Visit to Whitchurch Silk Mill and the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill – 23rd February 2016

Our (very full) coach left Grayshott on a cold but fine day and took us first to Whitchurch to see the oldest working silk mill in the country, still in its original building.The mill, picturesquely situated on the River Test, is Georgian although the silk weaving machinery is Victorian.

We began with a tour of the mill, seeing how silk threads of all sorts are made from the very fine cocoons of the silk moth and wound on to bobbins. Setting up a loom, to weave from silk, can involve intricately threading as many as 10,000 separate threads in different patterns, requiring extraordinary patience and dexterity. Our guides showed us and let us handle, beautiful examples of the many different types of silk. The mill accepts a wide range of commissions and has produced fabrics for National Trust Houses and BBC period drama productions.

After an excellent lunch and a browse in the mill’s shop, we travelled the short distance up the Test Valley to Laverstoke, where there has been a mill for more than a thousand years. For nearly 250 years, until 1963, it made paper and for much of that time it supplied paper for Bank of England notes. After a period of disuse, the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery bought it in 2010 and engaged the designer Thomas Heatherwick to conserve, restore and convert it. His iconic glasshouses for the botanical elements that go into the gin are now juxtaposed with the restored Georgian and Victorian architecture. The whole scene being enhanced by the river setting.

Our guides were knowledgeable, with a good sense of humour. We learned the history of the mill and the gin distillery, especially the unique vapour infusion distillation process when we viewed ‘Thomas’ and ‘Mary’ the two beautiful working copper gin stills. Today the majority of the gin is made in larger modern equipment. We heard about the wide range opf ‘botanical elements’ that go int the gin  and had the opportunity to see and smell these herbs and spices.

Heatherwick’s two glasshouses, one tropical and one mediterranean, showcasing the plants, proved the highlight of our tour. Their shape cleverly reflects the gin making equipment. At all stages attention is given to sustainability and recycling – nothing is wasted.Our tour finished with the opportunity to sample a gin cocktail of our choice and time to browse, once again in a mill shop, for a suitable reminder of a most entertaining and varied day.