PETER FROST finds four spectacular ancient monuments hard at work grinding corn for our daily bread.
Blow wind blow, and go mill go,
that the miller may grind his corn,
Then the baker can take it,
and into bread bake it,
to bring us fresh loaves in the morn.
We are off to the Wash, that vast bite shaped bay on our island’s Eastern coast; a huge indentation into the flat fenlands of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and North Norfolk.
Four great eastern rivers, the Witham, the Welland, the Great Ouse and the Nene drain most of England’s East Midlands into the Wash.
Huge golden fields of wheat, oats, barley and rye make this one of our nation’s bread baskets and the flat open countryside has made the green and easy way to mill that grain into flour by wind power.
We’ll visit four great windmills, all spectacular industrial archaeology in their own right but also all still milling flour and offering the chance to taste the bread, rolls, scones and other baking that is the delicious end product of generations of Dusty Millers’ and their age old skills.
First, a little about the Wash and the fens that surround it. After Runnymede and Magna Carta in 1215, King John was on the run. He fled to the Wash, where, surprised by the incoming tide, he lost his baggage train and his crown jewels in the muddy creeks. They have never been found.
Devastated the King skulked away to Newark where he died, it is said, after eating rather too many Fenland peaches. More than 800 years later venturing out on the mud banks of the Wash can still be treacherous and foolish but still rewarding.
Fishermen still go out on to the Wash mudflats to harvest the cockles, mussels, whelks and other delicious delights. Those rich pickings in the mud are what bring half a million wading birds and wildfowl to the Wash.
The surrounding fenlands still provides large quantities of Britain’s fresh fruit, vegetables and grain. The medieval peach orchards may be gone but the rich soils still grow foodstuffs in profusion.
The flatlands of the fens have always been the perfect place to build a windmill so let’s start our visits. I hope your legs are sturdy and your lungs sound, we have a lot of steps and ladders to climb.
Sibsey Trader Windmill
All windmills add to the landscape but the tall black tower with six white sails of the Sibsey Trader mill is a wonderful sight as you drive along the A16 five miles north of Boston.
Sibsey always brings out the Don Quixote in me. In fact it is not actually as tall as it looks, rising only six floors above ground and the height to the top of the cap is 74 feet 3 inches.
However the elegant slenderness of the tower and the flat landscape in which it stands create the impression that it is bigger than it really is, and makes the sails look enormous in proportion.
Built in 1877 Sibsey Trader worked until 1954, latterly it lost two of its sails but struggled on with four sails and then was, like so many mills allowed to become derelict.
Today it has been restored to full working order and is open to visitors who can climb the mill and marvel at the ancient machinery still grinding good local grain.
Climb up to the first floor where rattling machinery moves the grain and flour. The second floor has a very ornate iron stage and contains the three remaining pairs of working mill stones. Keep climbing up and up until you reach the top with splendid views over the flat fenlands,
Today the mill grinds a wide range of organic flours. You can buy a pound or two or, better still taste some of the breads, scones and cakes made from the mill’s own organic flour in the tearoom next to the mill. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk
Maud Foster Mill
Maud Foster Mill in Boston itself is one of the best sited and proportioned mills in Britain. They like unusual mills in Lincolnshire and this beautiful mill has five sails.
The mill was built in 1819. The original accounts survive, telling us that it cost £1826-10s-6d. It worked until 1942 and was fully restored in 1988. Today the mill grinds organic flour for a living. If you have a head for heights you can climb all seven floors and see the milling process in action as well as enjoy fine views of the town from the balcony.
Maud’s tearoom in the old granary serves morning coffee, lunches and afternoon teas with good old-fashioned home baking and local specialities on the menu. The mill shop sells flour, porridge and souvenirs and a great selection of books on windmills.
That just leaves one question, who was Maud Foster? Well, actually nothing to do with the mill. Maud was a rich and important woman at the time the fens were drained centuries before the mill was built. She had a drain named after her!
Now I don’t know about you but I can think of a few things I’d rather have named after me than a drain. However the Maud Foster Drain is in fact a rather handsome canalised river that runs through Boston. The mill is built on the bank of the river and good old Maud’s name lives on in drain and mill. At least she isn’t forgotten. http://www.maudfoster.co.uk
Not much more than half a dozen miles from the Royal village of Sandringham, Bircham windmill today looks much as it did over a century ago. At that time over 300 mills ground corn in Norfolk alone.
Now very few are left but Bircham Mill is still milling local grain into flour for bread. The flour is turned into loaves in a historic bakery next to the mill. When possible on windy days the sails turn the milling machinery and visitors can climb the five floors up to the very top.
The wonderful smell of freshly baked bread welcomes visitors to the bakery. The 200 year old coal fired oven is still here for you to see and was capable of baking a hundred loaves at once. It is eight feet wide and a dozen feet deep. All kinds of curious bread-making equipment fills the bakery including a giant dough trough – big enough for a hundred loaves .
Very early each morning the baker would mix up 280 lbs of flour, 15 gallons of water and yeast in this trough and then take a nap on top of the mixture. The dough rose and eventually tipped the sleeping baker off waking him and telling him the dough was ready for kneeding, dividing and the oven.
Bircham Mill’s tea room serves a selection of home made cakes, cream teas, sandwiches, morning coffee and light lunches. The baking all uses the mill’s own flour. Don’t miss the mill’s own sheep’s cheese, if you arrive at the right time you’ll see the sheep being milked.
If it’s fine, take your tea outside to the pretty mill garden. It is a relaxing place to sit while children play, or wander amongst the sheep, goats, ducks and hens in the paddock, all in the shadow of the handsome hard working windmill. http://www.birchamwindmill.co.uk
Denver Sluice is one of England’s great water gates. Here the river Great Ouse and the Old Bedford Rivers are controlled by sluices to keep the sometimes angry tides of the Wash from flooding the fenlands.
In 1835, two years before a young Victoria took her throne they built a mill at Denver. Flood, fire, gales, progress and lack of interest have all contrived to knock the proud mill down but today it still stands and still, occasionally, grinds its corn.
The windmill was only twenty or so years old when a steam powered mill was built in outbuildings here. That mill still grinds corn but in the 1920’s the steam engine was replaced by a rattling Blackstone Oil engine which still runs today. There is an electric powered mill here too so that you can see the whole history of milling in one location.
Ironically, strong winds are a windmills worst enemy. Gales in the 1970’s literally blew the top off Denver mill. But dogged enthusiasm won the day In 2000, restored and renovated it opened to the public again.
Now you can climb the mill. Watch and even help with the milling or just feast on the bread scones and cakes made here. http://www.denvermill.co.uk
Who will mend the mills?
The biggest concentration of windmills in Britain is in the Broads National Park in Norfolk and Suffolk not too far from the mills we have visited in this article. In the Broads there are 74 drainage mills, iconic landmarks of the area, and until recently only one local millwright to repair them and to venture further to look after such as to our fenland mills.
A few years ago the Broads National Park started a ground-breaking millwright’s bursary scheme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Young millwrights were selected from applicants all over the country to take part in the scheme and to train in the broad range of skills they needed and equip them for careers as millwrights.
The Broads Authority’s first five apprentice millwrights spent their final year’s training restoring a historic drainage mill, Stubb Mill, which is owned by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on Hickling National Nature Reserve. This was the apprentices’ flagship project to culminate their three year training. Today they are helping to keep Britain’s windmills turning all over the country.
A version of this article first appeared in Camping and Caravanning Magazine in 2010.
Peter was a Trustee of the Norfolk Mills and Pumps Trust (The Windmill Trust) from 2008 until 2013