View of mill buildings with seating and parasols outside

The Cromford Mills Creative Cluster and World Heritage Site Gateway Project, Derbyshire

Finalist for the Best Major Regeneration of a Historic Building or Place award, sponsored by Selectaglaze, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

The Cromford Mills in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales are home to inventor Sir Richard Arkwright’s first mill complex and birthplace of the modern factory system. The ground-breaking restoration of what is known as Building 17 at this UNESCO World Heritage Site has made Sir Richard’s work the focus of international interest, just as during the early Industrial Revolution.

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Industrial heritage

Built in 1771 as part of the mill complex to house new technology invented by Sir Richard Arkwright - the world’s first successful water-powered spinning wheel - by the end of the 20th century the Grade 1 listed Building 17 was dilapidated and dangerous.

For the Arkwright Society, which has been restoring the complex since buying it in 1979, the building’s former existence as a dye works might have ruled against future use. But its members’ passion for industrial heritage would eventually overcome doubts and considerable obstacles to saving a building that played an important part in history.

“The building’s historic use as a dye works had left the area badly contaminated with lead chromate which had seeped in to the very fabric of the building and this had to be removed or contained where possible, to make the building usable,” says Simon Wallwork, current Chief Executive who was involved in the regeneration of the complex.

The vision for Building 17 was to transform it into a northern anchor site for the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site and ensure the visitor centre was sustainable by creating offices for rent on the upper floors.

Transforming the site

With high costs and problems caused by the decontamination of a large building, the project ran into numerous delays before reopening as a complex that now attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year and is self-sustaining. The complex employs more than 100 people and its offices house 45 companies.

“The work undertaken by the project team was ground-breaking and highly successful in bringing back in to use a building which may have otherwise been deemed to have limited use in the future,” says Simon Wallwork. “To see it now fully occupied with people in the Visitor Centre and Arkwright Experience, as well as the available office space fully let, shows how worthwhile the battle to restore it has been.”

Throughout this battle, the Cromford Mills management team and Arkwright Society have counted on the support of 350 members and around 100 volunteers who have led talks and tours of the site, and supported research. Once considered too dilapidated and dangerous to save, Building 17 is now being used productively to enrich the local economy, as well as the lives of local people and visitors.

A waiting list of businesses that want to use the new offices underlines the sustainability of the site and a rise in visits from school parties across the region reflects a surge in interest in its history. The Arkwright Experience shows how the mills have turned full circle; it used CGI technology to let visitors meet the inventor himself whose own technology changed the world.

Why this category?

The regeneration of the Cromford Mills shows how even highly contaminated industrial buildings such as Building 17 can be saved, re-adapted and utilised in the 21st century.

The regeneration of the complex is helping to inspire new generations of children to discover more about the significance of this period in history, in keeping with the aims of the Arkwright Society. The mill complex has been recognised by Historic England as one of the country’s 100 irreplaceable sites, and Professor Brian Cox included it in his list of the UK’s 10 most important scientific sites to visit because of its contribution to science, economy and social history.

Simon Wallwork says: “The really great surprise that has stemmed from the project is the international interest in the Building 17 project and the diversity of people who have been to see the building. We have had visitors from Japan, Brazil, Korea, China, Belgium, Germany, America and many more, all to see what is happening here at Cromford Mills.

“This has helped spread the word about the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site globally and attracted visitors from a broader area nationally. So the worldwide interest Sir Richard Arkwright started nearly 250 years ago in Cromford is being stirred again, as his buildings and story are brought back to life by this project.”