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Angel of the north-west

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Serafino Di Felice is to spearhead the spectacular regeneration of Ancoats with a mixed 'creative industries' economy plan to revive the mill community

Serafino Di Felice jokes that he never saw the light of day when he was born. You can see what he means; just a slither of street separated the massive, intimidating walls of the Paragon Mill from his family's tiny terrace in Ancoats, on the eastern edge of Manchester city centre. The street names signify its former purpose - Jersey, Loom, Blossom, Cotton - and the massive mills that serviced the cotton industry dominated Ancoats and its mainly immigrant communities up until as recently as the 1950s.

Di Felice, however, has spent his life in no one's shadow. A third generation Italian now in his 70s, he has campaigned vociferously for many years for the recognition and preservation of Ancoats' industrial and social heritage.He left the area eventually - his family were ice cream makers and he ran a successful air-conditioning and refrigeration business - but has retained strong links. His concern for the area's rapidly deteriorating built heritage led him to set up the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust (ABPT) with others, including Manchester architect Ian Finlay and planning consultant Paul Butler, eight years ago.

Ancoats is now poised for a spectacular programme of works to restore it, if not to its former cotton-spinning glory, to a vibrant 21st-century version of it - a mixed 'creative industries' economy with people living and working in the renovated and converted mills.

After years of neglect, the city council, the regional development agency, English Heritage and any number of private developers are on-board and committed to Ancoats' wider regeneration. Di Felice admits to mixed feelings as work on the ABPT's own flagship project, the Murrays' Mills complex, prepares to start on-site. A grant package including £7 million from the HLF and £5 million from the North West Development Agency has made this possible. The ABPT has also secured grants to redevelop St Peter's Church for the Embroiderers' Guild when it relocates from Hampton Court Palace in 2006, a fitting continuation of its textile associations.

Murrays' Mills, built between 1798 and 1806, is the oldest surviving mill in Manchester and was the first in the world to use steam engines to power the spinning machines, says Di Felice. 'This is my gem of a place. It all started here and newer mills were built on the back of its success - modern and mechanised mills to meet the demands of a world industry. But you can't separate the building from its working history, and men, women and children worked here in very harsh conditions.' He points to a large oriel window overlooking the walled and gated internal quadrangle, where workers entered and left. 'That was the overseer's office.'No elaboration necessary.

Also in the quadrangle was a large canal basin, created from an underground cut from the Rochdale Canal. As children, Di Felice and his friends used to shin-up the high walls and swim in the hot water basin, telling their mothers they had been to the swimming baths. They also used to climb into the basement to collect the clouds of lint extracted from the cotton - used for making pillows.

While he is a rich repository of social history, Di Felice is also attuned to the potential to welcome a new community.'We can't replicate the old communities and we're not trying to.

We're trying to ensure that the remaining population - there are still a couple of thousand, mainly elderly people living here - have access to shops, schools and healthcare. There's going to be at least 5,000 units of housing made available in the next few years.New people will inhabit these wonderful mills but we have to ensure that future development brings a genuine mix and not just young professionals who have no pressing need for those facilities.'

Ancoats was effectively the first planned suburb because workers' housing was built cheek by jowl with the mills and premises of associated industries. There were engineering works, coal and timber depots, dye works, flint glass works, foundries, numerous workshops, two churches, and all types of housing for all levels of workers. Some of the few surviving examples are managers' houses. By 1851 the population was nearing 54,000; by the 1890s it reached 77,000. Little of the housing remains, apart from a few terraced streets. 'Houses that were rented at 7s 6d a week are now selling for over £160,000, ' notes Di Felice wryly.

A late Victorian example is Victoria Square dwellings, 150 flats blocked around a central courtyard and one of the first municipal housing projects in the country. These are reserved for residents over the age of 60, and the ABPT has installed security and lifts, but Di Felice worries that the age limit, already lowered from 65, will be lowered further as Ancoats becomes more desirable. 'I want new people to come in but I also want to make sure the old girls and boys are OK, too, ' he says. It's hard to get down the street with him without him stopping for a chat, whether he knows people or not - but he seems to know most of them. 'I love the buildings but I'm bound into the social environment here, ' he laughs.

The ABPT was formed originally as a vehicle to attract grant funding to secure the buildings until capital funding could be found. This was at a vulnerable point in the buildings' history, before the regeneration industry had cottoned on to Ancoats' potential, and when the heritage industry would not, or could not, commit funds for complete repairs. Fires and vandalism were a persistent threat. The trust is now run by professionals working alongside the Ancoats Urban Village Company, who will take development forward. But without the work of Di Felice and the ABPT's other founder members, it is likely that this heritage would have been lost. There have been losses, of course, and Di Felice is particularly sad that his own church, St Michael's, will be sold to an undisclosed developer. 'It would have made a fantastic community centre, ' he says.

Ian Finlay, who met Di Felice by chance in a pub when he was working on the refurbishment of Owen Williams' Daily Express building on Great Ancoats Road, is in no doubt that the rescue and restoration of Ancoats was stimulated by Di Felice. 'There were repeated fires and the fire service had said they wouldn't come out anymore when a fireman was nearly killed. So you tell me, how do you regenerate a pile of ashes?' Ancoats contains 120 years' of mill architecture and mor than 200 years' of human stories. Hopefully it will soon be celebrating new stories, and who better to herald them than a man whose name translates as 'angel of joy'?

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