UK: No more trouble 't mill. (3 of 3)

UK: No more trouble 't mill. (3 of 3) - Just up the canal, across a delicate bridge over the calm, fish-stocked water, Leonard Gibson also enjoys his surroundings. And his address: No 1 Wigan Pier, England. "That's all you need write," he says. "Anything

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Just up the canal, across a delicate bridge over the calm, fish-stocked water, Leonard Gibson also enjoys his surroundings. And his address: No 1 Wigan Pier, England. "That's all you need write," he says. "Anything will find its way here with that address. Just think what some people would pay for an address like that and a building like this." The building is one of the older pieces of Lancashire's industrial heritage - the terminal warehouse for the old Wigan and Liverpool canal built in 1777.

The HQ of Gibson's estate agency perches above the two dark tunnels where narrowboats moor. He proudly describes the £500,000 restoration his firm carried out in 1983. "We used lead instead of Flashbind on the roof and they reopened the original quarry for this building at Parbold. Not just the same quarry but the same seam of stone. That's where our lintels came from. Here, look at these pictures. That's what No 1 used to look like." A series of photos of sagging walls and broken windows show the transformation and the old air of irretrievable decay which put many other businessmen off.

Gibson's interest was crucial for Wigan council, which was pushing for the restoration of the old pier in the early 1980s but needed the magic of private sector involvement to get Government grants. "It opened the pockets of Michael Heseltine, the Environment Secretary at the time," says Gibson. His own restoration received £100,000 in grants, and on completion he had no trouble getting a tenant - Abbey Life - for the vacant ground floor.

While Gibson sits above his canal, proudly recalling that containerisation was invented in this building (the Wigan canal pioneered huge crates which were lifted by a hoist between barges and horsedrays), Lancashire councils are now wholly behind the rescue and re-use of their industrial heritage. Wigan has transformed itself into a clean, bright tourist centre (with a spine of industry) through skilful exploitation of George Orwell and George Formby's jokes. David Ebden, in Oldham's marketing department, says frankly: "The whole policy here of wanting to get rid of the old mills has been completely reversed. Wherever possible, conversion now takes place."

The council is even prepared to take on local hostility when a mill's revival faces opposition from people in nearby homes. One problem with re-use, on a par with the forests of space-restricting pillars, is that many mills are surrounded by the terraced streets where their workforce used to live. The snug houses have got used to the welcome silence and cleanliness since the looms stopped. Their owners are alert to any return.

Rome Mill, in recent years re-used by Crown Wallcoverings but now facing an uncertain future, is a typical case. The owner, according to Oldham, wants to pull it down and use the land for redevelopment. But planning permission has been refused. Although the mill is not listed, the council values its huge, characteristic sprawl and wants to find a new user. Attempts are being made to reassure potential clients that old is beautiful and sympathetic to modern needs. Ferranti's Cairo is pointed out as a quiet and clean operation, where the mill's age has no effect on the rigorous anti-dust provisions required for the manufacture of tiny computer parts.

"We are still under some pressure to demolish mills which don't fall into our employment zones," says Ian Fell of Oldham planning department. "And there can be problems fitting in some modern industries which don't want multi-storey premises." One way to solve that problem has been shown in Royton, where slot machine manufacturer Coin Control has taken over another of the town's mills, sliced off the top three floors and replaced them with a striking modern roof.

The recession offers bargains in this colourful, historic field. Oldham currently has six mills on the market, offering roughly a million sq ft of office, industrial or other-use space. Conservationists, meanwhile, are looking for any entrepreneur who can think of a profitable re-use for the one feature of the mills which they have not been able to safeguard: the chimneys. Immensely characteristic of the old textile days, when Oldham and Wigan were spiky with hundreds of stacks, these defy even the enthusiasts of Ferranti. Cairo's huge chimney came down in 1970 - demolished course by course by two men with a sledgehammer, the only practicable way in an area dense with thriving industry and housing.

Observation towers? Experimental chambers? An answer is still needed for what Marcus Binney, the chairman of Save Britain's Heritage, describes with wonderful accuracy as "the church steeples of the textile towns".

(Martin Wainwright is Northern Correspondent of The Guardian.)

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