Landscape plays a huge role in determining the form and function of buildings, not least windmills and watermills. The reasons they were built may be long gone, but there are often subtle reminders of lost buildings, in street names for example or from soapwort still growing nearby (used as a natural soaping agent), some mills still command the landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements.
The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is particularly well endowed with mills situated near inland waterways, in busy market towns or on a windy bluff that once provided particular services to local communities that farmed grains to be milled, sheep to be washed or silk to be spun. Many are now only remembered in archives, others have found new purpose and functions whilst the best have been lovingly and painstakingly restored by enthusiastic volunteers and can be visited at certain times of the year, not least of all during National Mills weekend.
300-year old Lacey Green Windmill stands on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough, and is possible the most famous for being England’s oldest smock mill, with wooden machinery dating from around 1650. It was left in a terrible state of repair, but since 1971 it has been restored to working order by members of The Chiltern Society.
Cobstone Windmill was built around 1816 and overlooks the village of Turville – a location more famous for its infamous residents including the ‘sleeping girl of Turville” and fictional TV character the Vicar of Dibley. This smock mill, so-called as it has the shape of the farmers smock, replaced the original mill that had stood there since the 16th century. It was a working mill, grinding cereals until 1873, but it was not until 1967, and the filming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that the mill was cosmetically restored. The cap was remoulded and a new fantail, and light wooden sails were added as was it’s place in local folklore.
Pitstone Windmill is a rare and striking example of an early form of windmill, and is one of the oldest surviving windmills in Britain. It stands exposed beneath Ivinghoe Beacon and ground flour for the nearby villages for almost three hundred years, until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it badly damaged. It was later donated to the National Trust and restored by a team of local volunteers. As you walk around it, wonder at the way the mill and its machinery balance on the head of a massive wooden post. You can still see the tail pole, which the miller had to wrestle with to turn the huge structure to face the wind.
The nearby Ford End Watermill at Ivinghoe was recorded in 1616, but is certainly much older, and remained in use until 1963. Restored by volunteers, and now maintained and run by Ford End Watermill Society, it retains all the atmosphere of a small farm mill of the late 1800s and has an unusual feature – a sheep-wash in the tailrace below the mill. Washing made the fleece easier to shear and increased its value. Stoneground wholemeal flour is also on sale during milling demonstrations.
Redbournbury Watermill is a working mill producing a range of stoneground organic flours, principally from locally grown grains. It is run by a team of dedicated volunteers, having been extensively restored following a fire in 1987. When the present owners bought the mill from the Crown, it had been unused since the 1950s. At this stage the mill was well preserved, although it did need considerable repairs, providing a unique historical record of an early Victorian watermill. However, on the night of 22nd August 1987 disaster struck. Fire broke out in the roof of the mill only a few days after restoration work had begun and destroyed most of the interior of the mill and much of the top floor of the house.
The mill is well worth a visit as there is much to see and fresh bread to buy. Bread baked at Redbournbury boasts the lowest possible “food-miles” with the grain grown, milled and baked all within two miles of the mill.
These mills are located in or near lovely Chilterns villages and market towns, so for more ideas and inspiration for an escape to the country can be found at VisitChilterns.co.uk
For further information on the UK National Mills Weekend