It’s an historic building that has stood in the heart of Bishop’s Waltham for more than 100 years – but now its future is in jeopardy.
The five-storey Abbey Mill was intended to be part of a development of a Sainsbury’s store, but since the supermarket chain scrapped its plans earlier this year, the site has stood empty.
It has gradually deteriorated and is now a sorry state, with the land around it boarded off.
But all hope is not lost as the parish council is looking at the building and sizing up its potential for community use.
A four-week consultation has been launched by the council, asking residents what they would like to see done with the site, which was once a thriving hub of flour manufacturing.
Local historian Trish Simpson-Davis is encouraging people to have their say so that the council can be ready to proceed if the opportunity arises.
She says: ‘If the community does get a chance to take over part of the site then I’d like the community to be able to say “yes, this is what we want” and “yes, we can do it”.
‘It’s better to get in the position before than to miss the chance.’
The Abbey Mill was built more than 120 years ago and employed more than 300 Bishop’s Waltham residents at its height.
The site was at the centre of controversy for more than two years as campaigners argued about whether a large Sainsbury’s store should be allowed to go ahead.
Some argued that the chain would have a negative impact on the town’s historic high street and could sound the death knell for the town’s independent traders.
The town was divided, as many residents wanted to see the supermarket open (it also promised a new doctor’s surgery). But the plans fell flat in November last year when Sainsbury’s said it would not be proceeding in light of the company’s profits being hit by discount supermarkets.
Now, nearly 10 months later, nothing has happened.
‘It’s the ghost of Sainsbury’s hanging over Bishop’s Waltham,’ says Tony Kippenberger, chairman of the Bishop’s Waltham Society.
‘The mill is in desperate need of saving, protecting and repairing. It is part of the town’s heritage.
‘In the long process of the Sainsbury’s application, it has been left boarded up and the tiles are falling off and it is deteriorating week by week.
‘Anything that can be done to save it is good and finding out what the people of Bishop’s Waltham would like it to be used for if the chance came up for community ownership is a step in the right direction.’
Sainsbury’s is trying to sell the land, possibly to a housing developer. But Trish says the land is unsuitable for housing as it is a flood plain and plans to build houses there in the past have floundered.
This is why she says people need to take an interest in turning it into a building for community use before it disappears for good.
‘It is an historical site,’ she says. ‘And it’s a very difficult site to sell. Its first few owners all went bust over it.’
The site’s caretaker Bill Tier, who has worked at the mill on and off since 1947, says he would like to see action taken.
Bill, 84, says: ‘I don’t like to see it as it is now. It is time that something was done to bring it up again.
‘It was a decent place in its time. There was a lot of dust and dirt about the place but we had a very good time there.
‘It has been empty and derelict for eight years and all the weather has taken its toll and parts of the building have gone. Now the pigeons have got in there, it is in a dilapidated state.
‘I would like to see it built up again and used.’
He says he’d like the site to go back to being used for employment, rather than fall into the hands of a developer.
‘There’s so much that could be done there,’ he says.
The public consultation on the future of the Abbey Mill runs until September 30.
A paper survey will be delivered to every household, with the opportunity to respond online, asking for general views about retaining or demolishing the Abbey Mill.
Trish says: ‘Congratulations to Bishop’s Waltham Parish Council on grasping the nettle so decisively: the Abbey Mill building is in a neglected state and needs urgent attention. Public consultation is the logical first step.’