On the Loose

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How was “lockdown” for you, then? And how have you been handling the strange new world of post-lockdown freedoms? Are you still fearful, like me, that the next person you meet could be the one who ends up killing you?

Since we’ve been permitted to get out again (and, to be honest, for one or two occasions before that), I’ve been ‘rediscovering” the Loose Valley.

Where? Well, if you’re from outside of mid-Kent, you’ve probably never heard of it. After all, its stream is only a minor tributary to the river Medway. The valley is a few miles of countryside, barely a mile as the crow flies from the centre of Maidstone, and it has a deeply rural feel to it. It was not always quite so, however. The Loose stream (the name itself is said to be a corruption of an early word for “clear”) was perfect for the needs of paper-making, and fullers earth, which was essential in the preparation of rags for paper production, was abundant locally. From maybe as early as the 15th century, the Valley was home to a hand-made paper-making industry of great importance, which only came to a final end in the mid-1980’s.

Ten years prior to that closure, I came to know the Valley (as I am want to call it) very well indeed, but have hardly ever been back since then. Why so? Well, we all have compartments in that box we call “The Past” which are marked “Warning! Too many bad memories. Do not revisit”, don’t we? The Loose Valley was an innocent bystander to a very unhappy and troubled time for me back then. I feared returning would remind me of too many bad things that are best kept firmly locked in that box.

My direct connection with the Loose Valley was that I had a thesis to write on how the nascent paper industry got there, what it achieved, and why, at that time, it had almost all come to an end. Unlike large scale industries like quarrying, or mining elsewhere in the UK, paper didn’t scar the Loose Valley. Its stream of pellucid fresh water and cascading gradients allowed a series of mills, small when compared to the later giant mills further on down the River Medway, to develop deep in its heart, over several hundred years. Some started as corn mills. Some ended up as corn mills, but the Loose Valley was a big contributor to helping meet the huge demand for paper, as the world moved from handwritten scripts on vellum, to near-insatiable demand for the raw material that fed the emergence of mechanised printing.

By the end of the 19th Century, the heyday of several of the mills had passed, and a couple more died a lingering death in the early 20th Century. When I first came to know the Valley, buildings or their remains, with their origins and locations dating back quite a few centuries still stood, in varying states of decay or outright ruin, astride the Loose stream and the big mill ponds. With care, if not always with permission, it was possible to explore some of them. In a few cases, there was even enough left to allow one to piece together how the processes on that site may have worked. There were still several water-wheels, in varying states of decay. These had been a driving force for the mills, relatively few of which had ever turned to steam power. Most paper was made by hand until later in the 19th century, and a few mills retained the skills after that, for premium papers. Royalty were numbered amongst their customers. My explorations were the stuff of heady days (and occasional big risks!) over more than two years.

And so, we fast-forward about 45 years, to a very different world. It pleased me when walking there, that the tracks and footpaths through the Valley still followed familiar courses, though I was completely unprepared for just how much quite mature woodland there was where once I remembered mostly scrub. As a result, the Valley seemed far more “hemmed in”. Much of my time spent there before had been in autumn and winter, however, and maybe that has something to do with it. At least the considerable acreage of sheep pasture in its heart seemed unchanged. Such an incongruous sight, so close to a fairly large town, even in Kent.

The place-names were very familiar: Hayle Mill, Ivy Mill, Crisbrook Mill, etc. In many places, the near-random clusters of terraced cottages originally built for mill-workers and allied craftsmen continue to provide small homes. What has changed almost beyond my expectation were the larger buildings – the former mill buildings themselves and their paper-drying stores. Several nowadays would still quite probably stand comparison visually with what was there in, say, the 1880s, were it possible for the modern visitor to gain access to see them, of course.

Several of the millponds have become central to lush gardens to the large houses that have morphed from ruined mill buildings. One still sports its mill wheel. It continues to turn, pretty much as its makers intended.

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But so much of what is new takes the form of impenetrable gates, hedges and fences. One former mill was very recently advertised as being for sale. The agent’s details online showed how much of the interior look and feel had been retained in the modernised, near-million pound house. That’s a lot of money for a house that still gets its water supply from the local springs, though.

I was particularly sad to find how securely the wonderful Ivy Mill and its big pond had been fenced off, not just to keep passers-by from trespassing, but to stop them from even seeing what is there nowadays. The biggest positive impression on me was Hayle Mill, once the largest in the Valley, which has become what I guess you’d call a “housing complex”, albeit one sympathetically created on almost the same footprint of the former mill and its big drying sheds. To the developer’s credit, almost the whole place has been built in authentic-looking white clapperboard, with most of the lines of the original roofscape above.

Hayle was, I think, the last mill to survive in the Valley, finally throwing in the metaphorical towel around 1987. My memories of it are of pretty much from the start of its final decade, when decay and decrepitude had begun to set in. Still being in use back then, it wasn’t a site I ever got to study from within. Above is a photo I found online of conversion work at the mill in 2006, beside which is my recent photo from the same spot.

Needless to say, for the passing photographer nowadays (eg me), getting truly representative photographs that might be compared to contemporary images from the heyday of the mills, is nigh on impossible. Even if I had harboured a dream of producing a set of photos like the black and whites I’d taken around 1974, I can’t, because those shots of mine have long vanished. I loaned them to someone who called himself a “local historian”, along with my final dissertation, many years back, and have not seen them, or him, since.

Photos of the mills from the late 19th century (ie after the invention of photography and while they were at their most numerous) are themselves scarce, in any event. The web has been helpful, however. A local named Phil Turner’s 2013 piece here includes several evocative photos. He references the once well-known local artist Donald Maxwell, who is buried in a churchyard not far from where I live. However, I have had little luck tracing Maxwell’s work in the Loose Valley, and I hadn’t heard of him back when doing my studies – no internet back then, of course.

Alfred Quinton was a fairly prolific watercolourist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (see this) and I have copies of two postcards of paintings he made in the Loose Valley.

Here is his take on what I think is the Ivy Mill pond:

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The other is of what was the workers’ pub, “The Bockingford Arms”. It is still immediately recognisable today, though long converted to a large house. Here’s how they compare:

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My walks in the Valley have helped me exorcise some ghosts, and they become easier to do each time. Writing this has also been a key piece of the healing process. Thanks for your patience with an eccentric choice of subject for the blog this time.

About tomsprints

I am a Masters athlete and freelance photographer living in Kent, in Great Britain. I'm a sprinter. As well as competing, my camera and I work regularly for the British Masters Athletics Federation and the European and World Masters Athletics organisations. For pleasure, I'm (principally) a landscape photographer. I have been blessed with the chance of spending quite a lot of time in the European Alps in the last 30 years. My web site is a vehicle for a my photographic work, and is at http://www.tomphillipsphotos.co.uk I run two blogs. One is about what it's like to be an older athlete ( http://tomsprints.wordpress.com ) and the other is basically about my photography ( https://ablogscape.wordpress.com ), although they often overlap.
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