Providence Mill - the stunning home created in a Wirksworth tape mill
- Credit: Archant
Penelope Baddeley talks to photographer Lu Jeffery and designer Ralph Selby at their beautiful Derbyshire home
Nestled into the picturesque hillside of Gorsey Bank, within the artistic community of Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District National Park, stands a striking 19th century rectangular stone mill, softly girdled with Virginia creeper. It was once a hive of industry, where workers produced narrow red tape to bind legal documents. But for the last 30 years Providence Mill has been a powerhouse of creative energy and artistic output from two well known characters; photographer Lu Jeffery and designer Ralph Selby. And so inextricably intertwined are the life stories of the occupants and the fabric of the building, it is difficult to separate flesh and blood from the bricks and mortar.
However, the attractive period property was initially an unlikely backdrop against which two fascinating careers and lives have played out. ‘When we bought the mill it was derelict, in a terrible condition,’ said Ralph, a three-dimensional designer who has had commissions from clients as diverse as Saudi Arabian princes and Boots the Chemist.
‘We had to decide issues such as where to put the staircase and the front door! There were no ceilings and there was a stream running under the building and we did not know where it went!’ adds Lu, an actress-turned-photographer whose work is regularly featured in a multitude of national magazines. But the pair had a clear vision for their beloved building, which was to launch Lu’s career in a new direction and to make possible a new and highly successful career for Ralph, who had recently resigned from his job as head of Foundation Arts at Derby College of Art.
The mill comprises four floors each measuring an impressive 1,600 square feet so there was plenty of space, not only to create a luxurious home, but stunning individualised workplaces, all on one site. The pair loved how the immense building was flooded with light throughout the day, as the sun travelled round the mill, peeping through its 74 windows, each panelled with no less than 25 steel-framed panes. And they valued the mill’s stunning setting with its varied views, across countryside yet close to the thriving and historic market town of Wirksworth.
Ralph aged 75, said: ‘It’s a little gem. It’s difficult to think of anywhere else that’s like it. It’s such a lively little town, with a great number of different kinds of people living here.’ A Loughborough-based architect, Keith Hamilton, designed the rooms in line with Lu and Ralph’s vision and the builders moved in for 22 long weeks, working through a snowy winter season.
Floors were re-made and re-laid throughout the vast entirety of the mill, using recycled 3/4inch Canadian maple planks, which the pair had bought from the defunct John Player cigarette factory in Nottingham.
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Lu said: ‘We were here every day.’ Ralph added: ‘We couldn’t stay away.’ Significantly the first room to be finished was a dark room, which had to be light-tight for Lu to develop stills of actors performing in plays at Derby Playhouse – one of her first
major jobs. As their home took shape Lu recorded the progress on her camera and after several years of renovation and restoration there finally emerged a well-finished, spacious, light and luxurious home/work space: with a well equipped workshop across the
ground floor; a studio across the first floor; living accommodation throughout the second floor; and a large office on the third floor.
Said Lu: ‘It was totally important to design it for our work because we totally live for our work.’ Ralph added: ‘The whole thing fitted together brilliantly as a home and as a work space. This is something that was and still is surprisingly difficult to find. The place really fits us like a glove.’
If the couple changed the building, the building also changed the couple. It pointed Lu in a new career direction. She had been working as a photographer for theatres and the BBC, producing stills of actors in TV dramas for publications including the Radio Times. Now she decided to approach Traditional Homes magazine with a photographic narrative of the development of her mill.
‘The rest is history!’ says Lu. Today she specialises in photographing homes and gardens and to date has been published in over 500 magazines. Her stairwell provides a testament to her talent, forming a gallery of front covers for glossies such as Homes and Gardens. ‘It’s a lovely job,’ says the 64 year-old, who worked as an actress for an alternative theatre company in London and in repertory theatre in Newcastle, before training in photography at Derby College of Art, where she met Ralph.
‘You meet interesting people and get to go all over their houses. But I do really have to get on my bike to find the houses. It’s no use sitting at home in my pretty party dress waiting for the phone to ring!’
Lu first goes out to take ‘reccie’ shots and sends them to commissioning magazine editors, where she thinks the house will ‘fit’. If commissioned she then returns to take beautifully crafted finished photographs.
‘You need a good eye and aim to record the atmospheic story of the house. You are not just taking a record but “making photographs”.’
She adds: ‘It’s worked incredibly well for me, working from here. We almost moved nearer to London but I was born in Sudbury near Ashbourne and I know people here. I have contacts and this helps because people have to trust you to let you into their houses and to look all over their homes.’
Providence Mill has also been providential to Ralph. The building has attracted interest and visits from influential commissioning design groups from London, which helped Ralp’s ‘three dimensional problem solving design business’ thrive. He has designed and created everything from mechanisms for Halfords and every kind of interior display for Boots the Chemist.
On a striking circular table, handcrafted by Ralph, is displayed a collection of beautifully crafted board games, with pieces made from gold and precious hardwoods designed and made by Ralph for Middle Eastern royalty. Then there’s a set of dominoes handcrafted in rare African black wood and boxed in Macassar ebony, commissioned by the Commercial Bank of Kuwait.
‘Ralph has made extraordinary things, all of them to a very high standard, and they have all been made from here!’ exclaims Lu.
Four countless years this unusual and original designer produced Christmas cards for 600 friends and clients, engineered from materials as diverse as steel, rubber, brush, Perspex and wood – just some of the materials with which Ralph has worked during the course of his career. ‘He’s terribly well-known for his Christmas cards, each of them were sent out in a little drum but we had to stop sending them because of the change in postage costs!’ explained Lu.
The nerve centre of this creative design diversity is focused on the ground floor workshop, from where Ralph has also designed many components of the house itself, from deep Corian kitchen work surfaces, to designer bath panels, making the couple self-sufficient.
‘This part of the house is what has made everything we have possible,’ explained Ralph, who is at home amongst a forest of sanding and saw machinery, computerised lathes and drills and a gamut of traditional tools.
The couple love to ‘hang out’ and entertain friends in the large lounge, where a wood burning stove takes pride of place and the lovely deep recessed windows and original cast-iron roof support pillars (made by the Derby company who created the pillars in St Pancras Station) form the architectural focus.
But Ralph’s design signature informs the room, with his large, circular beautifully veneered tables. ‘We believe in round tables,’ he says. ‘They are very sociable.’ Even the solid Leaderflush Shapland doors are individualised with Ralph’s designer Perspex handles – an overspill from a commission to create transparent handles, with invisible workings, to be fitted to glass doors on luxury yachts.
‘We have very individual things in the house, because Ralph has made them,’ says Lu. ‘We haven’t just gone out and bought them at the shops.’ The personalities of the pair have been imprinted into the very fabric of the building, so it comes as something of an emotional wrench for the couple to have decided that after 30 years it is time for them to move on. ‘This house has been brilliant for us in so many different ways. It’s a luxurious space we have created ourselves, so it has taken some time for us to admit that we need to downsize a bit,’ says Lu.
The pair, with characteristic artistic bravura, are planning a brand new project in their much loved Wirksworth. Lu said: ‘We are going to design and build a new house, so we are not falling off the branch of the tree yet. We are carrying on and being very brave at our age.’
Providence Mill is currently for sale with Caudwell & Co. Tel: 01629 810018 or visit www.caudwellandco.com