QUARRY BANK MILL Location: Styal, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 4HP [map] Open: 10.30am-5pm Admission: £20.00 (free for NT members) 3-hashtag summary: #cottonmill #industrial #heritage Website:nationaltrust.org.uk/quarry-bank Time to set aside: at least half a day
To learn the history of the Industrial Revolution at first hand, head north. The cotton industry helped bring our nation to global prominence, with much of the production based in the valleys around Manchester. One of the best preserved sites is at Quarry Bank near Wilmslow, opened in 1784 - a year in which cotton made up 40% of British exports. The great technological advance was centralising production, from cottages to mills, enabling efficiencies of scale and increased mechanisation. Cotton became the foundation of our international trade for over a century, until WW1 broke the export chain and other countries realised they could make cotton far more cheaply than importing it from us.
The Greg family established Quarry Bank Mill in a quiet rural valley rather than a town, getting their power from a large waterwheel in the River Bollin. They took a paternalistic attitude to their employees, providing accommodation and education but expecting long hours in return. A typical working day started at 5.30am, with a 10 minute break for breakfast and half an hour for lunch, and the day ended at 8pm unless overtime was required. Initially half of the workers were children, because their wages cost less. Loom machinery was often dangerous and could lead to loss of limbs, or in the worst cases death. The supposed miseries of your working day are mere #firstworldproblems in comparison.
Under the National Trust's stewardship, an increasing area of the estate has been opened up to the public. But the centrepiece remains the Georgian mill itself, a long brick building with very regular windows, and a single lofty chimney (which, at one memorable point on the tour, you can clamber underneath and look up to the sky). It takes about an hour to follow the warren of rooms and passageways across three floors, discovering how cotton used to be made and experiencing much of the equipment at first hand. There's quite a bit to read along the way, for example if you've ever wondered what the job of a Scutcher, Throstle Spinner, Doffer, Rover or Bobbin Winder actually entailed.
The best rooms are the long galleries full of clattering machinery - not all of which is switched on in one go. Cotton required a lot of sequential phases of spinning, hence was ideal for mechanisation, with the full-length CondenserMule at Quarry Bank still capable of pulling out 560 separate threads onto 560 separate bobbins. Upstairs I enjoyed being the only visitor in the Weaving Shed, where an earplugged volunteer gave me a personal demonstration on one of the turn-of-the-century looms (resultant teatowel available for purchase in gift shop).
Eventually the tour makes its way down to the waterwheel (not the original but a massive metal 50 tonner rescued from Scotland), which rotates in damp gloom like some dystopian hamster wheel. There's quite a bit of science to learn, if you're so minded, and a room where Men Who Like Engines can revel over greasy machines with primal pistons. Beyond all that is the cafe (a particularly popular room for Cheshire NT members to frequent on a very damp day), and above that a suite where weddings can take place (it surely can't have been a coincidence that the couple getting spliced on Saturday were Jen and Tom Weavers).
There's plenty more to see, which is just as well given the high price of admission. Upriver is an impressive horseshoe weir installed at the top of the millrace, whose hydro-electricity powers a lot of what currently takes place on site. Downstream are some splendid gardens, with rockery slopes rising steeply to an upper lawn and glasshouses - plus another cafe to hide in from the weather. The house in which the mill owners lived is also open for timed tours, or will be again later this month after significant renovation within. A lot of Quarry Bank is undergoing maintenance and renewal at the moment, so be warned that the mill building will be closing temporarily from November - best check before visiting.
Across the fields is Styal village, specifically the cottages that the Gregs built for their employees. Two rigid terraced rows face the green, one of whose cottages opened for NT guided tours just this week, but you'll need to arrive early to sign up for one of the very limited places. A small new 'visitor hub' allows unlucky souls to experience the cottage interior via a film and/or a model. All the other cottages are privately owned, and wholly desirable judging by the cars outside, although much too small to entice the nearby community of footballers' wives. Manchester Airport's runway now lies barely a mile away, so the occasional roar of jet engines must surely deter several potential buyers. [8 photos]
Getting to Quarry Bank is an interesting challenge if you don't have a car. The nearest station is Styal, which has a miserably low number of trains a day, and nothing northbound between 07:59 and 15:59. I managed to time my visit between two southbound trains instead, there being five of these a day, slightly better spaced. Alternatively there's the number 200 bus, which cash-strapped Cheshire council are consulting on scrapping, or simply bite the bullet and walk - Wilmslow, Handforth and Heald Green stations (and Shadowmoss tramstop) are each about half an hour away.