It’s been 1 year since we opened the Mill
24th January 2014
Latest from the Mill
Lots is happening this week and we are all brimming with expectation. The new barns on the front of the Mill are really nearly done. The limestone spiral staircase is well underway, and by early next week it should be complete bar the bannister. It is already clear that it’s going to be spectacular. It is the first stone staircase in the UK that will be entirely self supporting. Every step cantilevered from a central column with a steel core.
Along with the scale of the room, the exposed water wheel and views across the millpond it should make for an amazing introduction for all of our visitors. One of our recommended tilers is fitting all the displays for free, bless him and says that everyone who walks in goes Wow and puzzles over the improbable looking half staircase.
The Stonemasons have great hair; Andre the main man and innovator looks like a mad professor with wild hair all matted with dust and young Sebastien has the coolest mop I’ve seen in a long time. I had to say to him “sorry for staring, your hair just cracks me up”. Andre has had several stonemasons from around Europe to help with the carving. All found the task of meeting Andre’s exacting requirements nigh on impossible. Some cracked (the stonemasons not the steps) under the pressure, and some learnt a whole new way of working. Andre is an autocad and angle grinder kind of stonemason. He’s restored Notre-dame and Stowe school, so he’s the best at hammer and chisel masonry, but he is also pushing boundaries with technology. The structural engineer was out of his depth, umming and arring for months, but Andre knows it will work.
Half built, it’s inherently unstable, but once the steps go full circle, it will hold itself up. The top of the column will eventually be locked in place when the square landing is tied into an RSJ within the floor above. The landing has already been winched up because any more steps would block the way. It weighed 650kg and we had a run up to get it up into the showroom, it whizzed through the doorway at a pace and it was a good job the pallet truck steerer kept it together or it would have torn down the shop front.
The steps will be great and we don’t want to spoil them with an ordinary bannister. We first thought we would have them made from steel, simply and fairly rustically, in keeping with the Mill. But I decided that this was an opportunity for us to show what we can do. We won’t get a two hundred year old template from a book and follow it to the letter, nice as that is. We have special people and no-one can do what we can do. We like to invent as we go, letting the constraints of the material guide us and keeping an open mind for exciting off the wall ideas to emerge. I have a feeling this staircase will be in a few magazines soon and I want people to marvel at the bannister too. Here’s a glimpse of our first experiment.
Hardboard was bent round the steps, quickly made rigid with some gash bits of ply, screwed together to replicate the curve. Then in our workshop on stilts over the Mill race Ben Creed clamped some 3mm thick strips of oak together following the curve of the steps. Last time I saw it, it was outside, lashed to some wooden steps with electric cable and Ben was pouring kettles of water over it. As it’s forced to follow a different curve to bend down to the floor it splays out like a snakes belly, showing the laminates spread out like playing cards. Ooh nice we thought. You don’t design on a drawing board or on screen like that, the wood is designing itself. Curves look right if the material defines the shape. More on that to come in a few weeks.
From outside the barns are looking pretty much finished, bar the loading landing half way up the left barn, although I find them a bit odd looking, neither shop font, nor industrial unit or agricultural barn. What is this style we’ve created: posh barn if a little awkward is the best I can come up with. When cars and vans are parked in front it doesn’t look great, so Helen came up with the idea of bringing the countryside into the car park with some planting in front and merging into a copse of silver birch at the corner of the field. I love silver birch and some tall standard single stem trees would break down the edges, leave a clean view of the shop front and give some nice wafty delicate views from the top two windows.
The entrance will be paved with some large flagstones and some smaller cobbles broken up by lavender and rosemary, not too neatly clipped, with two old mill stones to set the scene.
Hopefully, by the spring the front will look a little more inviting. I’ve been mulling over starting a tree nursery with just my favourite half dozen varieties, planted in bags in the field, creating tree lined avenues that will open up enticing views of posh sheds. Things like shepherds huts, outdoor oak framed offices, school outdoor gazebo classrooms, snug little chalets with a wood-burner, rooms on stilts and floating sheds. We’ve always had a hankering for making wooden rooms and putting our style into them, and it seems a perfect field to try them out and it should make an interesting walk for visitors and their kids. The field’s big enough to do this and if (a big if) we get planning for a workshop, the screening will already be in place. To get started we’re ordering a hundred 3 to 4 ft trees at 70p each! Plus some big ones for considerably more pennies.
