Words and photos by Philip Butler (unless stated)
Imagine, if you will, it’s 1952, and you find yourself in a sprawling state of the art, industrial-scale dairy in north Devon. A substantial rebuilding programme has just been completed and you are met with a sweeping streamline complex displaying elements of both pre and post-war design styles, all housing the latest in milk processing equipment. It’s one of the largest creameries for miles, employing much of the local population and processing 60,000 gallons of white gold a day. Tankers and flatbed lorries loaded with churns rumble back and forth as the homogenisers, separators, batch mixers, chillers and freezers whirr and hum from behind the brick walls.
Fast-forward seventy years, and I’m walking through the same complex, but now the only sound is that of broken glass under my feet. This is the story of the Torrington Creamery.
Great Torrington is a picturesque settlement that could be described as a quintessential English market town. The wider area displays all the geographical attributes that one might expect from north Devon – steep inclines, winding valleys, open moorland, and acres of lush pasture. Indeed, the north Devon tourist board boasts of its “365 acres of common land given to the people in the 12th century. Freely accessible to all, visitors can walk the 20 miles of footpaths, ranging from a golf course in the north; ancient wood and wildflower meadow in the west; and dropping down to the beautiful River Torridge to the south of the town.”
With this in mind, you’d be forgiven for being surprised to find a expansive twentieth-century industrial relic nestling just outside the town, but that, dear reader, was exactly why we came.
In 1874 a local greengrocer named Robert Sandford founded the Torridge Vale Dairy in Taddiport, a small village on the banks of the river Torridge just outside Torrington. The recent construction of a railway line to the area had introduced the possibility of rapidly exporting local produce, and so, Sandford seized the opportunity to capitalise on the area’s most valuable commodity – milk.
From humble beginnings, advances in steam-powered milk separation techniques and production methods rapidly turned Torridge Vale into one of the most advanced dairies in the southwest. According to a potted history on the town council website, “by 1931 milk was being collected from about 50 farms, peaking at 1,850 gallons per day”. A partnership with Cow and Gate ltd saw production continue to increase throughout the 1930s, and by 1939 the daily milk intake had surged to 10,500 gallons.
Struggling to keep up with this rapidly growing turnover, the site required significant expansion. Designs for a new dairy, replacing much of the existing facility, were drawn up, and construction began in 1948*.
*I haven’t been able to track down details of the architect or drawing dates, but I would strongly suspect that the bulk of the design is pre-war.
Precise information on construction dates has also been hard to pin down, but it appears that most of the work was complete by 1950 (parts of the existing dairy were also retained). The main section of the complex is a huge structure, consisting of some streamline brick expressionist forms with a few Art Deco flourishes.
The southern exterior features a towering stepped frontage with some moulded details, looking decidedly early ’30s.
The northern side abutting the road is quite a contrast, featuring a spiral staircase encased in glass bricks. A heavily glazed wing leads to a brick tower, reminiscent of late 30s cinema design, detailed with reconstituted stone trim and displaying a TVD crest (Torridge Vale Dairy). This part of the creamery dealt with bulk receival and storage of the unprocessed milk.
The reception building on the opposite flank is more austere and functional (presumably a post-war design), but the addition of further banks of glass bricks and a sweeping walkway to the bridge tie the two sides together.
An archive of period photos held by the Great Torrington Museum show a wonderfully sleek and modern facility, equipped to handle a daily intake of 60,000 gallons by 1952 – thirty times that of twenty years prior.
Further success and expansion followed throughout the mid-twentieth century, but significant challenges lay ahead. By the 1970s global milk production was exceeding demand, so in a bid to reduce the ‘butter and powder mountains’, in 1984 the EEC introduced milk quotas. This effectively capped the amount of milk a farmer could produce per year. As a result, both the economy of scale and wholesale price of milk fell, pushing many farmers out of business. Consequently, the larger dairies chased a diminishing supply throughout the country, wiping out their profit margin.
Apparently, the Torrington site, run by Dairy Crest Foods at this point, staved off closure longer than most because of its scale and the substantial supply on its doorstep, but the game was up within a decade.
The factory closed for production on 30th March 1993. “The milk will be transported to creameries outside the area, but it doesn’t seem natural not to have a dairy in the middle of all those dairy farms,” said an article in The Guardian.
Various proposals to reuse the site (including as a smaller dairy) were mooted over the following years, but it remains vacant and derelict three decades on. Now blighted by graffiti, smashed windows, broken security fencing and surrounded by fly-tipped articles, it’s quite an astonishing spectacle.
Wandering through the central track between the two main wings, you could easily forget you’re in the heart of rural Devon; it is more reminiscent of the industrial shells once so commonly found on the peripheries of large cities throughout post-industrial Britain.
Torrington District Council have been concerned about the state of the site, noting in a 2020 statement:
“The Creamery site has been a focus of issues and concerns for a number of years. These matters variously relate to trespass, criminal damage and activities, illegal deposits of waste, and antisocial gatherings. Unfortunately, there have also been a number of persons take their own life at the site, leading to concerns raised by our colleagues in the emergency services about the safety of access for their own staff in investigating and responding to such reports.”
The local paper Devon Live reports of 12 fires over the last two years, along with two suicides and multiple injuries, and given the state of it, I’m sure there’s no shortage of folk who’ll be keen to see it levelled ASAP. The end is reportedly in sight too, as planning for a £42 million development of 173 new homes was recently approved.
As always, with industrial ghosts like this, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been possible to retain part of the original structure, especially given the current focus on the environmental benefits of #retrofirst refits. Perhaps some warehouse-style apartments or a mixed-use development including units for start-up businesses could have been an option, honouring the history of the dairy while restoring some of the striking modernist features in the process. No doubt, this wouldn’t be a commercially viable or popular move though. I am, after all, just a misty-eyed sentimental modernist, and perhaps a smaller, more traditional crop of houses might better suit this attractive riverside location.
Philip Butler is a Worcestershire-based photographer with a passion for documenting inter-war architecture. He has published two books of his work in this area – Odeon Relics (2019) and Tube Station Anthology 1924-1961 (2022).
There is a wealth of period photos from the Torrington Museum collection to explore here: https://ehive.com/objects?query=tag%3A%22crest%22&size=12