Artist Babak Ganjei writes, 'It's the 3 am likes that often mean the most.' I hope that Hayley felt that. I think I waited to slide into her DM's at around 5 am—no way to run a business, pestering people on a Friday morning of the Jubilee Weekend. But there you go, Hayley's photographs of her Mill just took me. I had to ask her before someone else got the bright idea. Her home is my ideal, and the story to go with it was the chef's kiss. I always find myself erring on the side of jealousy when looking at these marvellous homes, but you do have to shake yourself and remember that it is marvellous people who put these homes back together or in Hayley's & Leo's case, bring it to life. Enjoy!
As a child, I moved house a lot, sometimes twice a year, following my mum as she searched for decaying houses that she could move us into. She was obsessed with finding weird and wonderful homes; without any budget, she would transform them—a true 90's DIY maverick. My summers consisted of being stuffed into the back of an achingly full Fiat Panda, driving the length and breadth of France while she disappeared into cavernous French barns. All I wanted to do was go to Centre Parcs with my nan and watch Coronation Street. At one point, we lived in a static caravan for a year while my mum turned a un assuming 70's bungalow into an entirely pink rendered Santa Fe Adobe. I had moved ten times before I was 12, so part of me has always been looking for somewhere to put my roots down, and I have now finally found that place.
It was entirely by chance that Leo and I, two kids in tow, ended up at the Mill on the outskirts of Abergavenny. We had sold our home just before lockdown and had ended up at a holiday park near Plymouth, thinking, what the hell do we do now? We had a tip-off that a house was coming up for rent in Wales; the rest is history. A few weeks later, we arrived with everything we owned at a house I had never seen and a place I had never lived, to start our new life in Wales. We have never looked back. We brought the Mill in Jan 2021 after the owners decided to sell and promised we'd try our best to do right by her.
Leo and I had often talked about how we would love to run a small family business that would involve us hosting people at our home, offering food and growing produce, and finally, it looked like we had found that place.
The Mill consists of two properties, a listed 17thC corn mill with four ginormous water wheels, millstones, and machinery. Next door is a late Georgian property where we currently live. Both sit on the banks of the River Gavenny, which, depending on the weather, ambles quietly or, after a good storm, becomes quite the torrent and has us eyeing up the sandbags.
Little Mill is one-half of the historic corn mill, and we swiftly realised on entering we had bitten off more than we could chew. We had no budget left, and we were beginning to realise the work she needed. To say we were naive would be an understatement. The only answer was to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. So between taking turns doing bedtime and countless dark winter mornings, we set about building bathroom walls, installing kitchen cabinets, stripping beams and learning to lime plaster. Of course, there were elements that we needed help with, but I can honestly say it feels like somewhere that we have poured our hearts and souls (and sanity) into.
We were lucky that Little Mill still had a lot of its historical character. A lot of that is down to the fact that the building only became inhabited in the 90's when the previous owners ( Welsh Folk musicians) took on the derelict Mill. Before, it had been owned by the NHS to supply cornflower for the huge Victorian asylum looming on the hill close by.
We had no previous experience with a listed home, let alone one with four massive water wheels. We knew we wanted minimal intervention and decided to make honest repairs and cherish its eccentricity. We haven't replaced the patchwork of floorboards because that is part of its history. Nor have we tried to smooth over the centuries-old horse hair plaster. If we could patch it, we would, but we have mainly tried to keep her as she was meant to be.
I found it hard to figure out how you could marry new kitchens and bathrooms into a property that was a) never a home and b) over 400 years old. The Italians always seem to get it spot on... I didn't want the house to feel like a historical reenactment, but I also didn't want it to feel like we had brought in too much of the 21st C either. It's a tough thing to get right, and in parts, I think we have succeeded, and in others, I think there will always be room for improvement.
Little Mill is not a property you can over fuss with interiors. Trust me, I have tired. Our approach has been pared back in terms of furniture, and we have been lucky to use Leo's paintings (www.leobruno.com) to furnish and give a sense of home. We tried to embrace the mills' history while not making it feel like a museum.
I took huge inspiration for colours and understanding of the property's past from St Fagans museum near Cardiff. I can't explain how much joy it gives me to travel back in time through their incredible work salvaging historical buildings. If you ever get the opportunity to go, do it!
Little Mill has not been an easy renovation, but it has taught us so much. It's been an incredible opportunity to work with a building with so many hidden secrets and often terrifying surprises. It has been part joy/ part impending heart attack. I would like to think we could now take a break and work our 9/5 jobs, but there is the sister part to Little Mill, which we are now going to start this year, and Leo is working on setting up his art studio so that we can host residencies for local and international artists. I don't see us sleeping or not being covered in paint for a good while to come.