As wind power becomes more important in 21st century East Anglia, we can see a working example of how our ancestors used it at Denver.

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Not another wind farm?

Modern wind turbines seem to be sprouting up every day across the region, producing sometimes controversial green energy. But harnessing the power of the wind for industry is nothing new. A mill has stood on the site at Denver, near Downham Market on the edge of the fens, since at least the early 19th century. Its modern survival is down to some dedicated conservation work. Mills have been a common sight in this part of the world since medieval times, when the miller was a wealthy and important part of any community. The Romans probably brought the first mills to England 2,000 years ago, using watermills to grind corn into flour. By the time of Domesday Book in 1086 there were at least 5,000 watermills in the land. In the following century windmills began to be built. The industry was dominated by landowners and entrepreneurs who made great profits as everybody in the area had to bring corn to their mill for grinding. The first mills were called post mills, in which the machinery was placed in a wooden-framed body built around a massive upright post. The whole structure of the mill had to be turned to face the wind, hard labour as it had to be done by hand.

What happened at Denver?

The first mention of a working mill here comes in 1824; perhaps there was a mill of some kind there before that date. Most likely it was a post mill.

Technology was changing fast in the 19th century. A modern brick tower mill soon replaced it; this had a cap built at the top of the mill to facilitate turning the sails into the wind along with a fantail. This was a set of small sails at right angles to the main sails at the back of the cap. When the wind blows straight at the sails the fantail does not catch the wind and doesnt move. When the wind changes it hits the fan and turns it, which rotates the cap until the sails are again facing the wind. This was a major breakthrough as it removed some of the manual labour involved. The initials of owner John Porter and the date 1835 can be found on a plaque. Within 20 years though, a new owner, John Gleaves, took technology a step further by adding a steam mill ideal, as the river runs close by to provide a source of water. Now the mill could operate even when there was not enough wind to keep the sails turning and drive the machinery. The business stayed in the family, son James taking over until 1896. Then it was bought by Thomas Harris, who worked it for more than a quarter of a century. He too left it to his son, also Thomas, who ran the business until 1941, replacing the steam engine with an oil one and fitting new sails.

A prosperous business?

An advertisement in the Lynn Advertiser of 1873 offering Denver mill for sale or let described it as a lucrative business carried out upon the premises for upwards of 50 years. Its location within a mile of the market town of Downham and the railway station made it a viable location. The advertisement concluded: A brick tower windmill driving six pairs of stone with a steam mill attached, with large granaries, excellent dwelling house, gardens, stables and convenient premises. Together with a paddock and millers cottage... Up until the early 20th century it remained a good business to be in, but new roller mills using metal instead of stone had created methods of mass production, leaving little room for small-scale traditional mills. They began to close and fall into disrepair.

Any disasters?

Gales in 1908 damaged the mill and work stopped for a while. A greater catastrophe happened in 1941 when lightning struck one of the sails. Thomas Harris refused to give up on his mill, continuing to maintain it without using windpower until his death in 1969, whereupon his family left it to Norfolk County Council. An ongoing programme of restoration followed. In 1975, after another gale caused new damage, new sails were fitted. The whole building needed constant attention to stop it crumbling away, not helped by the notorious gales of January 1976, when wind lifted the cap from its track and dropped it on one set of wheels. During the 1990s further progress was made when the millers cottage came into public ownership. Norfolk Historic Building Trust took on the work, spending more than 1m creating a visitor centre and putting the mill back in working order. After the outbuildings were restored the site opened to the public in 2000. The windmill is today producing flour in the traditional way, and is a popular visitor attraction.

Whats to be seen?

You can tour the whole of the mill from bottom to top, floor by floor, accompanied by a knowledgable guide. There are six floors in all, and an hours tour gives a good idea of how the mill works. You can see the massive millstones on the fourth floor that grind the grain into meal and flour. They always work in pairs; the bottom, or bedstone is kept stationary while the upper stone rotates over the bedstone grinding the grain between the two. Sacks of grain are lifted to the top of the tower using a hoist, going through the trap doors on each floor. The grain is emptied into the grain bins as needed. Grain pours from a hopper on to the feed shoe which ensures a steady trickle of grain falling into the eye of the upper millstone. After the grinding process the meal falls into the flour spout and down to the next floor for bagging.

Denver Windmill is open all year round. Telephone 01366 384009 or visit the website at www.denvermill.co.uk

Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust website www.norfolkhistoricbuildingstrust.org.uk

More about Norfolk mills - www.norfolkmills.co.uk

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