Ruskin Mill, Nailsworth

PUBLISHED: 10:29 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:47 20 February 2013

The mill pond at Ruskin Mill is a haven for wildlife

The mill pond at Ruskin Mill is a haven for wildlife

Nailsworth's Ruskin Mill, on one of the town's ancient valley sites, is a centre for craft-based skills learning and a great visitor venue. <br/><br/>Words and photography by Mark Child

Give me an excellent bowl of soup, and I'm a friend for life, guaranteed. I am a connoisseur of soup. My wife is an accomplished soup-maker; and I have sampled gallons of the stuff in just about every level of restaurant, good, bad and indifferent. The soups in the coffee shop at Ruskin Mill in Nailsworth are up there with the best; they have the kind of texture and flavour that suggest the ingredients were still growing in the soil only moments ago, as indeed they are most likely to have been, and have reached their full culinary potential in expert hands. Virtually everything that goes into the food they sell in the coffee shop at the Ruskin Mill Craft Centre is grown on site; it is food as it ought to be, and we shall be returning to this coffee shop later in this piece.

Ruskin Mill is a relict of the times when the valley town's economy depended on the products from its clutch of mills. Two big woollen mills - Days Mill and Nailsworth Mill - stood at Nailsworth's centre. Stretching along the valley's watercourses were several others, most of whose names remain about their former sites, but whose circumstances have quite changed. Dunkirk Mill is now spectacularly residential; Egypt Mill is a pretty hotel and restaurant complex; part of Days Mill has been incorporated into the town centre's retail area; Prices Mill went into professional business; the Nailsworth Mill site is given over to light engineering and manufacture; and small industries or workshops also occupy Holcombe Mill and Gigg Mill. There are others, too, on the periphery of the town that are not what they were. One of these is Ruskin Mill.

It stands in an idyllic spot on a very old mill site. Mature trees line the sides of a narrow valley, into which the mill, with its restored waterwheel, and its accompanying stone buildings are comfortably settled. Before it, is the large mill pond, managed by Ruskin Mill and abounding in wildlife and waterfowl; nesting boxes can be seen all around the estate. There are also beautiful walks on either side of the pond and between Ruskin Mill and Horsley Mill.

There is a record of a corn mill here in 1564, and a fulling mill in the 17th century. The main faade is probably the result of rebuilding in the 1820s. As Millbottom Mill, and later Benjamin's Mill, it had a long and varied career throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in meal, timber, and as a mill for grinding corn. A brass-finishing workshop was in part of an upper floor during the 20th century, and there was a manufacturer of shoe stiffeners downstairs. A cider press operated in the basement, for the valley was hereabouts full of apple trees, and, eventually, the whole place was turned over to making inks and dyestuffs. Partly converted to residential, it was not in a particularly good state by the time it was bought by Robin Gordon, who had been responsible for the Ruskin School of Art Appreciation in Venice; thereby the mill was destined to be renamed after the writer and art critic.

Aonghus Gordon, Robin's son, is the founder and director of the Ruskin Educational Trust, which is an initiative for cultural, educational and social development. In 1982 he took over the derelict mill, which his mother then owned, and began working with youngsters who had been made redundant during Margaret Thatcher's economic boom, and were trailing in the dole queue. They worked on the mill site, developing workshops, a community centre, and a venue for arts and crafts. Ruskin Mill operated in conjunction with the Cotswold Chine Home School, where Aonghus began his career as a teacher in ceramics, and which works with disenfranchised young boys and girls up to the age of sixteen. At its heart are the ideas of the philosopher Rudolph Steiner, whose principal approach was to enable spiritual and physical development by taking the psychological and practical elements of life and distilling them into a combined educational, ecological and therapeutic basis.

