“ Beaulieu Drive / Waltham Abbey / Essex EN9 1JY. „
With all of the continuing controversy regarding where lottery money should and has been spent, I can honestly say that this time the lottery funds have been allocated to something worthy. With its 300 years of history and today a beautiful nature reserve, the Royal Gunpowder Mills is an asset that has been open to the public since the mid 90s. As the name suggests it is the site originally used to make gunpowder, which was later used for research. Many of the original buildings have been preserved, while others restored to their original condition. Today the buildings are used to house an extensive collection of guns, war memorabilia and historic documentation of the buildings original use, while the land used to test gunpowder has been left in its derelict state that since research ended became home to many animals and rare plants which remain preserved today. Despite the theme even I as quite a girly girl enjoyed the visit and would whole heartedly recommend others to visit too.
Originally the site is believed to have been used and developed by local Monks (from the Abbey that still remains in the centre of Waltham Abbey) as a mill for cloth production, who used the water of the River Lea which neighbours the site too power the mill. During the early 17th century, the mill is believed to have been converted to produce vegetable oil, before being turned over to gunpowder production by the mid 17th century. As the mill continued to grow, the Deputy Comptroller at the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich (the crowns major gunpowder production mill) voiced his concerns regarding security and felt that the site should be purchased by the crown. In October 1787, he got his wish, and the crown purchased the site and remained the owners for the next 200 years, until 1991 when the site was closed for operations and sold.
During the 200 years that the land was under the ownership of the crown, the sites primary use was for military, with the gunpowder used to fire in guns or for demolition. The gunpowder also had its uses outside of the military, where it would be sold for use in engineering, construction, quarrying and mining. The demand for gunpowder in the 1900s was huge, expanding the staff numbers initially to 3000 staff and then during the years of WW1swelling to 6230. As the war was surging most of the employees at the mill were infact female, most recruited from the local area of Waltham Abbey.
During WW11, the government called for new factories to be opened to produce gunpowder. The staff from Waltham Abbey, were taken to train throughout the UK. In 1943, the mill was closed. By this time the site had developed to include an intricate series of locks and canals, which were used to move gunpowder from the production area to the River Lea.
In 1945, the mill was re-opened, but this time as a research centre where military propellant, explosives and rocket propellants could be developed and tested. The testing was possible due to the expanse of the site, and the canals that had previously been used to move the gunpowder to the River Lea. Concrete testing booths were also erected on the site, along with a series of outbuildings to enable testing to be carried out in a safe area within the grounds, but far enough away from the mass of the main buildings.
The Mill continued as a testing and research centre until 1991, when the doors were closed for the last time and the mill was never to be used again. By 1994, applications were being made to the Heritage Lottery to try to establish funding to enable the buildings to be publicly accessible and for the public to be able to go inside what was previously a secure top secret area of development and research.
By the late 90s the work was complete and with the aid of volunteers the site remains open for the public.
In total there are 21 buildings on site and 175 acres mainly dedicated to a nature reserve, although do not feel overwhelmed by this number as all of them are relatively small, single storey buildings. All of the buildings are within a relatively small distance from each other and form a route through the site, which can be navigated simply through either following the suggested route on a A4 sized visitor map, or through a route of your own choice. The first exhibition is the key to understanding the rest of the exhibition and setting the scene, but as this is part of the entrance, it is unavoidably the first place you will visit. After this the route that you take is really purely down to choice as each building is independent in its exhibition to the next, so its possible to understand each regardless of route.
Many of the exhibitions house guns, uniforms, war memorabilia all of which have been donated to the museum. The remaining exhibitions explain the history of the site through a variety of mediums, including a tiny cinema showing historical films from the period when the gunpowder factory was in use. Lots of the exhibitions surrounding the history of the site are interactive and aimed at communicating the history of the site simply to visitors, with many games and puzzles for children to enjoy.
