Willsbridge Mill: volunteers keep the magic alive

December 18 2020

LONGWELL Green’s hidden gem, Willsbridge Mill and nature reserve, has big plans for a 2021 comeback after being hit hard by 2020’s restrictions.

Concealed off Willsbridge Hill, the mill was built in 1712 in what was the ancient Kingswood Forest, extending all the way from the River Severn to Lansdown.

Originally an iron mill, then a grain mill, the building fell into disrepair in the 1960s following devastating floods around Kingswood, Hanham and Keynsham.

It is now owned by South Gloucestershire Council. From the 1980s the council leased the mill as an education centre to Avon Wildlife Trust, who still look after the nature reserve valley surrounding the mill.

Since 2014 the main mill buildings and barn have been maintained and regenerated by Willsbridge Mill Community Refresh (WMCR), a not-for-profit voluntary group made up  of seven core volunteers as well as around a dozen others who help with projects.

Despite 2020’s Covid restrictions, the volunteers still managed to run a range of events and carry out improvements to the site.

A fairy trail around the woods was set up, ending at a decorated fairy grotto. More than 300 people attended the opening weekend of the trail in August and the mill sold out of activity packs and fairy wings.

In October a pumpkin hunt through the nature reserve was organised. The sold-out event attracted more than 200 visitors and included enchanted music and lights, as well as a big pumpkin display in the mill.

In October a pumpkin hunt through the nature reserve was organised

But many of the events that would have brought in much-needed revenue for the mill were unable to go ahead.

Mother’s Day afternoon teas, arts and cultural days, a duck race and Santa’s grotto were all put on ice until 2021. Even the outdoor forest school, launched in October for toddlers and pre-schoolers, only managed a few taster sessions before the second lockdown hit and it was forced to temporarily close.

More bad news came when more than 30 trees in the nature reserve were found to be suffering from ash dieback, a fungal disease that meant they needed to be felled. They will be replaced with a wider variety of trees to attract a bigger range of wildlife WMCR chair Frank Ward, a computer teacher at Wellsway School, said they have launched a GoFundMe page to try to raise £10k from the community to support its work. He is appealing for more volunteers, such as gardeners, to give up a little time to help maintain the mill and its grounds.

He said: “We’ve actually had more visitors than ever to the nature reserve. During the first lockdown lots of people came for exercise and many of them have carried on coming regularly now they’ve discovered it.

“But we have suffered a lot financially. We’d just finished refurbishing the café when the first lockdown started so we’ve yet to show that to people. We made a little revenue from a takeaway service once that was allowed but nothing like what we’d normally make.”

Luckily £10k from the Heritage Lottery Fund has paid to make Covid improvements to the site, including building an outdoor shelter for the café. A further £10k from the government Culture Recovery Fund will
be put towards turning the mill building into a proper museum.

Willsbridge Mill

Plans already under way for the coming year include deepening the existing pond, which often dries out in summer, to make a year-round wildlife garden suitable for pond dipping and spotting insects, amphibians and mammals. Four of the existing mini ponds in old baths, a favourite with Willsbridge Mill’s youngest visitors, will be kept and a new rockery and bog garden will be added. The project is due for completion by spring 2021.

Regular forest school sessions will resume as soon as it’s safe and permitted to do so and it’s hoped these can be offered for school visits too.

Frank said: “We’d like not just local children to be able to benefit from the mill, but also children who are at inner-city schools and perhaps don’t get much opportunity to interact with nature.

“We also want to get started on the jewel in the crown of the site, which is the mill. There are some old displays but we want to create modern, interactive displays that really tell the story about the mill.

“We’d also love to add subtle QR codes around the nature trail and valley. People could scan the code with their phone and see a picture of what that exact spot looked like 50 years ago, or find out more about an interesting tree.”

A gift shop, events space and much-needed new windows for the mill building are also on the agenda for 2021.

Longer term, WMCR wants a car park closer to the mill buildings to make it easier for wheelchair and buggy users to visit. The current car park in Long Beach Road is 500m from the mill and is muddy and poorly lit in winter.

Frank said: “We’ve got a lot that we’d like to do here but the most important thing for us is to tell people that Willsbridge Mill is a fantastic place to come with the family to get near to nature. It’s a gem and we love it!”