We love to discover new and exciting places across Yorkshire for you to visit on your holiday. We started hearing of At The Mill through friends telling us of this magical place for events and their scrumptious cakes in the pop up cafe. When we visited for ourselves we were enchanted by the setting and couldn’t wait to visit again for a performance!
We asked one of the owners, Abbi, to tell us a little bit more about what makes this such a special place to visit in Yorkshire and how they went about creating the magic.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your journey to At The Mill?
As a family we bought Stillington Mill six years ago, and the intention was always that we’d move somewhere that could be a home and had the potential to be a family business. My parents both retired from busy jobs as Headteachers and wanted a ‘project’! They didn’t fancy a nice quiet retirement and had, and continue to have, such incredible vision for how The Mill can be a unique and special venue. Their eye for design and how to create magical spaces is incredibly inspiring and then when you sit that next to my brothers creativity as a theatre writer, producer and director it seems to be a winning combination! It is an incredible site, steeped in history (the original 18th century mill wheel is still in tact and runs across two floors of the House!). My parents started running a holiday cottage and shepherds hut glamping accommodation in the grounds and we held a few weddings and photoshoots pre-pandemic. It felt like we were growing a really nice reputation and we had some thoughts about what we might do to introduce more events, but then of course COVID hit and the accommodation had to close and all future plans were put on hold.
What made you take the plunge at a time when the hospitality sector has been so hard hit by the pandemic?
My brother Alex, although based at The Mill, has worked all over the UK and indeed, all over the globe in recent years with his theatre productions and got back on one of the last flights out of Australia as the first lockdown hit. Myself, my partner and my son were all living at The Mill too, so we suddenly had this lockdown all together, and really we were so lucky compared to many who couldn’t see their family for that period. I think it became a hotbed of creative ideas. Especially from Alex, who has such a positive outlook, he was keen to make live arts happen, in whatever form was allowed within the government guidelines and that was covid safe. He offered up the shows that him and his colleague had been touring in Australia, to local people and went to perform them in gardens and back alley ways and fields where one family bubble at a time could watch. When restrictions allowed they then put the shows on in the Mill garden and they were so well received that he then took the plunge and decided to build an outdoor theatre venue at The Mill, which is now programmed for this summer with a range of world class shows, music, theatre and experiences that in any normal year would probably not be on stage in a small North Yorkshire village, but at the big festivals.
None of us will take responsibility for who’s idea it was to open a café! My partner Paul, is a real coffee geek and I’ve been trekked around many a city to find the perfect flat white. But I’m sure he’d say the same when it comes to me and cake. There isn’t a café in the village and every day during lockdown we saw so many people walking and cycling past the Mill on their daily exercise, we’d often wave and say hello, but then someone had the idea that maybe we could convert a little barn area into an outdoor café, doing great quality coffee and cake and instead of waving actually invite the community into the garden and provide a place for people to meet, to chill out and to come together once again following yet another lockdown.
So, we opened the café as a pop up Saturday operation and we’ll run that until the end of September and for any special village events (like the Scarecrow Festival). We are really enjoying providing a community hub and really what the café is funding is the art that people will see in our theatre At The Mill. I think by having the café and developing that space for the community it might inspire people to come to a gig or a theatre show that is there on the doorstep and try something new, without it really being our intention I do think people are booking for theatre events who maybe are not traditional theatre goers, so that cross over is really nice. Oh, and we are doing an open air silent disco, which we are all pretty excited about after a serious lack of opportunities to go dancing this last year!
And finally, as well as the accommodation, the café, the theatre and music we have planned a monthly supper club in the magical grounds, working with some exciting chefs and partners. Guests to the supper clubs will be treated to a range of cuisines and the vision is that you’ll experience these sat in nature, maybe on the island of the mill pond, or by the river, with geese flying over head, the sun setting, the smell of the last wild garlic around you and the firepits on. We are going to create really memorable ways for people to dine and be together.
Was there always a plan to work together as a family, what are the high and lows of working and living together?
We always joke that you get the whole family when you get involved with any one of us. We are a great team, really supportive and close, but hopefully with complimentary skills and the ability to be constructive and
learn from anything that maybe doesn’t work first time. During lockdown I think we all felt so extremely fortunate to all be together under one roof and also for me personally the adult to child ratio when doing the home school work juggle was a godsend. I think for us communication is the key and although we are a family who see each other every day, we still have a ‘business meeting’ every fortnight to go through diaries and decide who is taking responsibility for what and check in with everyone’s workload. Alex’s partner Megan,is Australian and managed to get over here for a good chunk of last year, but is back in Aus right now. She is managing our social media and doing such an incredible job from literally the other side of the world in a different timezone, so we really have to have good lines of communication. I think it is testament to how well we all work together that it can work so easily that one key member of the team is so many miles away, but so integral to the success of everything we are doing this Summer. I feel really proud that we are doing this as a family and within our village community and I don’t take any of that for granted.
What is special/unique about At The Mill?