By 1987, Aonghus was able to take sixteen-year-olds from the Cotswold Chine School to Ruskin Mill, where he set up a new three-year education leaders' course. Local education authorities, social services, and health councils all supported the project - and, as Ruskin Mill College, it has become a huge success. Nine years later, an independent charity was set up, and Aonghus led the organisation through a new concept that involved 'deconstructing the classroom'. He felt that these young people were highly intimidated by the traditional classroom approach, with the prevailing authoritarian social structure with which they were unable to comply and, as a result, they rebelled. He discovered early on that what they actually needed was a relationship in which they could 'legitimise the sense and experience of development for themselves, instead of actually being authenticated by a teacher'.

This was the point at which Ruskin Mill Educational Trust (RMET) became a synthesis, drawing inspiration from Steiner's thinking and educational concepts and developmental human ideas. Into Aonghus's melting pot also went the educational ideas of Ivan Illich, the Austrian theologian, philosopher and social critic, and particularly the ideas of John Ruskin, of course - the founding thinker of the National Trust, the minimum wage, and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Aonghus also used William Morris as an inspiration. Working in this way, the Trust has become recognised as a national facility for young people with autistic spectrum disorders, particularly Asperger's Syndrome, and those with challenging behaviour or who have experienced severe emotional trauma in their development.

The Trust has set an example in exponential-based outdoor learning, which in a way matches the apprenticeship concept of a century ago - except that it is therapeutically based, and targeted towards supporting the developmental processes of the student in gaining greater levels of autonomy.

This approach has been so successful, that RMET currently has three colleges. The Ruskin Mill site is set in more than 100 acres of the Horsley Valley, where it also has a working farm and a fish farm. The latter is close to nearby Horsley Mill, where there is car parking for visitors, although it is a pleasant enough short stroll for those who leave their vehicles in Nailsworth centre - where the closest public car park is beside the old town hall in Old Bristol Road.

Ruskin Mill College bought a nearby fish farm that had fallen into receivership, and this has since been renovated to give direct educational opportunities to students. Trout has been farmed there for almost a century and a half; they now grow organic native brown trout here, using the natural spring water that used to power the looms at the mill. The primary purpose of the fish farm is to produce beneficial food for the students at Nailsworth and at the Trust's other colleges, and for dishes created in the Ruskin Mill coffee shop.

The Ruskin Mill Educational Trust's second venture is Glasshouse College, which opened in Stourbridge in 2000. There, the Trust bought the former Royal Doulton glassworks, where students draw upon two centuries of heritage in high-quality craftsmanship, blow hot glass pieces, and take part in the performing arts. It includes a studio theatre and the Ruskin Glass Centre. According to Aonghus, the youngsters, who might otherwise have educational difficulties, 'are highly motivated by glass blowing because they immediately and completely explicitly see the result of their intentions and their endeavours - so the success is self-evident'. He also points out that 'the match between the ability to express oneself directly into material and ownership of intellectual capacities through movement, design, social function, the aesthetic - indeed, the civility of making items for the table - became a very powerful motivation to further develop the organisation.

In 2005, the Trust bought the Sterling Works, a series of old silver bullion manufacturing workshops in the city centre at Sheffield, where its Freeman College, in the heart of the town's traditional silversmithing and cutlery industry, offers a range of practical activities, as well as a cultural programme at the Merlin Theatre. The whole enterprise began with a single student at Ruskin Mill; there are now one hundred at the three locations. This was also the year in which Aonghus won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year South-West Award for Ruskin Mill Educational Trust's work 'in providing educational and employment opportunities for young people not provided for by mainstream education' and at the same time 'safeguarding the future of traditional crafts and skills'.

There are, in fact, a number of divergent themes that run through the organisation: an element of community development; one of commercial development; and an interesting relationship between educational structure and commercial structure. Craftspeople are invited into the organisation's ethos to exercise their creative powers through cultural, domestic items that have meaning and service in everyday life. Ruskin Mill Arts & Crafts Centre, based in the old mill buildings at Nailsworth, is a site where commercial craftspeople, artisans, and ecological designers have rental workshops. In return, they offer their time back to the college for apprenticeship, work experience, and other educational opportunities for the students. Equally, the craftspeople undertake adult education projects, weekend workshops, etc, thereby becoming a fulcrum between the college and the community. They are, according to Aonghus, 'brokers of highly developed hand-work for adults, as well as students'.

