Bombay Sapphire Visitor Centre, Laverstoke
We set off on a wet morning and, with slow progress in the Leicester traffic and a diversion from the M1, arrived unavoidably late in the little town of Whitchurch, Hampshire; a place of narrow streets. It was here we witnessed the impressive skills of Richard, our driver, as he took us through the town to our destination just down the road: Bombay Sapphire’s Gin Mill in the village of Laverstoke. A relief to be there and have a fine industrial renewal and development to behold.
The village and nearby Freefolk were designated as one conservation area in 1990 by the local planning authority, Basingstoke and Deane BC.
(Laverstoke derives its name from the Old English ‘lafercestoc’—lark dependant farm. In Old English, Freefolk means just that.)
In the 18C the Portal family came to the Whitchurch area; their business being paper manufacture, including notes for the Bank of England. They acquired the lease of the Laverstoke Mill in 1724 and later, their business flourishing, purchased the Laverstoke estate. Both villages are related in their development to their situation along the River Test, their mills, with horizontal wheels, were there at the time of the Doomsday survey. With these mills, farming was and remains the significant influence on the area. The river Test forms a key natural asset for the villages and, surrounding Laverstoke, is the Laverstoke Park Grade II Registered Garden. The Test here is an SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
With the success of paper manufacture further industrial buildings were added to the site of the Mill from the 1850s onwards. It became a cramped jumbled complex over the years, including buildings over the river Test. Paper making came to an end in 1963. Use for differing purposes followed but the factory became vacant in 2005. The site includes three Grade II listed buildings; the Mill House, the block of mill cottages in flint with red brick dressings and behind these a taller range of buildings, again flint and red brick. The planning authority adopted a conservation area appraisal as planning guidance for Laverstoke and Freefolk in 2003 and seven years later, with the Mill vacant, English Heritage’s Research Dept. produced a comprehensive Historic Buildings Report, a document running to nearly 100 pages.
Any scheme here was going to be a serious heritage matter indeed. There had been speculation in 2009 for housing purposes, with a scheme for conversions of factory buildings to form 28 houses and 24 apartments plus 20 new houses; it was approved but not taken up.
The following year along came a godsend with Bombay Sapphire Gin’s interest in the site and a godsend with a bonus in their commissioning of Thomas Heatherwick to prepare a master plan for its redevelopment. Throughout, his Studio were to work closely with English Heritage and Natural England.
Bombay Sapphire were not only seeking to establish their own distillery – they had been sharing in Warrington – they wished to create a place where the public would to be able to see their processing and manufacture. ‘’We wanted a place with tons of history and character worthy of the brand’’, to quote their estate manager speaking to the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. (I’m sure members of ADG would conclude that they have succeeded, not least, perhaps, after sampling one of their cocktails!)
To quote Heatherwick himself in his ‘Making’, Thames and Hudson, 2012, ‘How could a jumbled site make sense to a visitor? He and his team have successfully answered that. There has been careful demolition to open up the river, plant the foreshores, allow views into the surrounding countryside and make better spaces. Neatly paved areas have been created between the saved buildings and these latter cleaned up.
The tour is enhanced by leading the visitor through the production process: the cultivation and preparation of the ‘botanicals’ through which alcohol vapour is passed and then distilled. The firm uses ten botanicals, more than other producers. Throughout, energy efficiency has been a prominent consideration and on completion it received a BREEAM ‘Outstanding Award’ (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)
The gem in the whole renewal design are the two intertwined new glasshouses, which demonstrate the growth of the plants providing the botanicals. One glasshouse creates a humid zone for tropical specimens, the other a dry and temperate atmosphere for Mediterranean plants. The design of these glasshouses is inspired; they are a structural masterpiece.
They sit above the river and are shaped as botanical glasshouses. Their structural ribbing, its members bringing heat to the glasshouses, ‘bursts’ from of the adjacent distillation hall, each rib then spreading into the desired shape to form the new buildings. No less than 893 individual shaped glass pieces enclose twin enchanting environments; everything made even more delightful by the river Test around and beneath.
The tour goes on, taking the visitor to experience the botanicals first hand by a system of savouring their scents. Using the ‘interactive guide’ given to visitors, you are able to record your favourites by punching an ‘aroma card’ and, presenting this at the Mill Bar, be served a cocktail which meets your particular taste. After the aroma rating, on past the distilling apparatus, which we see from two levels, and in this we have the benefit of an expert guide.
With a busy time at the Mill Bar it was not always possible to identify just which of the ten cocktails available you had selected by your preferences among the ten aromas. For most of us, disregarding taste, perhaps ‘Sublime Moment’ would have been appropriate.