National Mills Weekend
Windmills and watermills all over the country will be opening their doors to visitors on Saturday and Sunday, including many notable buildings in our region. KEIRON PIM finds out more about National Mills Weekend.
While wind and water power are often touted as the energy providers of the future, they were also harnessed by many of East Anglia's most cherished historical buildings.
Windmills dot the landscape across the windswept flats of the Fens and the Broads, and picturesque watermills sit where rivers run through many of our towns and villages. A century ago, in Norfolk alone there were more than 300 mills that ground corn for animal feed and bread-making, and countless windpumps kept the Broads from flooding. Now the work is chiefly powered by electricity and few mills survive.
Of the survivors, some buildings retain their original use but most have a new purpose: housing museums and tourist information centres, or forming holiday accommodation.
This weekend is National Mills Weekend, which will allow visitors to step inside and discover more about 400-plus mills around the country - and many notable ones are in our part of the world. They include the windmills at Bircham, Cley, Denver, Horsey and Old Buckenham in Norfolk, and several more in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They include brick or stone-built tower mills, six or eight-sided wooden smock mills (so called because they resemble a farmer's smock) and post mills, the earliest type of windmill, which tend to be smaller and built around a single wooden
The event is organised by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which has a Mills Section dedicated to preserving Britain's milling heritage.
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“At each mill there will be people who can explain how it works and tell you about its history,” said the society's spokesman, Simon Hudson.
“There will also be some special events on - for instance, at Wicken they will be making bread, showing how good food is produced naturally. What better way of protecting the environment and supporting local food than by visiting your local mill? It is satisfying to know that even in our computerized age, technology that provided bread for our ancestors is still in use today.”
The corn mill at Wicken, near Ely, is one of which the society is especially proud.
“On Saturday at 1pm, the society is presenting a plaque in recognition of the work of the volunteers who over the last 20 years have restored the mill at Wicken in Cambridgeshire from a ruin to one of Britain's most successful mills,” said Simon.
It was built in 1813, and its millers used it to grind wheat into bread-making flour for use by the villagers and to grind feed for the local farmers' animals. “Twenty years ago, it was derelict and now it is one of Britain's most successful mills,” he said. The mill will be open from 10am to 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday. For more information, see www.geocities.com/wickenmill or contact Dave Pearce on 01664 822751.
The other mills that will be open this weekend in our area are:
t Bircham Windmill, near Fakenham: After restoration, Bircham mill now looks as it did more than 100 years ago. The windmill was built in 1846 and worked until the 1920s when the sails were removed and the tower abandoned. Today, visitors can climb the five floors up to the fan stage and on windy days you can also see the sails and the milling machinery turning. There are also items of interest to see in the tearooms, bakery and grounds, including a pictorial history of the mill's restoration in the stable room. Open: Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm. See www.birchamwindmill.co.uk; contact Elly Chalmers on 01485 578393 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
t Cley Windmill, near Blakeney: Dating from the 1700s, although the tower was completed later, this mill remained in use until 1919 when it fell into disrepair. In 1921 it was converted into holiday accommodation and retains that use today, its appeal being bolstered by the beautiful views over the Cley saltmarshes. Open: Saturday and Sunday, 2pm-4pm. See www.cleymill.co.uk; contact Charlotte Martin on 01263 713112
t Old Buckenham Windmill: There have been windmills in Old Buckenham since around the 13th century and this one was built in 1818. It has the widest tower of any mill in the country - 23ft across at the base - although others are taller (most tower mills are around 12ft to 14ft across). Illustrious owners have included James Colman, who later formed the J&J Colman business with his uncle Jeremiah, and Prince Frederick Duleep Singh. Norfolk Windmills Trust began a restoration programme with funding from Norfolk County Council and English Heritage and in 1996 the cap and sails were rebuilt and installed. The mill opened to the public in 1997. The internal machinery still awaits restoration when funds are available. Open: Sunday, 2pm-5pm. See www.banhamandthebucks.co.uk/ windmill/index.html; contact Murray F Curtis on 01953 454371
t Horsey Wind Pump, near Yarmouth: The National Trust will also be opening some of its mills to coincide with National Mills Weekend, including this famous mill on the Broads. This restored wind pump provides striking views over Horsey Mere and supports many species and habitats of international importance. Trust staff and volunteers will be on hand to answer questions, and visitors can explore the workings of a wind- powered drainage mill from 10am with last admission 4pm over both days. Call 01493 393904 for more details.
t Bardwell Windmill, Suffolk: Restoration towards being a working flour mill is ongoing and it is planned that the first pair of sails will be complete by late summer. The mill was built in the 1820s and served the community until the 1940s after which it fell into dereliction. Open: Sunday, 10.30am-5.30pm; contact Enid Wheeler on 01359 251331.
t Drinkstone Mills, near Bury St Edmunds: The complex includes two windmills, a post mill and a smock mill. The post mill is the oldest in Suffolk and quite possibly in the country - tree-ring dating shows that some timbers date from 1543. Milling continued commercially at the site till 1973. Open: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5pm; contact Christopher Rowe on 07843 074700.
t Herringfleet Marsh Mill, near Somerleyton: The region's only surviving smock mill in good condition, this was built in the 1820s on the River Waveney to help drain the marshes. Open: Sunday, 1pm-5pm, with a working demonstration, wind permitting. Telephone 01473 264755.
t Pakenham Watermill, near Bury St Edmunds: Described as one of Suffolk's hidden gems, this 18th-century watermill lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Millers have been producing flour on the site for 1,000 years and today it is run by a team of volunteers. It is the last working watermill in Suffolk. Open: Saturday, 2pm-5.30pm, and Sunday, 11am-5.30pm. See www.pakenhamwatermill.co.uk; contact David Eddershaw or Roger Gillingham on 01284 724075 or 01359 232025, or e-mail email@example.com
t Stanton Post Mill, near Bury St Edmunds: This post mill dates from 1751 and is in complete working order. It regularly produces flour, which can be purchased on site. Open: Saturday and Sunday, noon-6pm. Contact Dominic and Linda Grixti on 01359 250622 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
t Denver Windmill, near Downham Market: Built in 1835, it continued to grind corn using wind power until 1941 when the sails were struck by lightning. Now it has been lovingly restored to full working order and once again flour is being milled using the power of the wind, as visitors will be able to see, weather permitting. Visitors will also have the chance to enjoy a guided tour right to the very top of the windmill tower.
Open: Saturday, 10am-5pm, and Sunday, noon to 5pm. See www.denvermill.co.uk; call 01366 384009 or e-mail email@example.com