The crafts side grew out of an intentional idea of assessing how craftspeople might service a number of opportunities in the type of community project that Ruskin College was becoming. It currently includes a designer of ecological water features who works on reed beds and sewage systems; and a manufacturer of granite-cast flow forms - vessels that oxygenate water. There is a stained glass window conservator; a rug maker, felter and textile dyer; a jeweller and silversmith; and a bespoke picture framer. An arts and community project has been set up, in which the workshop is sponsored by the Ruskin Mill Trust in order to facilitate creative development. There is also an exhibition space, and details of cultural events, arts and crafts exhibitions, etc. can be obtained on 01453 837506.

Graham Dowding has his stained glass designing, making and conservation business in the mill. Initially training as an architect, he went from that into conservation work and set up his first studio in 1980. For more than a quarter of a century, he has maintained the glass in Gloucester cathedral, as well as that in many Gloucestershire churches. Among these are the very important early William Morris glass at Selsley; and his creation for the millennium window at Randwick; but he is likely to get a call whenever a church window in the region is damaged. Graham's predecessor at the cathedral was Edward Payne, the stained glass artist of Box. Part of Graham's time is spent executing commissions for new glass, and the rest is involved in repairing and restoring stained glass of any age from the medieval period. He works at Ruskin Mill with Anne Garcin, a former stonemason from Burgundy in France, whom he met originally when they were both on commissions at Gloucester cathedral; a year ago, she was working for a conservation and restoration company when she decided to work with Graham instead.

Sabrina Gordon makes bespoke jewellery under commission in her Ruskin Mill workshop. She creates to her own designs; works in gold, silver and precious stones; sells from the workshop; undertakes private commissions; and also teaches students at Ruskin Mill College, and visitors who want to undertake jewellery courses. She currently works with one of her former students - Freja Frosch - who specialises in designing and making brooches, necklaces and hair jewellery. Much of her work is exhibited internationally.

In another workshop, Margaret Docherty specialises in colour and fabric. She has been there since 1990, working on rugs, dyeing with plant materials such as indigo and onion skins, felting, and colouring with a whole range of textiles. She also teaches the college students for two days each week, sells from the workshop, accepts commissions, and runs courses for the Nailsworth community, as well as visitors.

An ancient technology curriculum is carried out that includes coppicing, charcoal making, Iron Age forge making, chair making and tool making. These provide further opportunities to the students for land husbandry. The therapeutic thinking behind such an integrated approach is that land is a pre-requisite for any new developmental thinking, and sustainability is a very important element. Adjacent to the fish farm are sixty acres of pasture, horticultural land, and forest, all of which are completely integrated into the students' experience. The students do not so much take away the concept of sustainability, but rather the fact that they have been doing it.

Says Aonghus, 'For example, they understand the value of a ten-year coppicing cycle; they understand why a cathedral tree is left for a century and is not cut down; and they understand the regeneration of the coppice process. They also know the amount of timber that is required to make a hundredweight of charcoal, and how much of that charcoal it will take to actually heat and shape a knife. There is an inter-relationship of the making process into a sustainable, ecological land-based harvesting of the materials, so they are highly prized. The charcoal that the students use is a hard-won and skilful process; it devolves on felling, drying, burning, and developing it so that it doesn't just turn to burnt wood. The process, and what can be done with the result, teaches them to be very resourceful. It gives them the opportunity to discover the resourcefulness and sustainability of relationships between nature and the harvesting of materials.

'This enables them to become sustainable champions, and to articulate that; but what the students also have within themselves is a notion of humility and resourcefulness towards the natural world. They know that we are all part of its creativity, and part of its sustainability. When Ofsted talk to the students during their quality assurance inspection of the college, they realise that they have taken away something unique and quite special in terms of their ownership of those experiences and how they can work with them and apply them.