I think its long history is so interesting, in a way it has always been there to serve the community, but now instead of providing flour and manufacturing we are providing accommodation, coffee, cakes, food drink and entertainment. Lots of people arrive at the Saturday café with stories of when they came on a school trip, or swam in the mill pond, or know the architect who turned the industrial building into a house, and I love the idea that in years to come people might turn up telling stories of how they came to see a show or enjoyed a supper club. I think we feel the responsibility to keep the history of this place alive, living and breathing and being used and enjoyed. The River Foss runs around the perimeter of the garden and our absolute favourite time of year is when you can smell the wild garlic, when the orchard starts to blossom and when you see the swallows come back. It’s the smells, sounds and the peaceful nature of the gardens that people find special and unique, and the way in which my parents have added quirky elements into the landscape, such as a hidden vintage tractor and bridge across to the island on the mill pond. For my little boy it’s a bit like growing up in a Swallows and Amazons setting, and unsurprisingly it has fostered a real love of nature in him from an early age.
What are your future plans and what are you most excited about?
This summer at the mill season has something for all interests, from food and drink to entertainment and the accommodation on site (which is busy with the staycation effect now kicking in). The thing that excites me personally is creating events and making these happen with my family. Alex’s shows are worldwide adored and to have the chance for people to experience some of them in our own back garden feels a real privilege, but also it’s actually what he’d say he values most. Genuinely as exciting as it is to be off Broadway, he cares about rooting his work in the community in which we live and sharing stories in the magical setting of our own garden. So, I’m excited to see his shows performed and just that opportunity to experience a shared, live experience again. Whilst the digital arts scene has provided some good experiences this last year, there’s nothing like laughing, crying, experiencing live arts with other audience members. And I’m excited for supper clubs as we have some fabulous foodies joining us to cook. Cardamom and Dill are a York based company who’ll be doing our August supper club and Jolly Allotment are another local company who will be partnering with us on events. Having likeminded partners working with us feels really exciting and hopefully we can cross promote and grow interest generally in the types of experiences we are all creating in Yorkshire!
How do you balance your corporate role with the family business?
My day job is Head of Marketing at Castle Howard, and I absolutely love it! It is such an iconic Yorkshire venue and to play my part in its long history and ensure it is successful and sustainable for many years to come is something I take great pride in. My role has been so varied over the last four years, from opening the new adventure playground, through to looking after huge filming projects such as Bridgerton, to hosting a wide range of events, there are never two days the same and it is full on and really busy, but I have a wonderful team and genuinely love coming to work every day.
The thing with At The Mill, is that it is very much a shared initiative between the six of us, so I never feel like there’s too much on my shoulders and I’m pretty efficient at time management. The thing I am contributing is baking cakes for the café, which keeps me busy on evenings and any spare moments outside of work, but I actually find baking really relaxing and almost therapeutic so it’s great for me to have an outlet to bake for other people, and not just for family and colleagues.
What is your favourite item on the menu?
I’m loving doing all of the baking, and my real passion is with middle eastern food, so I don’t think there’s been a week yet at the café where something hasn’t had tahini in it! I like trying different recipes, making them my own and it is my creative outlet, so I’ve been having lots of fun drying out thinly sliced pineapples to make them into sunflower decorations for buns, decorating ginger cupcakes to look like bonfires, blowtorching Italian meringues and basically pretending I’m on Bake Off every Friday night and Saturday morning as I frantically bake as much as possible in not very much time.
An in the know/secret about the area?
The village has two lovely pubs, The White Bear and The Bay Tree, and it’s so great to see them both open again. There are some good walks around the village too which we point out to our café visitors. There’s also a couple of fab antiques and furniture places in the village (Pond Cottage and a Vintage Emporium) so it’s a good day out if you are looking for unique gifts or homewares, a great coffee, cake, maybe a meal at one of the pubs, then back to the Mill for an evening show. My other top tip would be to call in at Cooper King, a gin and whiskey distillery just down the road from us. They have a bar open on a Saturday afternoon and we’ll be stocking some of their products on the bar when we have shows on, they are super passionate about what they do and another great local producer.
What would be your ultimate Yorkshire day out?
It’s hard to beat Castle Howard, but maybe I am a bit biased. My 7 year old loves being outdoors and he’d definitely say Dalby Forest or Sutton Bank on his bike, or Brimham Rocks for a good run around. I am a sucker for an occasional spa day as I rarely do traditional relaxation and my favourites are Grantley Hall, Swinton Park and Rudding Park. And of course, food! We are really lucky in Yorkshire to have so many great places to eat. I’m a big fan of Tommy Banks’ Roots and The Black Swan in Olstead for a real treat, but also love a trip to Spark in York for some world streetfood.
I’m on the Board of Welcome to Yorkshire so am really keen to explore as much of the country as possible post covid. I’ve certainly rediscovered what is on my door step in North Yorkshire, but am looking forward to getting out to the coast more and heading back into cities as restrictions ease.
Three places to take visitors in Yorkshire?
My absolute favourite walk is The White Horse at Sutton Bank. I grew up in Coxwold which is very close and it was our go to family walk, and when people visit I always feel excited to take them there for a glorious view across the Vale of York and stunning scenery in every direction.
I worked at York Theatre Royal for ten years so I would always have a look at what is on and take visitors there, to either the main house or the studio, or to one of the fantastic productions you find in other locations around the city. There’s always something I want to see, and not enough days in the week!
And finally, I would take visitors to Robin Hoods Bay, for some great fish and chips and a walk along the beach, and depending on the day, the tides and the visitors in question maybe walk all the way along to see the seal colony at Ravenscar. I do quite a bit of trail running and it’s a gorgeous run along the beach and then back along the clifftops, but not for the fainthearted!