Merton Abbey Mills Developments


For those who don't know, Merton Abbey Mills is an idyllic riverside craft village, just down the road in Colliers Wood running along side the river Wandle.

Merton Abbey Mills offers a variety of markets on the weekend including craft stalls, a farmers market with free range eggs, organic meat, cheeses, savoury and sweet pies and more, there are also food stalls and a great selection of shops with an endless choice of goods from books and prints to herbs and pottery.

Merton Abbey Mills was formerly the home of the Liberty Print Works. The Liberty site, a collection of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings encompassing over two centuries of industrial history was sold by Liberties in 1977. It then stood empty and neglected for vandals and fly-tippers.

The Wandle Industrial Museum was formed in 1983 by local people interested in saving the site and its buildings from further dereliction. The aim was to turn it into a working museum reflecting the varied history of the whole River Wandle.

Initially the Wandle Industrial Museum team consisted of researchers funded by the Manpower Services Commission and headed by a voluntary management committee. The team produced comprehensive proposals for use of the buildings on site and mounted their first exhibition at Eagle House, Mitcham 1984.The proposals were well received by the Greater London Council and negotiations were proceeding for the GLC to purchase the site when the Government (of the day) announced plans to abolish the Council and froze all Council spending.

This brought this proposal to a dead stop but the site was purchased by the Savacentre Group as part of a major redevelopment scheme and the rest as they say is history. As the birth of the Wandle Industrial Museum was conceived at Merton Abbey Mills it was only the next logical step to record and publish this remarkable history.

The starting point to publish is to create a storyline and a mock-up of the proposed title The next step is to establish a printing run, costs and a timetable for the project. We approached Merton Libraries to support this project for printing costs and we were to fund all the research and production costs. We later obtained sponsorship from Tramlink to include their travel map. We decided to go for an initial 2000 copy print run and share the copies with London Borough of Merton. With future sales this was designed as a self financing project.

The painstaking research was appropriately undertaken by founder member Kevin Leyden who was acquainted already with the site and had carried out local studies along the river as a Merton Primary school teacher. The original script was checked by Eric Montague, Bill Rudd and Judith Goodman of Merton Historical Society to ensure accuracy. We then checked it in- house with our archivist Marguerite Lee-Deslisle who helped select the best photographs and artwork.

The final step is to take it to the printer. We took it to Merton Print and they project managed the whole process with the D&P Bureau carrying out all the typesetting and origination. They produced proof copies which we circulated to Monty and was proof read by Merton Historical's Editorial committee as well as the Author, the Archivist, Merton Libraries and Merton Abbey Mills. Our final act was to obtain a bar code, an ISBN which identifies one title, or edition of a title, and is unique to that title or edition. The best part is the launch which was kindly carried out by The Mayor of Merton Cllr Ian Munn on the 23rd November 2000, sponsored by Merton Abbey.

As those of you who still visit the market will know, the development continues apace. The Hotel and Virgin Sports centre are almost open, many of the apartments in that complex overlooking Bennetts ditch are in occupation, and some parts of the site are beginning to have that 'occupied' look.

Much work is still to be done, and, as these picture show, Merton Abbey Mills as a site has been much dragged down by these buildings, architecturally, financially and in ambience.

There are reports that the footfall within the market has reduced by 80%, and there can be no doubt that a combination of traffic jams created by the new junction, and the parking problems within the site, have exacerbated this.

It has to be said that I am now torn in my feelings. With the current slowdown in property prices, there must be doubt about the success of the overall scheme. Hating the unsympathetic architecture as I do, and the lack of any element in the overall planning of the development to acknowledge that one of the most important historic sites in England ever existed here, apart from the ransom payment forced on the developer under the s106 agreement, part of me would like to see the development fail commercially. This would force developers and planners alike to listen more closely to specialist and public opinion, and redefine 'sustainability' as the long term future of a site and its place in our heritage, rather than the immediate profit to the developer as it currently stands, and allow us to say 'we told you so'.

However, the one real chance for the market's survival would be a re-invigoration triggered by a the large influx of young flat owners with money to spend, and no commitments other than their mortgages. This requires the success of the development, and its associated commercial enterprises.

If we link this to a more sympathetic redevelopment of the Savacentre site in the relatively near future to a smaller, more human, layout (as currently suggested in the local newspapers) Merton Abbey Mills may yet have the future it deserves. I live in hope.

Every week visible progress towards the completion of the development at Merton Abbey Mills is apparent. The images here show that the new KFC, adjoining the now open burger restaurant, is almost ready to open, and, in the background, the new residential block reaching the heights of the completed hotel and Leisure Complex buildings.

On a more positive note, late in October, Visionworks, who are advising the Priory Trust on possible implantations of the proposed Priory Heritage Centre at Merton Abbey Mills, arranged for a group of trust representatives (John Hawks, Steve Llewellyn, Lone Levay and Dave Saxby) to visit the Coventry Phoenix initiative.

They were met there by George Demidowicz, the Coventry City council conservation officer, whose energy has enabled the great success of that scheme - parts of an article by him appear below. The whole of the Coventry scheme cost some 40,000,000, of which the Visitor Centre took about 1,000,000. That sum is within our reach here, with the 300,000 of funding from Countryside properties secured by LBM, and the proposed Heritage Lottery fund applications.

There are essential differences we have yet to overcome, most particularly in the running costs. Coventry is well funded, so the Cathedral project there is able to provide free entry and, as part of a much larger complex of attractions, as well as its city centre site, is guaranteed a good turnover of visitors.

The proposed site for our heritage Centre remains the area under the electricity pylon - and it is difficult to see how such a site could be anything but temporary, but we shall see.

I am the website administrator of the Wandle industrial museum (http://www.wandle.org). Established in 1983 by local people determined to ensure that the history of the valley was no longer neglected but enhanced awareness its heritage for the use and benefits of the community.

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