is homemade and very good quality. As a guide to prices, a huge bowl of soup with bread cost me £3, and drinks were mostly around £1 - and there are plenty of cakes available if you have any room left after that! Overall, very reasonably priced, plenty of seating and spotlessly clean. However, you might want to get there early for lunch, as on busy days they can run out of things quite quickly.
There is a substantially sized shop in the property, located near the entrance to the mill. Prices in such shops are never cheap, but I always try to buy a souvenir as all proceeds go towards the running and maintenance of the property. You can buy the aforementioned Styal Calico products (tea towels were £2.50 each as I recall), guidebooks (£2.75) or chose from a pretty good selection of general history books and Quarry Bank Mill items (such as pens, mugs and thimbles). The shop is open the same hours as the mill museum.
Other facilities include toilets, wheelchairs for visitors to borrow, picnic tables in the estate grounds, baby changing facilities and cycle racks. Visitors in wheelchairs have good access to the property, with ramps leading to and from the car park, full access to all galleries in the mill museum, entrance to the shop and restaurant and to the ground floor of the apprentice house. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the apprentice
house are accessible by stairs only (a lift would destroy the integrity of the property), but photographs albums are provided to show disabled visitors the rooms they cannot physically get to.
Perhaps you can see now why I remembered Quarry Bank Mill so clearly even after 15 years - it is a unique property, and one that is very worthwhile to visit. There is enough to see and do to appeal to all ages and to occupy a full day, making it pretty good value for money, even if you are not a member of the Trust. (And you never know, you might even learn something). I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Directions - Quarry Bank Mill is located in Styal, near Wilmslow, in Cheshire. If you are going by car, take junction 5 off the M56 and then follow the brown National Trust signs. Styal railway station is only half a mile from the property, so it can be accessed by public transport too.
Opening Times - Open throughout the year from 10.30am. The apprentice house closes at 3.30pm in winter (October to March) and 4.30pm in summer (April to September); the mill closes at 5pm in winter and 5.30pm in summer. Last admission is 1.5 hours before closing.
Entrance Price - £7 for adults, £3.80 for children to whole property; £5 for adults £3.50 for children to mill only. Free to National Trust members.
Further information - Phone (01625) 527468 or visit www.quarrybankmill.org.uk.
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