The Roads family visits Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire
Doctor Who's Tardis aside, a visit to Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, is the best method of travelling back in time. A stone's throw from Manchester Airport, the former cotton mill is now owned and managed by the National Trust and is one of the best preserved factory colonies in the world.

The man responsible for the complex was one Samuel Greg, born in Belfast in 1758. The company specialised in "putting-out", the practice of distributing raw materials to home-based cotton spinners, for later collection and sale. But Greg, along with other entrepreneurs of his time, wanted to produce the goods more efficiently and at greater profit to himself.

So, in 1784, convinced that the fast-flowing River Bollin would give him the water power that he needed, Greg started construction of a four- storey mill. A little later, he built an apprentice house for child labourers indentured from the workhouses, a mansion for his family, and made improvements and additions to the nearby agricultural village of Styal, to provide housing for his workers. The mill was later extended, not only by Samuel Greg, but also by his descendants, who continued making cotton until 1959.

The mill now houses an impressive museum where the story of the cotton industry is told via a series of hands-on displays, reconstructions and live demonstrations by attendants in period costume.

The visitors

Barbara Roads, a primary school teacher went to Quarry Bank Mill with her husband, Jim, a librarian, daughter, Emily, 16, and her sister, Janet Marsden, a freelance writer.

Janet: Coming from an industrial part of West Yorkshire, my primary school history lessons were dominated by accounts of the effects of the Industrial Revolution and tales of the Luddites. That part of British social history is particularly well documented at Quarry Bank Mill. I especially liked the photographs in the Mill Workers' World exhibition. When you stand eyeball-to-eyeball with one of the millwrights who looked after the water wheel and see the pathetically small metal cups in which he and his fellow workers collected their wages, you start to get a feel for the way they lived - and laboured.

Emily: I have to do a project on Quarry Bank Mill as part of my GCSE course in history, so I went to suss the place out in advance of a school trip. I liked the Apprentice House the best. The lady in costume who took us round told us a lot of interesting things - like the fact that Samuel Greg preferred girl workers to boys because they were less trouble, but that he didn't like red-heads because he thought they were the devil's children.

I did find it difficult to believe that up to 90 children at any one time lived together in the house. The bedroom was really small for that number and I couldn't imagine sleeping there in the winter without any heating or electricity and on lumpy, straw-filled mattresses.

Jim: The story of cotton starts on the upper floors and you work your way downwards from there, ending up in the weaving sheds where the finished product comes off the machines. Although there was a notice warning visitors not to stay in there too long because of the excessive noise, I soon found myself mesmerised by the process.

Despite the clattering of the looms, you are also aware of a low rumbling beneath your feet, which comes from the 24-feet diameter water wheel directly below. Up until my visit to Quarry Bank, I'd only ever seen a picturesque wooden water wheel at a flour mill. This was altogether different. Luckily, you can get to see it at close quarters, via a viewing platform in the wheel pit.

Barbara: I found myself homing in on all aspects of mill life as it would have affected the children. When you're standing next to the spinning mules in operation, you can see for yourself how dangerous the work must have been for the small children who used to follow the moving carriages, twisting together broken threads and crouching under the machines to clean them.

The deal

Quarry Bank Mill (01625 527468) Location: Follow the signs from Junction 5 of the M56 or from Wilmslow town centre.

Winter opening times: 11am-5pm. Closed Mondays. Tours of Apprentice House are at half-hourly intervals and start at 11.30am

Entrance (mill and apprentice museum): adults, pounds 4.50; concessions/children, pounds 3.20; family ticket, pounds l0 (2 adults, 2 children). Wheelchair users and one carer are admitted free of charge, as are National Trust members.

Access: There is limited access for wheelchair users - hence free admission. Free buggy park with back packs available to carry babies and toddlers.

Catering facilities: The Mill Kitchen has self-service meals, hot drinks, home-made cakes and salad bar. The Pantry offers drinks and sweets only.

Toilets: Centrally located. Facilities for disabled. Parent and baby room.

Education: The Education Resource Centre caters for school parties with tailor-made courses to suit requirements. Education packs are available, such as one on Victorian Britain at Key Stage 2, together with resources for older children, studying at GCSE level.

Forthcoming attractions: The Great Plum Pudding Mystery Trail: 7, 8 and 14, 15 December.

Janet Marsden