Last Wednesday (26th January 2021) the council’s planning committee threw historic West Lodge a lifeline. The local parish council had applied to change the use from residential to community use and can now investigate ways of giving this building a useful and secure future.
It was a significant decision because the Council had been trying to sell West Lodge, a move that could have led to its demolition. Councillor John Redpath (R4GV) took over the heritage portfolio in December and has tried a different approach. With experience of setting up the Spike Heritage Centre at St Luke’s he has recognised the need to remove obstacles to finding a solution to West Lodge’s future.
West Lodge is the last remaining complete building at the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills scheduled monument and woodland walk. The mills are historically important as a major private factory that supplied gunpowder to Cromwell’s armies in the Civil Wars through to Kitchener’s armies in the First World War. However, West Lodge was not scheduled along with the rest of the site as it was being used as residence for council staff. In recent years it has decayed and its future has looked doubtful.
In 2018 the Conservative council executive decided the only viable way forward was to sell West Lodge. The local parish council tried to step in but the Borough Council felt obliged to profit from any deal. The parish council was required to legally commit itself to full restoration of West Lodge and pay a “fair rent” after 20 years. Such terms, however reasonable, were impossible for the tiny St Martha’s parish council, the smallest in the borough with an annual budget of a few thousand pounds.
It looked like that was the end of the story but circumstances changed. First, the market testing proved that it was impossible to sell West Lodge for residential use. Substantial change would be needed that was hampered by its connection to a scheduled monument and its Grade II listing.
However, the biggest change was at Guildford Borough Council itself in the 2019 elections. This R4GV/Liberal Democrat council decided to adopt a flexible approach giving the local parish council the chance to find solutions without taking on risky commitments.
Councillor Redpath (R4GV) who has been leading negotiations with St Martha Parish Council has a natural sympathy through his successes at the Spike. We are lucky to have a Councillor for Heritage who can bring practical experience to the role.
I hope we have turned a corner. It is significant that this council, faced with the biggest financial dilemma in a generation is still able to make exceptions (particularly when it costs it practically nothing to be helpful). Perhaps it is because in R4GV we have a party whose primary aim (as the name suggests) is to serve Guildford without the restrictions and wider philosophies imposed by connection to a national political party.
On Wednesday the vote was unanimous. Even Councillor Spooner, freed from the political complexities of council leadership felt able to express his support. His personal interest in the Gunpowder Mills was demonstrated when he organised an official visit to the site for the visiting Mayor of Freiburg.
But this is also the start of a long journey for St Martha Parish Council, Chilwoth2Gether and the Surrey Industrial History Group who have championed West Lodge over the years. They may no longer see an axe hanging over West Lodge but the clock is ticking and some kind of solution must be found. There are hopes that West Lodge can be turned into an education centre exploring the history of the site and the environmental features in the woodland walk.
There is a lot of potential. West Lodge is a significant feature of the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills woodland walk. Standing at the entrance it could welcome visitors and help them orientate themselves. The woodland walk contains an intriguing and yet confusing set of ruins so it needs interpretation. West Lodge is the place where workers clocked in and handed over items that were a fire risk in return for tokens now at Guildford Museum. So it is a very relatable place with a story to tell.
As a scheduled monument the mills are of national importance for several reasons. They were one of the most important private gunpowder works in the country. Their story spans the history of the British Empire and they provide a unique archaeological survival of this type of factory. They provided gunpowder to armies from the time of English Civil War right through to the First World War. They have a history that was complexed and controversial, local and international. They provided dangerous work to locals, fuelled the industrial revolution, supported armies defending Britain from Napoleon and armed soldiers colonising and subjugating Africa. Who knows where powder manufactured in Guildford ended up?
In the last few years, the importance of heritage in forging our identity has been highlighted by national commemorations. We have seen celebrations of Women Suffrage highlighting the role of women factory workers in World War I. We have seen international commemorations of the sacrifices in World War I and the Black Lives Matter campaigns have highlighted the need to see our past in all its contexts. The Chilworth Gunpowder Mills contain stories that are relevant all of these and could be an important educational tool as well as valuable place to take a stroll. In addition, as a nature reserve they are a great place to learn about our natural environment.
My hope is that people with experience and creativity will come forward and will be able to work together to give West Lodge the future in the community.