Doing Up the Mill (Part 5)

Dutch elm disease, a fungal illness spread by a bark beetle, first made its appearance in a mild form the UK back in the 1920s. A more virulent strain emerged in the late 1960s, thought to have been brought to Britain with a shipment of logs from North America. By the mid 1970s millions of elm trees had died across the south of England transforming the rural landscape and slowly spreading northwards.

Reconstruction map of the DED epidemic: a) 1963 b) 1967 c) 1971 d) Mid 70s e) Late 70s

By the time we were starting to fit out the Mill in the mid 1980’s the Dutch Elm epidemic had reached parts of Lancashire and there were stands of dead mature elms that were being cut down and burnt by woodland owners and local authorities across the north of England. While the disease killed the tree it didn’t have any effect on the timber and often what was being burnt were perfectly good hardwood elm logs.

In the past elm timber was valued for its tight interlocking grain and resistance to splitting. Historically it was used in the construction of wagon wheel hubs, chair seats and coffins. The often long, straight, trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction. And during the Middle Ages elm was used to make longbows if yew was unavailable.

Peter Goffin, who had left PIC with Laura, Leigh & Simon in 1980, was involved in setting up a furniture making co-op in Liverpool and had negotiated with the City Council to get some of the elm timber that was been cleared out of the city’s parks. Pete then managed to get it sawn and kiln dried down in the docks somewhere. He suggested that we could use some in the renovation of the Mill.

English elm timber grain patterns

The wonderful thing about English elm is the variety of grain pattern and colour that you can get. Sometimes even within a single tree trunk. We decided this was a great opportunity to source some beautiful native hardwood for a reasonable price and in a pretty environmentally friendly way.

Our machine was an older version of something like this.

There was one large open room in the mill, known as ‘the Square Room’, that still had a solid floor when we bought it and consequently got used in the years before we moved in as a storeroom, party space, jumble sale collection point, rayburn renovation workshop….. In order to use the elm we set it up as a joinery workshop with a old combination multi purpose saw cum planer. I’m not clear where it came from – did we borrow it from Pete or did we buy it? Maybe we did both. We were also lent a crosscut saw and mortice machine by Simon Wilson at some point in exchange for a bit of use of our workshop.

None of us would have called ourselves joiners, let alone cabinet makers. I would probably have said I was a jobbing site carpenter, Kate might have seen herself as a ‘Chippys mate’ and the rest of us had competent DIY skills. (See: But that didn’t stop us deciding that, with a little help from Pete (and later Simon), we would build our own main four storey staircase, external doors and kitchen unit doors out of elm.

We also got enough boards machined into tongue and grooved flooring to be able to lay a hardwood elm floor in the main kitchen/ dining area and on the stair half landings. Not sure if Pete arranged for that or we did it through Walter Lambert & Sons ‘old-school’ timber yard in Nelson.

Elm floor boards

It definitely stretched my/our woodworking skills doing this. But the finished product was worth it. When it was all finished we were accused of deserting our hippy roots and going all “Good Housekeeping posh” – So it must have been pretty good.

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