I took these photos before Christmas, showing the big window going into the hole we made so you could see the wheel properly. My mug got knocked off the bannister just as the window went into place. The smashing noise made everyone freeze, confused as they heard the smash but the window still looked in one piece. Big bits of glass always create a memorable drama when they near their final resting place with humphs and uggs and a lot of serious faces.
Whilst all that’s going on the doves that we introduced over our first year at the mill have grown in number and add real character to the place. Sooty who has black eyelashes and his mate sweep are dove making machines, the others are useless parents, but more are reared than are squashed or eaten so sometimes as you walk across the car park dozens of pure white doves wheel around you in 100 m wide circles until they settle in a neat row on top of the top most ridge of the mill. When it’s really windy they make several attempts to dive into the dovecote against the wind, often getting blown backwards. It’s great fun watching them come in like a squadron of spitfires onto a tiny airstrip. I love doves.
At the weekends the grounds are a playground for my kids, it seems an age since we got the boat out. The river’s either too fierce or too low, so the prop shear pin snaps every 5 minutes in the reeds. Still, it’s always an event when you get going. You can motor for 2 miles upstream and see nothing but cows and geese. The camper van is parked up at the top of the river and I’ve let the tax run out, I think it’ll stay there for years, it’s just the perfect spot.
Finally, one last little story to remind me of summer and round off the news from our first year in the Mill. My uncle Derrick’s 80th birthday, spot the aeroplane on the cake, might be a Shakleton. My family are into planes and half of them spent their lives in the RAF
My brother still is, flying from Anglesey, doing search and rescue. He worked with Prince William for a couple of years who called him Molly, ate hotdogs with masses of ketchup and held the door open for my Mum who said “thank you young man” without recognising him. My brother is a go-karting champion (of Cyprus) so likes to kick ass with all new recruits on the track. He also plays a little game when he dunks them all upside down in a helicopter in a swimming pool with the lights out. He has to be the last one out to check they all make it and has learnt to hold his breath for several minutes.
His gag is to stay under until the recruits are screaming that Molly hasn’t made it and are being held back from jumping back in to save him.
It was great to get all the extended family over to the Mill for lunch and after speeches and cake all the kids were raring to run around like crazy. That one in the blue tee shirt is my son Joseph and my daughter Poppy is the one giving me a hug.
The whole O’Leary clan at the Mill. My Dad and his brothers came over to England in their teens, after the war. Originally descended from an Irish squaddy who settled in colonial Poona in India, my Granddad worked at government house organising Elephant and Tiger hunts for visiting dignitaries. (I know it’s shameful, but then it was normal) When my Granddad finally left India to catch up with his offspring he gave up his seventeen servants to live in a semi in Milton Keynes.
The colonial lifestyle led Derrick and my Dad to the RAF where they found a familiar way of life. My Dad started as the rear gunner in Short Sunderlands and was shot down in the Korean War and went on to fly Nimrods and for 20 years fully nuked up Vulcan bombers. He’s the handsome one in the grey green pully and that’s my Mum with the Red scarf. As you can imagine they were pretty proud that day.
So that’s a little sniff of our first year at the Mill. We opened the doors on the 27th of Jan last year ish. And, although it seems like it’s taking ages on a day to day basis, when you show people round who haven’t been for years they can’t believe it.
Yesterday a lovely lady who used to be the Accommodation officer for the University for 30 or 40 years popped in. Of course everyone knew Jean Meyer, she was the mover and shaker in the world of student digs; she was bowled over that Phil and I remembered her and were happy to show her round the whole place. She said “how did you ever find the courage to take on this place, it’s such a vast commitment, how did you decide what to do and how to do it?” Well I think we just made it up as we went along, doing what was necessary and mulling over the rest. And as for taking it on in the first place and the courage bit, that comes from a feeling that I’m supposed to do this and a cavalier attitude to failure.