Besides the exhibitions, there is also a nature trail which navigates through the acres of nature reserve. There is also a land train tour, which is a tiny little bus that travels a specific route through the site complete with guide to point out any significant areas or indeed any wildlife. Its worth going on the bus aswell as wandering around to get a feel for the sites previous usage and to hear about where otters nest, to spot Herons and to use their keen eye and knowledge to ensure that nothing is missed.
To walk around the site completely you need to allow about 3 hours for the round trip, along the route there are other routes which are shorter so that if you do not have the time you can easily get back to where you started!
Most days the volunteer staffs are dressed in military uniform and all of them are very knowledgeable about anything military, and very friendly!
There are plenty of WCs dotted around the site, all of which also have disabled facilities. However, the major downfall has to be the café. Although located in a beautiful old building and quite well priced, the food itself is very basic. There is a small range of sandwiches, a small range of drinks and two or three choices of hot food, each of which appear to run out pretty early into the day. There are however picnic benches throughout the site and plenty of nice spots to put down a blanket throughout the 175-acre site, so the best method is probably to bring your own food and drink.
There is also a shop towards the site exit that has quite an interesting selection of historic books, including as you may expect military books, local history books and books looking into the history of gunpowder. Alongside this there are some lovely homemade jams, honey and biscuits which are worth considering, and of course small gifts for children such as pens, pencils and little toys.
As the whole site operates solely on volunteers, the site is only open at limited times of the year. This year it is open every weekend from 11am till 5pm from April to October (including bank holiday Mondays), but outside of this time period there are also a few special events open. Schools are also allowed to visit on a Wednesday for this period. They are hoping that if visitor numbers increase then they may be able to open for more days during the week.
As the gunpowder factory is within a short distance from junction 26 of the M25 its pretty accessible to most close enough to circumnavigate the motorway. There is plenty of safe parking on the site and also coach parking and bike storage areas. However, via public transport as it is located in a small town, its slightly more tricky. Approximately 1 mile from the nearest overland station, which has trains from London to Stansted, the best option is probably to walk from the station rather than opt for one of the twice an hour buses!. If you do come via train and opt for walking then simply come out of the station (Waltham Cross) and head towards Waltham Abbey. Its one straight road to the museum so its impossible to get lost!
Unfortunately, although the project was funded the running costs of the mills are not, and as such a charge is made for entry. The entry costs provide the funding for basic needs rather than to enable huge profits, so personally I cant begrudge the cost at all. The whole site is run by volunteers, including the shop. As the site is a charity, the tax for the entrance fee can be refunded to the site, but only if you fill in the gift aid form, which is then submitted to the tax office to reclaim the tax. Dont worry too much about remembering about that though, as there are always staff on hand to remind you.
Prices for this year are:
Children £3.25 (Under 5 free)
Family ticket £18.50 (for 2 adults and 3 children)
To be honest, although this does sound expensive, in terms of value for money I dont think its at all bad. The site is huge and besides the buildings that house all of the exhibitions there is a further 175 acres to wander around. So visiting is an all day event. Every weekend there are also shows and events that take place, which can be anything from re-enactment groups to the national Bee Keeping Society! So quite a strange combination of guest exhibitions. On any date which is of national significance to anything military then the extra exhibitions revolve around this.
Personally, I think the Gunpowder Factory has something to appeal to everyone. When there is good weather its a great place to spend some time wandering around outdoors, when the weather is bad there are plenty of things to do inside which will occupy all for a couple of hours. As its quite local to me Ive been back a few times now, but for anyone travelling to it you can see everything you will want to see in one day.
Set in 175 acres of natural parkland and boasting 21 buildings of major historic importance, the site mixes fascinating history, exciting science and beautiful surroundings to produce a magical day out for all. Established in the 17th century and acquired by the Crown in 1787, the Royal Gunpowder Mills has a very important place in both the history of Great Britain and of its home town of Waltham Abbey.