Grand Designs Lakeland mill house

Rebuilding a crumbling Cumbrian mill

Converting this historically important water mill was tougher than expected

By Jayne Dowle | 6 October 2021

When Ruth Grimshaw and Rob Glass took on a crumbling Cumbrian water mill, they had intended to convert it. But conserving this Scheduled Monument, which features in the new Grand Designs TV series, turned into a much bigger project than planned.

Rob, 35, had long been fascinated by the 200-year-old stone structure, which is next to a stream near his family’s home near Ulverston in Cumbria. It was first a water mill, then a blacking mill making charcoal dust for iron forges, and eventually a pigsty, before falling into disrepair for 60 years.

When Rob showed the ruin to his partner, Ruth, 31, she fell in love with it too, and an audacious plan for a Grand Designs Cumbrian mill took shape. The couple intended to buy the site, though it lacked planning permission, and convert the building’s remains into an eco-friendly home and workshop/office.

Ruth and Robert outside their Grand Designs Cumbrian mill conversion

Rob and Ruth with one of their 16 pet ducks. Photo: Andy Haslam

Initially though, the plot wasn’t for sale: ‘We asked the owner if he’d consider selling it in January 2015,’ says Rob. ‘After agreeing a price of £110,000 and giving ourselves two years to gain planning permission, we set about trying to make the project happen.’

Working closely with the local planning authority and Historic England, the couple, who run Ulverston-based architectural practice, Tape Design, planned to slot a new single-storey workshop and architecture studio, plus a two-storey four-bedroom home, inside the tumbledown walls.

‘A simple timber frame would be set within the old mill,’ explains Rob. ‘The restrictive and wild site demanded a clean-lined and meticulously thought-through building to contrast with the landscape.’

Grand Designs Cumbrian mill next to a stream in Ulverston

The house sits in a deep gully by a brook. Photo: Andy Haslam

The planning application was approved in May 2017 and the site clearance started in early January 2018. But four months into the project, the couple’s plan suffered a huge blow when Historic England deemed that the original structure, save for one gable end, was unsafe and must be demolished. Rob and Ruth’s idea was itself in ruins.

Although devastated, the couple took a pragmatic approach. ‘There has always been, and always will be, a narrative and opinion on how far the conservation of historic sites should go,’ says Ruth. ‘In our case, the building had been left to decay for 70 years and was structurally unsound with no real foundations.’

Inside the Grand Designs Cumbrian mill with red steel ceiling beam, log burner and huge picture window

Rob and Ruth cite Paul Smith and Grayson Perry as inspiration for the painted structural beams. Photo: Andy Haslam

So how did the couple go about demolishing and rebuilding the Grand Designs Cumbrian Mill? Tune in to the new TV series on Channel 4 at 9pm, Wednesday 6 October 2021 to find out…