The steps being taken to save Winchester City Mill
- Credit: Archant
Winchester City Mill has been part of the local landscape since Saxon times but until recently, devastating flood damage threatened 1000 years of milling history. Article first published in March 2018.
Straddling the River Itchen, just a stone’s throw from King Alfred’s statue, the City Mill is at Winchester’s historic heart and the gateway to the South Downs National Park. Yet the picturesque setting deceives the eye. As despite a turbulent history, four years ago what’s believed to be the country’s oldest working watermill faced its sternest test, when rising flood waters threatened its very future.
Until the advent of steam such watermills, and windmills, provided the only source of power for many different processes, from making flour, paper and cloth to hammering metals and extracting oils. The survival of this early example of an urban corn mill makes it extremely rare. So the National Trust, which is now responsible for Winchester City Mill, wants to ensure that damage to the building’s structure, caused by the flooding and the hand of time is reversed. And in just over a year, £90,000 has so far been raised from donations and fundraising to allow vital repairs to this ancient building to begin.
“Our assumption is that the Mill’s origins date back to Roman times,” says manager Ric Weeks. “Most of what people see inside dates from the 14th and early 15th centuries. It was rebuilt in the 1740s, which meant knocking out the wattle and daub walls and replacing these with Flemish brick. James Cooke who did this chose to keep much of the medieval beam work inside, so there was conservation in action even way back in the 18th century.
“At that time, most of Winchester would have looked similar to how The Chesil Rectory does now. Any building in Flemish brick would have stood out in the landscape.”
And yet, he says, until relatively recently this remarkable building had lost its sense of purpose.
“When we started milling again in 2004 our ambition was to produce flour as close to the medieval flour as was possible. This meant wholemeal flour with nothing taken out using a variety called Crusoe – an old English bread wheat crossed with Canadian wheat. We source much of it from within the South Downs National Park and flour was produced up until our flood damage in 2014, when everything ground to a halt.”
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The deluge from the winter storms saw the River Itchen burst its banks, threatening both homes and business in this part of the city.
“The flood lasted for three-and-a-half months. The whole lower floor of the building was completely devastated; the water came up to my neck,” Ric recalls. “Our milling machinery was destroyed and all the gearing had to be replaced.”
For the seven-strong permanent staff and 70 volunteers it was a case of all hands to the pump. However, incredibly, within 11 weeks, flour production restarted. A feat which miller Ben Goodwin is rightly proud of.
“Over the Easter weekend, almost 900kg of flour was milled, weighed and bagged in order to replenish stocks in our mill shop and to supply nearby National Trust properties, plus the commercial bakers who’d waited patiently throughout our enforced closure,” says Ben.
“Milling has continued with few problems since then and the ever-willing volunteers have also put a great deal of hard work into the campaign to save the building, most notably staging a 30-hour non-stop millathon.
Now, Ric explains, attention has turned to making lasting repairs to the Mill’s basement which, archaeological surveys have confirmed, contains beams dating as far back as the Norman Conquest. And the conservation work needed, makes it possible to share this discovery.
“A viewing platform in the main mill room will enable people to look down into the bowels of the building. We’ve got to strip out partition walls and raise the floor so all the rotten beams can be removed and new sections of wood grafted-in alongside the old.
“There will be a stop frame camera, so the previous weeks’ work can be seen. Hopefully, everything will be finished by April.”
Although milling is temporarily suspended until the dust settles, stocks of flour should be sufficient to meet demand from regular customers such as Southampton’s Hoxton Bakehouse. “We get our wholemeal flour from Winchester City Mill. It’s a fantastic product and we love to use local ingredients,” says artisan bread maker Florence Hellier.
Also set to be reinstated in the coming months is the Mill’s ‘otter cam’. Introduced to this part of the River Itchen during the 1990s, the resident otter community has become a much loved sight.
After all the upheaval, Ric is confident the Mill will be better than ever, with the addition of a new café, education spaces and toilets. “This work gives us a great opportunity to improve the facilities here. From initially getting around 10,000 visitors a year we now have over 50,000, so the Mill has come a long way in a relatively short period of time,” he says, as this hidden gem begins a new chapter in its history.
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