Where was the world's first mechanical paper mill? Not in China, nor the industrial north of England, but in Hertfordshire, just southof Hemel Hempstead. The River Gade was ideal for manufacturing, not just as a source of water but because as a chalk stream it was clear and clean. A chain of small paper mills grew up around the end of the 18th century, initially with every sheet made by hand, and one was selected to try out a new French patent (because the French were otherwise preoccupied with revolution at the time). The pioneering choice was Frogmore Mill, which today lives on as a small business and visitor attraction - the Frogmore Paper Trail.
I'll confess a local interest. I grew up in Croxley, home to the John Dickinson paper mill, indeed my Dad grew up a stone's throw away across the canal. John Dickinson was by far the biggest employer in the village, and I'd always thought Croxley was the jewel in their crown, ever since seeing countless boxes of Croxley Script paper stacked up in the school secretary's office. In fact Apsley Mill was bigger, having become the site where John Dickinson turned their paper into stationery products like feint-ruled ledgers and embossed notepaper, and Frogmore Mill also became part of the JD portfolio. The easy availability of paper also explains why Watford became a nationally-renowned centre for printing... indeed much of the economic history of southwest Hertfordshire can be attributed to the chain of events kicked off at Frogmore.
To go on a tour of Frogmore Mill you need to turn up on a Thursday, or on the first Sunday of the month. I did the latter, and had time to pootle round the shop (which is open daily except Saturday) before the tour began. Golly, the paper they make on site is lovely, from the coloured notepaper stacked in racks on the far wall to the large sheets of handmade art paper, roughly edged and embedded with seeds and leaves and petals. It probably wouldn't do for painting on, but if you were ever planning on mounting stuff, or doing something a bit showy for a celebration, it'd go down a treat.
The tour kicks off with a demonstration of how paper used to be made by hand, the slow technique illustrating why mechanisation was a game-changer. You might even get to have a go yourself. Remember to stir the mix of water and pulped rags vigorously before you dip the mesh, otherwise the resulting sheet of paper might be rather weak. Be sure to sponge as much moisture as you can out of the frame, otherwise it may stick when you lift it off the paper towel. And keep your fingers crossed the member of staff doesn't leave your sheet on the hotplate or the glazing machine for too long, otherwise all your best efforts will have been in vain and your final souvenir will be a torn, shrivelled mess.
The demo takes place in one corner of a small museum, which includes a satisfying number of models, and a history of paper manufacture down the Gadevalley. I was fractionally over-excited every time I found something related to Croxley, but you don't need to be local to be intrigued. There's even a corner devoted to Postman Pat stationery, which it seems helped prevent the collapse of the John Dickinson brand for a crucial last few years. Another corner is set up as a letterpress facility, and was in use by a separate group during my visit, indeed if you've ever fancied trying printing, bookbinding, or any one of a number of paper-based workshops, Frogmore might have something to offer.
It's on the large paper-making machine in the mill building proper where most of the real business takes place. This Edwardian contraption was built to test consistency before much larger jobs were launched, but the process is still much the same, indeed recognisably similar to the 1803 original. Mulchy water bubbles in, is squeezed to create a continuous roll of paper, then passes through several heated rollers before winding round a spool at the far end. Frogmore still employs someone to make the stuff, be that parchment for City livery company certificates, banana pulp for Lush gift boxes or recycled paper primed with elephant poo for sale in the shop at Whipsnade Zoo.
Passing further into the mill, things get a bit older and somewhat less well maintained. That's been good news for various movies and drama series who've used the upstairs space at Frogmore to film action sequences requiring a generic "decaying industrial" backdrop. The Flash's lair in Justice League? That was just outside Hemel Hempstead, although I suspect they cleaned the pigeon mess up first.
It was great to see a full-size paper making machine in the penultimate shed, a massive thing with variable-width feed and dozens of heated rollers... although there's no chance of it ever being brought back into working order, for economic reasons, so it may just continue to decay. And right down at the far end is the Apsley Mill fire engine, which still gets out to appear at rallies and the like, surrounded by a display to satisfy the most ardent Dickinsonophile. A fire brigade was always essential in a paper mill, we were told, which helps to explain why the building on the site today is by no means the original. The website suggested that the full tour should last 45-60 minutes, whereas mine lasted double that, and along the way explained much about the valley in which I grew up. [virtual tour]
Apparently narrowboat trips operate from outside the main entrance in the summer, but although I saw the boat laid out with chairs, there was no sign it was heading anywhere. Instead I walked along the Grand Union towpath, this being the most pleasant way to make the 15 minute connection to Apsley station. The adjacent site of the former Apsley Mills is now a trading estate and apartment complex, with waterside pub and Holiday Inn, linked by a spiral footbridge sponsored by an estate agents. But there are a couple of repurposed mill buildings left, one with a splendid Basildon Bond clock on the front and a John Dickinson plaque on the rear.
Hertfordshire is still a hotspot of paper production - the world's largest newspaper printingplant is on the other side of the county outside Waltham Cross. But it's Frogmore where the mass-produced revolution began, helping to bring books and newspapers and printed information to a fast developing society, and spreading ideas that changed the world. It's great to know that some of that history lingers on, and the rollers still turn, and paper's not yet had its day.