The water mill at Ruskin Mill was one of the first co-operative projects between students and the community in the early 1980s. In mid-2007 a turbine was installed that produces upwards of three kilowatts an hour, which is seen as a significant step towards sourcing their energy needs from the natural environment. Meanwhile, Ruskin College has just been given planning permission to erect a wind turbine on the farm. It means that the complex is demonstrating, albeit as yet in a very small way, how energy can be harvested from the elements.

But the harvest is even more special. The coffee shop at Ruskin Mill began about twenty years ago, when the early students grew vegetables to eat there. These days, all its food is organic, and most is grown on site. This is part of the students' learning through landscape programme, and involves growing vegetables, harvesting them in the baskets they make in the withy yard, and cooking them in the coffee shop. A couple of main meals are prepared each lunchtime, plus salads and cakes that are made in the kitchen. Coffee - as highly recommended as the soup - and teas are also organic, and fruit cordials sold there are made from produce grown on the farm. The pottery used in the coffee shop is hand-made and local - by Winchcombe Pottery.

Looking around Nailsworth

Nailsworth is very much about its mills and its food. In their separate ways, these are visitor attractions and destination venues. It is also about its fine walks, that can begin or end at either, and its little streams that play hide and seek to such a degree that deciding which runs where and joins up with what can be great fun. The potential of the mills, whether by means of restoration, change of use, or regeneration, continues to be harnessed. For example, the mill ponds are currently being restored at Dunkirk Mill; Gig Mill has recently been renovated and re-opened, and mill walks with history boards are planned that include both. A Baroque Glass Centre has gone in on the Nailswoth Mills estate in the centre of town.

Award-winning and gourmet cuisine has long been the staple diet of Nailsworth. You can buy and sample produce at Green Spirit, once described as 'an organic corner shop', where you can tuck into organic, natural, healthy food. At one end of the town is Mad Hatters - which regularly wins accolades for its organic gourmet cooking. Across the road, The Britannia Inn has a continental-style restaurant bar. At the other end of the town you will find Hobbs House Bakery, where the aromas of just-baked bread and restaurant food invite you inside. Just around the corner, Williams' Oyster Bar is a recent restaurant addition to the award-winning fresh provisions superstore that is Williams' Kitchen, built over another of the towns waterways. Food is available at around twenty establishments in Nailsworth: thirty if you count the fast-food takeaways and the supermarket sandwich bars. That's a lot of food for a town this size, but the quality is first-rate.

It has to be. If you are a small town and you want to attract more visitors, this is one element that you really have to get right. The other is the right kind of shops. I was once told that 'Nailsworth's shops and businesses are mostly one-off, and run imaginatively by wacky entrepreneurs'. It is certainly a delight to find the little town centre full of interesting shops with strange-sounding names, in old buildings - frequently converted relicts of the old mills' fabric - remodelled hotel buildings, and new build extensions done sympathetically.

What constitutes a 'national chain' in Nailsworth is Tempus Publishing's Nonsuch Bookshop - and the only other one of those is at Bourton-on-the-Water. Keogh's second-hand book rooms; The Potting Shed for the garden; Fandango for the kind of products conjured up by the name; Coco, the old-fashioned sweet shop; the wonderful Old Mother Hubbard furniture and furnishings emporium in part of the former Days Mill; and Bruton's Hardware, established in 1858. These are all examples of the kind of traders you will find in Nailsworth. Here too, you will find craftspeople who sell what they make, upmarket fashion retailers - Moi is a new one for women, and Dessous Chics sells lingerie and swimwear. There are antiques and collectables; and the town has oodles of charm, and bags of friendly, personal service.

To find out what is on at Nailsworth, contact the Information Centre (Tel: 01453 839222) in the front of the shopping complex remodelled out of the Old George hotel. The Centre has around thirty volunteers who are eager, willing and able to share it all with you

Latest from the Cotswold Life