Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Mill - City of Dreams

The following post is a slightly revised version of a piece that was originally submitted to The Culture Vulture website.

Drummonds Mill Yard

The huge, iron, gate clanks shut behind me as I walk into the cobbled yard outside the Mill. It is eerily still and quiet here now, sheltered in a patch of spring sunshine. My guide and I walk round the corner of the vast building, the chimney towering above us. Soon we step into the cool dark of the building itself and there is a scale model of the local area, cleverly constructed from record cards and archive boxes that had been discarded in the mill when it closed.

The Model Made of Record Cards

Through a red metal sliding door and we are in one of the huge loom sheds that once thundered with the sound of machinery, so loud that the workers had to learn to lip-read. Today, though, the silence settles like the dust and our footsteps echo as we walk between the pillars; woollen threads linking some of them, almost like a web.

The Loom Shed

Another metal door, this time green, leads us into a much smaller space about the size of a shipping container. Cardboard boxes and pallets line one wall and the plastic hood of a long-gone telephone booth hangs on the other. ‘I’m a Daily Star’ says the faded sticker next to it, yet more detritus left behind. Out again into a larger room, this time divided by industrial plastic curtains, and we find lengths of material draped from the roof beams, reminiscent of the weaving looms that are now conspicuous by their absence. A voice echoes from somewhere on another floor above and we turn at the sound. A set of metal lockers, a chair, a radio, a pair of polished shoes placed in the space suddenly bring a very human touch to this industrial landscape. Not only was this someone’s workplace, it was their life.

The Human Touch

We pass a bicycle chained to the wall as we weave through narrow corridors flanked by empty offices. Only, like the rest of the mill, they are not quite empty. Reminders of the previous occupants and remnants of their routines remain; a flyblown calendar, a single office chair, a filing cabinet with one drawer left open a fraction. Quietly at first I can hear them at work, on the telephone, discussing orders, negotiating delivery times. Soon my imagination is filled with the clacking of typewriters tapping out the hi-hat rhythm above the mill’s bass drum thud of the looms. The corridors and stairwells whisper the secrets of office girls. Outside a shire horse stamps its iron-shod hooves on the cobbles and impatiently snorts in the dawn.

“It is this way, up the stairs, to The Ship”, says my guide, pulling me back into the here and now. I don’t have time to ask why there is a part of a textile mill called The Ship before I can see for myself. Stretching out for almost the full length of the mill building is a huge room. Curved beams like the timbers of a ship hold up the roof. More threads hang from the ceiling attached to big wooden bobbins and reels. Threads stretching back through time, linking us to the past, the past of this great building in this once great city.

The Ship

A faded map of the world, the size of one wall hangs at the far end. It is out of date and some of the place names have been changed in recent times but many remain familiar. India, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Latvia, Poland, The Ukraine, Kashmir, Bangladesh. From all of these places people came to work in the mill. They brought their skills in spinning, weaving, dyeing, burling and mending. They brought their hopes and ambitions too; adding their own particular threads to be woven with all the others to make up the fabric of the city of dreams.

Freedom Studios have brought together an exciting and innovative creative team to work on this project. Directors Madani Younis and OmarElerian have worked with a small company of actors to research, recreate and retell some of the hundreds of stories collected in interviews with ex-millworkers. Award winning sound artist Janek Schaefer has created an evocative soundscape pieced together from the noises of machinery, electronics and the ambience of the building itself. He has even built a music-box that plays a melody created by the punched cards that once programmed the looms. Leeds-based light artists Lumen have constructed installations and projections and the production has been designed by Roma Patel.


Local people themselves are involved as a community cast of thirty actors will help to populate the vast open spaces of Drummonds Mill, and a crew of volunteers will help to guide the audience around the building during the performances.