Why the residents of Low Mill in Caton love life in the Grade II listed building
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 July 2017
An old Lancashire cotton mill has been transformed into residences for community living with a difference. Sue Riley reports.
THE residents of Low Mill invariably say they ‘feel on holiday’ the moment they return to their Lune Valley home. It’s a feeling they are keen to protect and under an unusual management scheme, they have the means to do so. The mill, with its roses around the door and six-acres of landscaped grounds full of woodland glades, pond and views to the River Lune, is owned and run by the homeowners. Each ‘home’ has one share in the plc which owns it.
‘There’s more to living at Low Mill than people realise. It’s a pretty special place,’ said Bill Scott, who is to become chair of the management board later this year. ‘We like to think that it’s not just somewhere to live, it’s a community. It’s not unique that we own and run the place ourselves but I do not know any others in Lancashire. Of course, not everyone agrees with what we do, we work on a majority programme,’ said Bill. ‘People can be very private here. It’s a very safe place.’
Like so many former textile mills in Lancashire, it was converted into luxury accommodation in the 1990s. Local builder John Collis transformed it into 35 apartments from one bedroom flats to the largest, which is over three storeys (there are only three which have identical layouts) and ten houses built on the foundations of the original building. Then there’s a mill pond, large bits of machinery including a 2.5 ton flywheel in the communal entrance and landscaped gardens.
Marie Boardman was one of the first to buy in April 1995 when she and her husband moved from south Lancashire. ‘We took a big gamble and bought off plan,’ she said. Her airy apartment full of large windows and high ceilings is right in the middle of the mill.
‘From the day we moved in it felt like we were on holiday. I’m not a country lover in the traditional villagey sense…I like mod cons,’ said Marie, a retired teacher, who has been on the board for the past six years. She has happy memories of the early days. ‘On Sunday afternoons the thing was for people in the houses to wander around the mill,’ she remembers. ‘We have pride in keeping it pretty decent. In the beginning of course there was nothing to do. We have become very professional as a board. We have always had a mix of talent.’
There are rules to living at the mill in Caton – you’re not allowed to sub-let, have more than two pets or park a caravan without permission. However you are positively encouraged to help in the garden (major changes need to be agreed by the board).
Everyone on the board is a volunteer and takes responsibility for different areas – the garden, the mill, the grounds – before putting forward a draft budget every year. The residents then vote on what should be funded from their service charge at an annual meeting held in the atrium, the one communal space. Everyone who attends has to bring their own chair. This year the budget for repairs and maintenance is £65,000 which will include painting the outside of the Grade II listed mill.
The board has a wealth of experience among its residents – for example, a water engineer proved invaluable when they had a problem with the water course from the mill pond. And the current financial director is a retired manager of commercial properties. Former residents include artist Chas Jacobs and TV comedian Jim Bowen while steeplejack and TV personality Fred Dibnah also demolished the mill chimney.
All the residents are responsible for the inside of their properties, although the board has a list of local tradespeople who come in on a regular basis to do repairs. ‘Most people do want us to spend money and ensure that it’s well spent. We do not spend money on management fees and we can pick and choose who does the job,’ said Marie.
Residents can take part in as many or as few of the community events they wish – although the June Boules tournament and Jacobs’ Join events at Easter and Christmas are well attended. It’s predominantly older people who live there, although there are three families with young children – in its heyday 80% of the mill’s staff were youngsters from Liverpool who boarded in apprentice houses on land just outside the main iron gates. There’s an international flavour to its residents too. Hazel Hewitt moved in a year ago with her husband after living in Houston for three decades. She is now on the board.
‘People take things on. They look out of their windows and see something they want to do,’ she said. ‘We have gone from a Texas-sized house and have about a quarter of what we had before. It is very freeing. The simplicity of life here is the attraction. It would be nice to have people round for a dinner party but we have the picnic tables and barbecue area outside. We can use it and we do not even have to look after it!’ she said.
The gardens are a particular source of pride. Tended by a professional twice a week, a team of female residents also help tidy the dozens of flower beds, knot garden, memorial garden for Ruth Winterbottom, a former High Sheriff of Lancashire who lived at the Mill, composting area, rockeries and seating areas.
There are also arches made from millstones – the mill shut in 1970 after being run by the Storey Brothers of Lancaster for nearly a century – and a charming courtyard garden which is due to be replanted this year. ‘We are asking the residents what plants they would like, we do try to be democratic,’ said Sally Shears, who chairs the gardening committee.
Bill Scott added: ‘It’s a very unusual situation because you can live here and not say anything to anyone. You do not really bump into people. You can also be as friendly as you like! It’s the sort of place where you are never in need of a friend, we are very good at supporting people and getting things done. This place is special.’