When the Industrial Revolution took off, the north-west of England was a major engine for progress. In particular, the cotton textile industry drove the development of the factory system that changed lives and society for ever.
Today, it’s still possible to see that dynamic and fascinating time in action. At Styal Country Park, the story of cotton’s rise to dominance is played out in an astonishing ‘live’ museum complex. It’s a wonderful day out for families, with lots of hands-on opportunities, themes and trails to entertain and educate children in the midst of a gloriously wooded valley in the Cheshire green belt.
It details a time when this unassuming corner became host to a most progressive industrial enterprise. In 1784, Irish businessman Samuel Greg built a cotton mill beside the River Bollin, 12 miles south of Manchester. He was something of a benevolent entrepreneur and philanthropist. Greg formulated a system that, while still by today’s standards a tortuous regime, offered his workers education, housing and better conditions. This became a model for social entrepreneurs, such as Robert Owen.
Quarry Bank Mill and the heart of the rural village of Styal remained an industrial centre until the 1950s.
Hide and seek
The mill itself, a stunning red-brick complex, is hidden in the depths of the Bollin’s serpentine gorge and only becomes visible at the last moment when its chimney and striking bays of small-paned windows appear below the woods. This sylvan setting disguises a series of soughs, leats and ponds that harnessed the Bollin’s waters to drive an immense waterwheel, which in turn powered the many floors of cotton spinning and weaving machinery – a steam engine was introduced later.
You could spend hours wandering round the complex, marvelling at the intriguing machinery, captivated by the live demonstrations of processing cotton and discovering the complex history of the industry laid out in galleries throughout.
It’s a sobering thought to realise that, in places such as Madurai in southern India, workers toil on exactly the same sorts of machinery in similarly challenging conditions today.
Greg’s empire stretched beyond the mill walls. The workers lived in the local village; Greg took over Styal’s farms and cottages and built more, creating an industrial community where housing, education, religion and health all came under his influence.
It’s a pleasant walk from the mill across fields to the picturesque and well-preserved old village. It’s still a working settlement, too, with some of the houses lived in by current and former workers at the mill.
Between mill and village stands the Apprentice House, where Greg offered some of the street-children of Manchester the chance for a better life. Today, children can experience life in the Apprentice House, hosted by costumed guides who recreate those times.
Kids love exploring the remarkable garden restored at Greg’s own house beside the mill, where they can look for insects and plants. And should the fancy take you, there are wonderful walks along the wildlife-rich, wooded valley of the Bollin, past relics and beneath marvellous specimen trees planted by generations
of the Greg family.
HOW TO GET THERE
Styal is 1½ miles north of Wilmslow town centre via the B5166, following the brown road signs. A daily 200 bus service links Wilmslow to Styal.
FIND OUT MORE
Quarry Bank Mill
On-site eatery specialising in homely, locally sourced food.