UK: Fairy tale factories. (2 of 3)

UK: Fairy tale factories. (2 of 3) - Greater integration of living and working was behind the decision of woodturners Randall and Juli Marr to establish their company, Magdalene House Designs, in a beautifully detailed village church at Langthorne in Nor

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Greater integration of living and working was behind the decision of woodturners Randall and Juli Marr to establish their company, Magdalene House Designs, in a beautifully detailed village church at Langthorne in North Yorkshire.

The church was built in 1887 by the Vicar of Crakehall, an eminent photographer of his day, to counter the establishment of a rival Methodist chapel in the village. The vicar spent £3,000 on the building - a fortune in those days. "He over-built it," says Juli Marr, "with fabulous windows, thick walls and tiled floors."

When the Marrs purchased the building in half an acre of land for £8,800 in 1985 - it had been empty since 1979 - it was in pristine condition. Juli Marr says: "We could have held a service in it that day. There were pews, choir books, vestments, kneelers. They only needed dusting."

The sanctuary and vestuary - half the total space - became a workshop. Upstairs was converted into office, bedroom and bathroom. The RDC helped obtain planning permission and provided a £9,000 lathe. The biggest headache was lack of light so the Marrs reroofed the entire building to put in seven skylights. Areas have not been boxed off: plastic partition sheets are used to stop the spread of dust throughout the rest of the building.

The name of the church, St Mary Magdelene, inspired the name of the craft-based business which employs five people, manufactures wooden gardening equipment, lamp bases and giftware, and sells to Liberty and Harrods as well as overseas. "It's a lovely environment to work in," says Juli Marr. "We can all have our lunch outside when the weather's good; it doesn't get too hot or cold; local people are pleased we've saved the building and created jobs; and the open space of the church is ideal to position machine tools. More churches should be used this way."

Some old buildings show their age more than others, however. When Michael Ayling, managing director of Hertfordshire company Lemsford Mill Controls, bought an historic mill near Welwyn Garden City in 1979, it took him two years to get planning permission for light industrial use and a further two years to complete a total architectural refurbishment.

Lemsford Mill is a picturesque spot where folklore has it that the writer of the Victorian music hall song "Nellie Dean" saw the mystical figure of Nellie. Ayling, whose company manufactures electromagnetic control panels for commercial refrigeration and has a £1 million turnover, appointed architect Aldington Craig and Collinge to carry out an award-winning renovation. He recalls the refurbishment period as stressful. "We never realised how much it would ultimately cost, but you become committed and press on."

It has proved worthwhile, though. "Employees get used to it and take it for granted but visitors like to come out to Lemsford Mill," says Ayling. "I took the view that a conventional industrial building was not as good an investment as this. Someone will always want a building like this." The question is whether, as British manufacturing continues to decline, they will want it for factory use. Or will it, like so many others, eventually become another heritage centre with tearoom and gift shop attached?

(Jeremy Myerson is a freelance journalist specialising in design and management issues.)

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