National Mills Weekend
15:23 14 April 2011
Herefordshire is one county which values its mills, says Alan Stoyel
Everyyear, in the second weekend of May, windmills and watermills around the country open their doors in celebration of National Mills Weekend. In most cases, this is the only opportunity the public has to appreciate their beautiful surroundings and mystical interiors.
The origins of these mills may go back as far as the local church, but, in comparison, they have received scant attention. They were merely workplaces a dangerous environment from which visitors were often excluded. Now their mundane working days have ceased, we must savour and cherish those mills which retain their atmosphere. This event enables everyone to visit a local example, to appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the building and its working parts, and to learn of a past way of life. For the owners, the realisation that their visitors gain so much interest and pleasure, increases their pride in their property so everyone wins. The greatest benefit, however, is to the mills themselves. A growing appreciation of our mill heritage is the best way of conserving them.
Herefordshire is a county which has had relatively few windmills, but its many streams have been well utilised in the past. Mostly this has been in rural tasks, such as milling corn, driving barn machinery on farms, pumping water, sawing timber, and beating woollen cloth. The most common, and enduring, have been corn mills. Some were in use until after the Second World War although nearly all were, by then, relegated to producing animal feedstuffs.
Most ancient water-powered corn mills were modernised in the late 18th, or early 19th century to increase their capacity. Generally, the same site was used, and many buildings incorporated some earlier structure. The working parts, too, were replaced and updated from time to time. The result is a fascinating architectural and mechanical tapestry which is only now being investigated and interpreted.
National Mills Weekend in Herefordshire will be celebrated at 17 mills. Nearly all of these are corn mills. The exceptions are Court of Noke, near Staunton on Arrow and Home Farm, Dulas. At the former, the water from the water gardens of the country house fed a waterwheel used for providing feed for a prize herd of Hereford cattle. The working parts are complete, although the waterwheel is damaged. At the latter, a waterwheel powered barn machinery from 1865 until the 1950s. The drive from this wheel was used for threshing, milling, root-pulping, chaff-cutting, sawing timber, sheep shearing, and, on occasions, cider making. The machines survived and the waterwheel, the millstones, and gearing are all in good order.
Of the corn mills, the most impressive example is Arrow Mill, Kingsland, a wonderful 17th century timber-framed building with a waterwheel which still turns. The lovely surroundings are matched by a fascinating interior. On the ground floor, the disused machinery is still in place, the atmosphere heightened by the original beaten-earth floor. The floor above contains, not only the millstones, but two other historic machines. In one corner is still the ancient clover bosser, which thrashed the seeds out of clover plants for sowing. A number of mills in Herefordshire used to have these, but this is the only one to have survived. The other remarkable piece of equipment on this floor is the flour dresser, probably the oldest in the county, dating from the 18th century. This sieved the bran to give white flour, and, on the wooden casing are shown the prices which the miller could charge more than 200 years ago. An extra feature of interest is that a corner of the mill used to function as a hop kiln.
One end of the wide range represented by the mills, which are open, is Mortimers Cross Mill. This is the only mill in the county in regular use, and it will be grinding on the Sunday afternoon. Privately owned, but under a management agreement with English Heritage, it dates from about 1750, and was refurbished about 120 years later. What is exceptional here is the quantity of equipment that is crammed into such a small building an excellent illustration of the dangers to which the millers were exposed. In contrast is the tranquillity of Titley Mill, Lyonshall, which is an 18th century converted mill with no working parts. The garden only of this property is opening for National Mills Weekend in association with the National Gardens Scheme.
One other waterwheel in the county is still set to work again briefly every autumn. This is at Rowlestone Mill, near Ewyas Harold. The mill is in a deep ravine and the water feeding the wheel comes off the top of a waterfall along a sinuous and dramatic course, temporarily flooding part of the lawn above the mill. The corn-milling machinery has long gone, but the wheel now provides power for another traditional Herefordshire function making cider.
A number of Herefordshire Mills were worked in conjunction with water meadows. Intensive farming has destroyed most of these, but, at several of those mills open for the weekend, traces can still be seen. Staunton Mill, Staunton-on-Arrow is an early example. Although the present building is 18th century, its predecessor was part of a grand irrigation scheme of the mid 17th century. The water channel once irrigated hundreds of acres of meadows. The mill, was rebuilt on a grand scale, with two waterwheels and sets of machinery, and most has survived.
One of the last mills erected in Herefordshire was at Cradley. Beanhouse Mill, or Archers Mill as it is better known, is a very late 19th century building, towering above open countryside. It is complete, with a rare and impressive trio of matching sets of millstone furniture on the first floor, and, even rarer, a matching trio of bins on the ground floor into which the milled products once poured. Alongside the mill, in great contrast, is its 17th century predecessor now a house.
As elsewhere in the country, the mill situation in Herefordshire is changing. In most counties, the local mill is under as great a threat as the local pub. However, this county is different. A climate of restoration has taken hold. This is restoration in the true sense of the word. It is distinct from the abused term used by so many to apply to damaging adaptive re-use of precious buildings. Traditional repairs are being carried out, and others are to follow.
The owner of Mordiford Mill has been working for years on his mill and its machinery. He hopes to bring water back within the next year or two. Extensive repairs to 18th century Clenchers Mill, Eastnor, were carried out recently, and a scheme for returning water to the dry, overgrown millpond is under discussion. This would enable the earliest dated waterwheel in Herefordshire to turn again, there are only nine years to go before its bi-centenary. There is every hope the 100-year-old turbine at Arrow Mill in Kington will be moving again by the second weekend in May after an overhaul. Buckton Mill, near Brampton Bryan, has long been converted to a house, but its outside waterwheel is being restored and might be finished by mid-May. Clodock Mill near Longtown is in its final stages of being brought back to working condition by its owners. It, too, is hoped to be grinding corn again by National Mills Weekend the first time for 57 years.
Here, there is now the realisation that we retain a remarkable assemblage of fine, unspoilt mills