Property: A rare chance to live in Bliss, despite the slump: Andrew Morgan sees a bold mill conversion in the Cotswolds where the prices hark back to the boom era

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The Independent Online
FIRST sight of the Bliss Tweed Mill suggests that a piece of Bradford has been transported to the Cotswolds and left outside Chipping Norton under some form of museum loan scheme.

Chestnut trees and ancient pubs mask it from the high street, but it suddenly looms up on the road to Moreton-in-Marsh, dominating the view with its huge chimney like a steam release for a steak pie. It contradicts the popular image of the Cotswolds, but represents more accurately the area between Oxford and Stratford where weavers made fortunes and exported to the world.

The Grade II-listed mill, the last built in 1872 by the Bliss family, closed in 1980. A barrage of plans was suggested for its future, with the town council keen to avoid having a crumbling monument on its doorstep. Now, to some relief, conversion of the mill for residential use is nearing completion. The 46 flats and houses will be at the luxury end of the market and there will be few takers from Chipping Norton, where affordable housing is a problem.

The site is unusually attractive, with many flats overlooking a common and the higher Cotswold hills in the distance, towards Stow-on-the-Wold. It tempted Edward Mayhew, a London developer, in the mid-Eighties. Much work was carried out, including the renovation of the chimney, releading the dome and cleaning the exterior stone. English Heritage provided substantial grants.

Half of the conversion had been completed when Mayhew's company went into receivership in 1989. The site was bought last year by Andrew Davis, whose Widworthy Leisure paid a knock-down price of pounds 1.5m. He brought in a Brighton-based architect, David Bennett, with whom he has worked for the past 10 years on some notable conversions of Georgian houses.

The development is a bold move in the present slump. Prices start at pounds 140,000 with a pounds 1,500 service charge to pay for leisure facilities. Who is going to pay that for a flat in a country town, with no railway station and a 12-mile drive to the motorway? The same money in north Oxfordshire could buy a house with several bedrooms and a fair plot of land. According to Mr Bennett, serious inquiries have come from Americans and Australians wanting a British base with guaranteed security, and professional people in Oxford, Birmingham and Stratford have also shown interest. He says: 'It's difficult to be specific about who will be interested because it's such an individual building. These places often create their own market.'

He has stuck basically with the inherited layout, but one huge ground-floor flat was split into two. This gives 35 flats, with the biggest on the west side, comprising mostly three bedrooms and huge living-rooms.

Those on the top floor have the original mill beams and cast-iron supports, while a few even have pulley and winching systems. (Most machinery was taken out years ago, some ending up, ironically, in a Devon museum near Mr Davis's estate.) In many areas, where fleeces were once piled high, there are now oak floors, gas central-heating boilers and rather mundane fitted kitchens.

The bigger, west-facing flats have the inescapable feel of Docklands-in-the-country, reflecting those aspirations with a price-tag of pounds 225,000-pounds 250,000. One-bedroom flats will start at pounds 140,000-pounds 150,000, as expensive as the smartest parts of London.

The storeys are joined by the original flagstone staircase, leading people to carpeted landings unimagined in Bliss's time. Elsewhere Mr Bennett has made far bigger changes, with the former warping house now sliced into eight 'cottages' and the lodges turned into three-bedroom houses.

For the pounds 1,500 service charge, there is a leisure centre with a swimming pool, gym and squash court in the old wool house, and tennis courts nearby. The former weaving shed is the garage. Protection is offered by high-security cameras, with residents slotting cards into the main gates.

There will be a porter, grand entrance hall and lifts, creating a privileged complex never before seen in Chipping Norton.

Mr Bennett knows he is facing a tough time. But he says: 'If such a great building is to be preserved, the conversion has to be done in a way to justify the work economically.'

Ron Stares, Chipping Norton's mayor, agrees that the mill's structure suits smaller units for first-time buyers, but better a luxury development, he says, than decay. 'We're pleased that Bliss Mill has been developed sympathetically. From the road it will appear largely as before.'

New residents will provide income for the town, Mr Bennett says. 'That may be of far more benefit to the local economy than any other use of the building.'

Opposite the mill's entrance is a leading Chipping Norton funeral business. Could the bell toll for the Bliss gamble? 'Ask me in a year's time,' Mr Bennett says.

Bliss Mill will be available shortly through John D Wood's London office (071-493 4106), or Oxford (0865 311522).

(Photograph omitted)