Geoffrey Foster reports on how Shipton Mill survived in the exclusive world of flour making.
It looks as if the back-to-nature movement has run its course, for the time being anyway. A decade or so ago the British countryside - particularly in those remoter regions where land was comparatively cheap - seemed in danger from refugees fleeing the 20th century. Every other tumbledown cottage contained a community of townies hopelessly striving for self-sufficiency on a half acre of ground. The entrance to every lane sprouted a home-made (and probably illegal) signpost announcing "Pottery 100 yards", "Hand-woven textiles" or "Baskets for sale". Many of these brave ventures have since disappeared, although here and there one continues to provide a precarious, and almost certainly penurious, livelihood. Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire is among the more convincing survivors.
Like the rural potteries and weaving sheds, Shipton Mill was founded (or rather refounded, since there was a mill thereabouts before the Domesday Book) on idealistic notions about ancient crafts and traditional ways of life. Yet at several points Shipton Mill departs from the townsman's master plan. It is, for a start, unusually self-effacing. "Our profile is very, very low," says the miller, John Lister, and he does not exaggerate, for the place is quite difficult to find. A rough track leaves the road between the small towns of Malmesbury and Tetbury on the edge of the Cotswolds, but there is not even a hand-painted sign to show where it leads. A bumpy one third of a mile supplies the answer. Beside a stream at the foot of the hill stands a handsome Victorian flour mill. It is stone built, of three storeys, with a timber-frame wing set at a right angle at one end. It looks in good repair and, although there is nobody much about, gives off a faint hum of machinery.
The noise suggests one cause of the mill's survival. Lister has invested considerable sums in modern equipment. He has also learned, despite the self-effacement (for which he has his reasons, as will appear) to appreciate and apply many of the principles of marketing. And he has absorbed a fact of business life which few of the new rural craftsmen ever manage to grasp, and that is the fundamental importance of growth. In short, Shipton Mill has survived because its owner came to terms with commercial realities. But for several years its future as a working mill hung in the balance.
When Lister discovered Shipton Mill 10 years ago its working life had already come to an end at least once. The then semi-derelict structure had been providing the local coffin maker with living space and a workshop. However, it was available, and Lister was able to buy it on raising £25,000 by way of a mortgage. He must have been under some pressure to do so, since he had already acquired a quantity of machinery from a defunct mill at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, which was in urgent need of a home. This bizarre back-to-front way of conducting affairs demands an explanation.
Lister had not, needless to say, set out to be a miller. He is by training a biologist, and in the late 1970s he was engaged on a research project in the rain forests of Venezuela. However, he had reservations about the purpose of the research, which would have benefited a mighty multinational (ICI was also funding the project); and he was further disenchanted by the realisation that the forest Indians, whose native remedies he was studying, wanted nothing better than to join the modern world as quickly as possible. So he came away from South America and gave up palliatives in favour of paint brushes.
Back in London, Lister teamed up with an old acquaintance whom he had known since his schooldays. Jonathan Colchester had started an interior decorating firm a couple of years earlier, while still at Oxford, and although offered a job by one of the City's leading merchant banks had elected to remain his own master. Lister persuaded him - according to Colchester - to turn the firm into a "co-operative", and five young men put up a round £10,000 to get the scheme off the ground. Lister's contribution took the form of his milling equipment. However, it had been agreed that the activities of the enterprise would not be confined to painting and decorating.
"We were going to change the world," recalls Colchester. The co-operative would spin off other businesses which would not only give employment but also would introduce the children of urban squalor to a new and better life. (In the event the mill was the only new venture and its 15 employees all belong to the vicinity.)