Horsley Mill

Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0PL


As the project grows, the Trust acquires the long-neglected Horsley Mill, trout farm and woodlands. Horsley Mill becomes the centre for Ruskin Mill College

Horsley Mill origins

Horsley Mill was constructed in the early 19th century by the Playnes of Longfords Mill, another local woollen mill. In 1839 Horsley Mill was run by cloth merchants Playne and Smith. By 1879, John Roberts, a flock merchant, occupied the mill.

In 1885, as the textile industry declined, H.W. Jones started to manufacture walking sticks in the mill. In the 1890s, E. Beard and Co. took over and continued production. Many of the disused mills in the area turned to walking stick production and exported them around the world.

In 1910 Surrey Trout Farm purchased Horsley Mill, the mill at Downend and the pond by Millbottom Mill (now Ruskin Mill). The farm changed its name to Midland Fisheries, and continued to farm trout until it went into receivership in 1993. It was purchased by Ruskin Mill Trust along with Horsley Mill and the surrounding
ponds and woodland.

 The mill race, where the water wheel would have been, was lost in 1972, but the rest of the mill building, the small two-storey wing and the 19th-century house remained.

The Midland Fisheries, circa 1900

The Midland Fisheries, 1900s


Horsley Mill was in a significant state of disrepair when purchased, much of it damp and rotten, and the hatchery tanks were still in the basement.

The first phase of the the renovation project was to repair the roof and turn the top floor into residential accommodation. Then the canteen and courtyard, both completed around 1999, became the hub for Ruskin Mill College, providing a warm social space serving wholesome lunches to staff and students.

In 2000, David Austin Associates’ renovation of the mill received a regional RIBA Award (Buildings in a Countryside Setting) for restoring and converting the building to a new use in a sympathetic way.

Work continued on Horsley Mill for the next four years. The lean-to on the east end of the mill was demolished and the hatchery tanks were removed from the basement. By 2003, all fish farm activities had moved out of Horsley Mill. In 2004, further renovations were made to the middle floor. The restoration of Horsley Mill was partly funded through the Learning and Skills Council and Henry Smith Charity.

Local limestone was used in the refurbishment of the mill and courtyard and, where possible, students helped with the work,
in particular with Bank Cottage, the small cottage adjacent to
the mill.

When students are involved in recreating buildings and spaces, they become participants in the project, not just observers. Wherever possible, throughout all the Trust’s renovation projects, students have been invited to contribute to the transformation.

Horsley Mill and fish farm before renovation in 1993.

Horsley Mill and fish farm before renovation in 1993


The Ruskin Mill College curriculum is shaped by the Horsley valley, home to woodlands, a working farm, market gardens and the fish farm. Here our students help to grow and harvest biodynamic food that they prepare and serve in the college canteens, café and households, in a seed-to-table process.

Practical land-based and traditional craft activities include animal husbandry, fish farming, woodland management, horticulture, forge, green woodwork, textiles, catering, drama and art. The workshops make the connection between the material from the valley and craft.

The signature craft for Ruskin Mill College is textiles, building on the heritage of the two mills. Our students have many opportunities to work with fleece. They shear the sheep and collect the wool, then clean and prepare it for the next steps of processing. The weaving and felting students then take the wool to tease and card it ready for spinning. They use the drop spindle or the spinning wheel to turn the fleece into yarn to use for weaving beautiful tapestries, table runners and rugs for households, or knitting.

The felting process turns the fleece into strong felt material for hats, bags, slippers or pictures. Our students are encouraged to make a pair of felt slippers for themselves, creating a personal item of comfort and warmth that they can take into their homes.

Working with textiles creates connection, sequence, order. Our students participate in an experience that is centuries old and inherent in the Stroud valleys.

Student on the pole lathe in a green woodwork session

Student on the pole lathe in a green woodwork session

The Fish Farm

Although it was never the original purpose of the building, Horsley Mill is perhaps best known for the trout farm, one of the oldest trout farms in the United Kingdom. The spring water that made the site suitable for the mills is also perfect for fish due to its high quality and flow rate.

When Ruskin Mill Trust acquired the trout farm, it was still operational but on a very small scale. Water still ran into the basement of the mill building to feed the hatchery tanks. The ponds leaked and many of the fish were not healthy.

The landscape around the mill building changed. Channels were built to feed the ponds and space for trout production was increased. Over the next five years, whilst maintaining a small-scale trout farm, the ponds were completely dug out, reshaped and lined with blue clay and limestone, all done by hand, with students. A new building was constructed with a hatchery and fry tanks and gradually the stocks were increased from the original line of brown trout.

Our students participate in all aspects of breeding, caring for and harvesting the trout that are prepared in the canteen and café.

The Fish Farm at Horsley Mill

The new fish farm building with green roof, completed 2002

The Courtyard

Horsley Mill is the administrative centre of Ruskin Mill College. As the college site is spread over 140 acres, it was important to create a vessel to hold the college community.

The courtyard, incorporating the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), is a paved, social space in front of the mill building. To provide a focus, there is a bread oven that is used to make pizzas for celebrations or to bake the bread students have made.

The carving behind the bread oven is by Andrew Geary, a Ruskin Mill College student who became a master in stonecarving. After completing his apprenticeship, he returned to work on two limestone carvings. One is a Celtic design (pictured) and carved around the edges are tools of the crafts of the college: anvils, axes and bellows. His peers observed his transformation as he carved the limestone panel into a beautiful ornament that welcomes people into the Horsley Mill courtyard.

Andrew Geary with his carving for Horsley Mill courtyard, 2002

Andrew Geary with his carving for Horsley Mill courtyard, 2002

Lamp of Life

In the Lamp of Life, Ruskin talks about a greater appreciation for work that has been completed by hand, laboured over and done with care.

During the renovation of Horsley Mill, the students and staff could observe and participate in the transformation. The detailed work was done with consideration; whether it was the carvings around the courtyard, building the bread oven or transforming the trout ponds, the work was done by hand.

The workshops around the mill building, including the green woodwork shelter, the pottery and the forge, were also built by hand wherever possible. Students experienced the care, labour and love that went into creating their college, even if they were not directly participating in the building work.

“… and if the man’s mind as well as his heart went with the work, all this will be in the right places, and each part will set off the other, and the effect of the whole, as compared with the same design cut by machine or lifeless hand, will be like that of poetry read well and deeply felt to that of the same verses jangled by rote.”


– John Ruskin

Andrew Geary working on a stone carving at Horsley Mill

Andrew Geary with his carving for Horsley Mill courtyard, 2002