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A morning at Gayle Mill craft centre in the Yorkshire Dales

This week, the Craft Courses team are based in Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a renovation job for Harm, and a great opportunity for us to get to know some of the people running craft courses across the Dales. 

Gayle Mill, based in a tiny village just outside Hawes, has been open since 1784, and through the decades has been a flax mill, a cotton mill and is now a sawmill. 

Set on the picturesque gushing beck, the  factory-cum-heritage centre is powered by three water turbines. One from 1879  drives the belts that run the lathes, band saw and planer in the wood workshop upstairs. Gayle Mill even generates electricity  that goes back into the national grid. But perhaps this is not surprising considering that at one time the mill’s generators and batteries powered the whole town. 

“This new-fangled thing called electricity came in and the Mill owner at the time put it to good use lighting his house. Pretty soon the whole town were upgrading from candles too!” says Mike Thomson, Gayle Mill Director.

What is surprising is the fact that the Mill is run as both a business and a charity. They still make and sell chairs, troughs, feeders, benches and gates. They also run guided tours, educational outreach programmes and of course, craft courses. 

Funded by the Yorkshire Dales LEADER Programme, the craft courses on offer at Gayle Mill are designed to encourage Dales people to undertake craft skills training. This is an attempt to curb the rapid loss of skills the area has experienced in recent decades. 

“Within living memory every man around here would have known how to build and fix a dry stone wall. Sadly, only very few people now have these skills.” says Samantha Belcher, who coordinates the educational programme at Gayle Mill. 

“When I teach the knitting class, I ask the children if they can knit and they say no. I ask if their Mums can knit and they say no. But when I ask if their Grans can knit they say yes! So it only takes one generation for the skills to be lost entirely.”

Samantha is not alone in feeling strongly about this. One of the most astonishing things about Gayle Mill is that the whole operation has virtually non existent salary costs, as it is run entirely by a large team of volunteers. The board of directors, who number among them engineers, woodworkers, financiers and famers are unpaid too. 

As a Director, Mike Thomson is involved in several aspects of the Mill operations. In between fulfilling the Mill’s orders (he is making a very sturdy looking gate when I arrive), he conducts interested groups of tourists around. He is clearly passionate about the Mill and grins at our delighted faces as he demonstrates the quiet efficiency of the belt powered lathe. 

The workshops on offer are diverse and cover book binding, basket weaving and milk-stool making courses as well as the chance for keen woodworkers to spend a weekend in the beautifully maintained antique wood workshop. 

The craft courses are making a bigger impact on the financial planning of the Mill this year. They are a strand of the business that both pays for itself and brings new people in. 

Having spent a whole morning at the Mill, we can thoroughly recommend it. The setting is delightful, the tutors and staff friendly and helpful and the results of high quality. 

With its checkered and entrepreneurial past, there has no doubt been periods when trouble at t’mill has threatened its very existence. But having met the team, it seems to me that this place will keep going as long as that water comes gushing down the mountain.

 

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