Penwortham Mill is half demolished, a process that began in 2005 and has not been completed. Its derelict waste ground is out of bounds. However, on occasion, its fences are damaged or knocked down, providing the opportunity to pay more than a passing visit.
Over the past couple of years, the mill has been exerting an increasing pull on me. Initially drawn by the majesty of its broken façade, empty solitude and commanding reflection in the waters of the Lodge, I have spent time with it on location, and learning its history.
The mill was built in 1785 by the cotton lord, John Watson. It was steam powered and used primarily for spinning cotton. After Watson went bankrupt it was passed on through a number of hands until Vernon’s took it over for the manufacture of surgical lint during the First World War. This use continued until 2005.
As I step into its grounds between piles of rubble; broken stone, bricks, tiles and piping it is still possible to catch a glimpse of its red painted floor, across which spinning mules rolled throughout the long shifts, piecers hurried fixing threads, knock kneed children swept beneath the machines and masters barked their orders.
As the mill decays, nature edges in. Buddleia thrives in every corner. Herb Robert, burnished bronze in this sun trap, climbs bricks and walls. Sow thistles, spear thistles and ragwort break through concrete and reign atop the rubble. Rosemary bay willow herb and purple toadflax flourish. A stray tom cat darts from the vegetation.
Between the brightness of flowers and dankness of mould, sharpness of wreckage and green slanting leaves, the wild fay play. In a butterfly’s wheeling glance and behind the bees it is possible to perceive their surreptitious presence and song.
What is happening? What is becoming of me? I am addressed by the part-consciousness of the mill, half standing, half ghost, the voice of walls there and not there and people who lost a part of themselves in their labour.
It does not only speak within my mind, but somehow through my body. It wants to take me into itself, make my flesh and bone one with its brick and cement, show me what it is experiencing. For a moment I am walls, flesh captured in brick, vanished ceiling unable to look down into the shadow of memory.
I flee back to the brightness of day and peal of flowers.
I am left with the question of how to comprehend the death of a mill, how to explain it?