The Mills

What is happening to The Mills?

For over 200 years the woods and marshes adjacent to the historic town of Waltham Abbey were cloaked in secrecy. Here gunpowder, and later cordite, the most basic of materials for waging war, were manufactured for the nation’s army and navy. Later, as the Cold War cast a dark shadow over Europe, the Mills were converted to laboratories where scientists and engineers developed and tested fuel for rockets and missiles.

In 1991, as the Iron Curtain was consigned to history, the Government finally relinquished control of the Royal Gunpowder Mills site. Beyond the high barbed wire fences lay a surreal landscape of waterways and extraordinary buildings surrounded by a woodland wildlife haven.

Following a vigorous campaign by local people, historians and archaeologists, the Government set up a charitable trust (The Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills Foundation) to conserve the Royal Gunpowder Mills site for the nation. The vision of those campaigners was fulfilled when, with a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Foundation’s trustees were able to open the site as a visitor attraction in 2001. In every year since then visitors to the Royal Gunpowder Mills, with its unique combination of history, science and nature themed exhibits and activities, have been assured of a great day out.


Now the future of the Royal Gunpowder Mills is in jeopardy. The Foundation, established to preserve and protect the site, is planning to lease most of the buildings and open space used by the visitor attraction to a private company which, it believes, will generate more income. The Foundation’s trustees have suggested the visitor attraction could be relocated to derelict buildings in the wooded area at the northern end of the site but are unwilling to provide funds to make them habitable or provide essential services.

If we do nothing the fences that protected the Royal Gunpowder Mills will be erected again. Not, this time, to discourage agents of foreign powers but to simply to keep out people whose taxes and National Lottery funding allowed the site to be opened for the enjoyment of all.

What will we lose if the Holiday Camp plan is built?

The Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills Charitable Foundation’s plans threaten almost everything that has been achieved by staff and volunteers, grants of public funds, private donations and commercial income since 2001:

  • Public access to the world’s best-preserved group of Listed buildings, structures and waterways constructed between 1787 and 1951 specifically for the manufacture, testing, transport and storage of gunpowder and explosives
  • Alterations to the best of those Listed historic buildings for re-use as Holiday Camp accommodation
  • Demolition of historically significant buildings not granted statutory protection
  • The loss of exhibition space and storage accommodation for the Royal Gunpowder Mills’ extensive collection of historic artefacts – many of which have been acquired and restored by Volunteers
  • The loss of accommodation for the Royal Gunpowder Mills’ Archive of historic artefacts, documents and photographs
  • The closure of a popular and highly regarded family-friendly visitor attraction
  • The loss of an outdoor event venue
  • The denial of a wide range of casual work experience opportunities for young people
  • The disbandment of an acclaimed Education Programme for local schools

How will the PGL holiday camp development affect the local community?

The community will be adversely affected in several ways – loss of a tourist attraction, traffic congestion, and loss of volunteer and work experience opportunities:

Royal Gunpowder Mills Visitor Attraction

The Royal Gunpowder Mills is now firmly established as one of the most important visitor attractions in West Essex, East Hertfordshire and North-east London, an area with a population exceeding 1.5m. It underpins Waltham Abbey as a notable tourist destination along with the nearby Waltham Abbey Church, the town’s historic town centre and the major re-development of the Epping Forest museum.



The Lee Valley Park with its extensive leisure facilities, including the White Water Centre, borders the site on three sides. Epping Forest is a short drive to the east. The Royal Gunpowder Mills is the centrepiece of the Lee Valley Park Authority’s plans to attract more visitors to the area.

The Volunteers

Day to day running of the Royal Gunpowder Mills depends almost entirely on a small army of volunteers. People like you, from the local community and further afield, young and old, carry out a huge range of jobs – providing visitor services, maintaining buildings and equipment, nature conservation, curating historic artefacts documents and photographs.

Major projects rely almost entirely on the volunteer workforce – two working railways are currently under construction. Since the Royal Gunpowder Mills opened as a visitor attraction in 2001, the volunteer programme has provided hundreds of unemployed young people with valuable work experience.

Loss of Jobs / Work Experience Opportunities

The Royal Gunpowder Mills visitor attraction will close when PGL holiday camp construction work starts. All staff, except perhaps a caretaker for the unaffected areas of the site, will be made redundant.

The Royal Gunpowder Mills volunteer programme has provided opportunities for people of all ages. It has helped hundreds of young people in our local community to gain valuable work experience at a time of record youth unemployment; these opportunities will be severely curtailed with the closure of the visitor attraction.

How will the PGL holiday camp development affect the natural environment?

A number of large new buildings will be required if the PGL holiday camp is to provide sleeping accommodation for 1000 children and the adults needed for their supervision. The few suitable sites, given PGL’s obligation to retain the ‘listed’ buildings, all adjoin the eastern boundary with the Lee Valley Park. This area, the Cornmill Meadows, is a rare example of seasonally flooded grassland that provides a habitat for a distinctive flora and fauna not found elsewhere in the Lee Valley.

English Nature has designated the Cornmill Meadows as a ‘Site Of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)’ in recognition of its regional importance for wildlife. Its character will be spoilt if large buildings are erected in the adjoining area of the Royal Gunpowder Mills site.

In addition to the Queens Mead open space, PGL will use the ‘New Hill’, in the site’s northeast corner, for outdoor pursuits. This area, unlike much of the north of the site, is not subject to statutory protection from development or change of use.

At present, ‘New Hill’ can only be accessed within the site’s boundaries by poor roads and severely weight-restricted bridges through environmentally sensitive woodland, which like Cornmill Meadows, has been designated as a SSSI by English Nature. Transport of PGL guests, by heavy vehicles, to and from the ‘New Hill’ outdoor pursuits area, and the preceding enabling work, will spoil these protected woodlands and result in irreversible damage to their flora and fauna.


The sole vehicle and pedestrian entrance to access the Royal Gunpowder Mills is located at the north end of Beaulieu Drive – a residential street immediately west of Waltham Abbey town centre. Access to Beaulieu Drive is controlled by traffic lights at the junction with the A121 and B194. The A121 is a major link between West Essex / M25 Junction 26 and urban East Hertfordshire / North London and a popular M25 congestion avoidance route.

The 1000 bed PGL holiday camp will generate a very substantial increase in the volume of traffic using Beaulieu Drive and its junction with the A121. School groups will generally arrive and leave by coach; staff and casual visitors by private car or taxis. On-site catering services are likely to require regular HGV movements. Off-site activities, using facilities in, for example, the Lee Valley Park, will require additional, potentially frequent, coach transfers.

A substantial increase in the number of vehicles using Beaulieu Drive will result in much longer waiting time for egress into the A121 junction unless the traffic lights are re-phased. Lengthy queues of vehicles in Beaulieu Drive will result in air pollution for residents and users of the adjacent Lee Valley Country Park. Re-phasing in favour of Beaulieu Drive will result in further delays for through traffic on the already congested Waltham Abbey / Waltham Cross section of the A121. Any highways improvements should be funded by PGL not from the public purse.