One of the highlights of my fun weekend with Felix was a trip to Cold Harbour Mill. I am writing at greater length about what a fantastic place it is to visit in a feature I am producing for Rowan (look out for it in 2009, folks!). But there is one point about just why Cold Harbour is so great that I wanted to make here. While researching and editing this book several years ago, I became very interested in the policies and practices of transforming British history into publicly-accessible ‘heritage’. Cold Harbour is a sterling example of just how well this can be done without fuss, without pretension, and in a way, it seems to me, that rather admirably swims against the tide.

(Steaming-Up at Cold Harbour)

This transformation of history into heritage is particularly interesting where industrial processes, or particular commodities are concerned. Taking whisky as an example (and in complete contrast to what’s going on at Cold Harbour), here in Edinburgh we boast the five-star visitor attraction known as the Scotch Whisky Experience. Let me start by saying that I have experienced the “experience” twice, that I really learned a lot, and that I also had a great time on both occasions. But the rather bizarre assumption of the ‘experience’ is that people somehow want the same kind of thing out of history as they do out of the rides at Blackpool pleasure beach. . . .

(history. heritage. rollercoaster.)

Whisky is obviously a highly sensory thing, but does it have to involve one’s whole body? Clearly so, for at the Scotch Whisky Experience, you have to physically get into a barrel (mysteriously equipped with wheels and multi-lingual audio) before travelling back in time. This booze-fuelled ghost train then trundles through several Scottish centuries, complete with kilt-clad waxwork highlanders, the sound of pipes, and migraine-inducing malty aromas, until the historic journey of whisky concludes in a mock-up pub. A holographic ghost then appears behind the bar to reveal to you the secrets of the spirit-safe, and the intricacies of blending a branded malt. Finally, you are deposited in a well-stocked commercial outlet where you can buy a reasonable range of whiskies, a dizzying assortment of gifts with a tartan theme, or an obligatory box of flavoured fudge.

(Wha Hae)

The whisky experience usefully fills a hole: tourists come to Edinburgh, they are naturally interested in our national drink, and there are unfortunately no distilleries conveniently situated on the Royal Mile for them to visit. And while most distilleries offer tours, they are usually a little more concerned with brand identity than national history. So many of what I regard as the shortcomings of the ‘experience’ concern the simple fact that it occurs in a space that has absolutely nothing to do with the production of whisky. But I am also frankly bewildered by the assumption that for the public to engage with history in any meaningful way at all, they have to berloody smell it. And it’s not even the ‘real’ smell, but the smell at one remove: not the earthy scent of the maltings but a careful chemical imitation; not the dung heap of history, but the fantasy of that dung heap.

But at Cold Harbour they are keeping it real. There is no need for imaginary gimmicks: this is a working mill that has been right here in this Devon valley since 1799. It’s history is written through the fabric of it’s buildings, through the landscape in which it sits, and through the textiles it still produces. You can really see the nineteenth-century shifts in industrial power from water through steam to electricity. You can get to grips with just what it was about the worsted process that lent British woolen products such international renown. You don’t need to clamber into a woolsack, travel back in time, or smell any fake sheep shit. You don’t need the heritage fantasy because what there is here is exciting enough: a wonderfully preserved location, carefully restored machinery, engaged and knowlegable staff, thoughtful and accurate self-presentation, and everywhere a commitment to education, to public history, and to the future of the mill. I’m someone whose job it is to think about the way the past is represented, and I was deeply impressed by everything I saw. And the fact that great businesses like John Arbon’s are now thriving at Cold Harbour is evidence of it’s straightforward and successful combination of old and new.

So go to Cold Harbour. I guarantee you will think differently about the history of British woolen textiles after being there. And yes, you can buy their worsted-processed yarn. And yes, it is really fabulous stuff.

(70% alpaca, 30%bfl)

6 thoughts on “Cold Harbour Mill

  1. that place looks fantastic! I can’t wait to go! Have you ever been to the welsh woolen museum It is amazing- a group of the kind of enthusiastic and diligent old men who restore steam trains are restoring the old machinery and making blankets and flannel, and are very excited to show people. The textile gallery has 19th century woolen patchwork. Next door is a fully working mill with an emporium of woolen fabric including blanket fabric by the metre, which they sew on a 1930s singer blanket stitcher in the shop. sorry for over- long comment.


  2. Cold Harbour Mill looks really interesting – i went years ago to New Lanark mill and thought that it was a very well laid out working museum – i haven’t been in years but i do visit their website and buy their wool which is very good and exceptionally reasonably priced



  3. There must have been something about sensory stimulation in Marketing 101 a few years ago. There’s a string of clothes shops in Austraia, Rivers, and the ‘brand’ (hate that term) is all about hard-working, country origins. Hard for a chain but it tries. When you walk into a Rivers store, you are immediately assailed by the smell of a sheep’s fleece. And that lanolin/shearing shed smell lingers long. Not pleasant.
    (Hi there! I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now. Wonderful!)


  4. Yes, what is it with these artificial smells? It’s as if having been able to concoct them there is a need to use them everywhere. Take a trip to Great Missenden to the Roald Dahl Museum and while the museum is fantastic – and a really creative place for children – you are assailed by an artificial chocolate smell (celebrating Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) which reminds me of those cookie franchises you get a mainline train stations and covered shopping malls. Sometimes smell is an important part of an attraction and is what people associate with a particular place – Port Sunlight and soap or Bournville and chocolate (although I can testify to just how nausea inducing a trip to Cadbury’s World can be!). We recently lost a local cooking oil factory around here and I am wondering if one day the local heritage lobby will create ‘Pura World’ with a smell which some of us will forever associate with being on the Docklands Light Railway platform at Canning Town.


  5. Heritage experiences are a strange beast – in Ireland I went to a woollen mill which was just a glorified shop of tat rather than anything informative or interesting and have heard not great things about the Guiness experience in Dublin. Cold Harbour mill sounds really interesting and will add it to my list of places to go in Devon when I’m next there.


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