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 Cumbrian water mill that was falling apart with the intention of converting 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 crumbling stone structure, which is next to a stream close to his family’s home. Designated a scheduled monument, 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 it to his partner, Ruth, 31, she fell in love too, and an audacious plan began to take shape. The couple intended to buy the site, though it lacked planning permission, and convert the ruins into an eco-friendly home with an adjoining studio and workshop.

Ruth and Rob met at university in Manchester, where she studied history of art and design and he studied architecture, but they were both keen to leave behind city life and move back to the countryside of their native Cumbria. ‘We looked at a few houses, but we always came back to the mill and our spark of an idea,’ Ruth recalls.

Ruth and Robert outside their Grand Designs Cumbrian mill conversion

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

An early snag

An early snag was that 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.’

They paid for the site by selling Rob’s flat, hoping – unsuccessfully – that the building’s status might attract funding. Instead, they borrowed money from their families, and obtained a mortgage to pay back the loan. The couple worked closely with the local planning authority and Historic England to determine exactly what building work was possible. 

In 2016 Ruth joined Rob’s Ulverston-based architectural practice Tape Design as co-owner, practice manager and creative collaborator. ‘Being a woman in construction isn’t easy,’ she says, ‘but this was my project and there was one chance to get it right, so I just got stuck in – it’s the best way to learn. There was a lot of 3am research, but I had to know my stuff to be taken seriously.’

The couple’s planning application for the Grand Designs cumbrian mill was approved in May 2017 and the site clearance started in early January 2018 with the felling of some rotten trees at an unexpected cost of £11,000. ‘The timber will keep the woodburning stove going for years,’ says Ruth.

They planned to slot a new single-storey architecture studio and workshop, 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 wild, restrictive site demanded a clean-lined and meticulously thought-through building to contrast with the rugged landscape.’

Grand Designs Cumbrian mill next to a stream in Ulverston

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