Discover Kent's windmills

May sees some of the most glorious buildings in Kent open their doors to the public for National Mills Weekend (8-9 May). Visiting these beacons of historic beauty dotted around the county provides you with a unique experience

Discover Kent’s windmills

May sees some of the most glorious buildings in Kent open their doors to the public for National Mills Weekend (8-9 May). Visiting these beacons of historic beauty dotted around the county provides you with a unique experience

This year the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is joining forces with the Traditional Cornmillers Guild and The Real Bread Campaign to demonstrate the benefits of ‘flour power’ during National Mills Weekend (8-9 May). Many windmills will be hosting special family and visitor events encourage people to support their local mill. 

The first reference to English windmills occurred in the The Domesday Book and mills are thought to originate from Persia. There are three types of windmill: the Post Mill (so called because of the wooden post the structure is built around) the Smock Mill, which resembles the design of a lady’s smock, and the Tower Mill, which has a brick-built body.

Windmills create picture-postcard images tourists love and today are mainly run as tourist attractions, kept alive by council, private and lottery funding. Some are still functioning, but many lie in ruin. Those who love history, architecture and great views adore windmills and see them as cherished landmarks playing a vital part in the communities they helped build.

Staplehurst, Barham and Chislet (to name but a few Kent places) have all lost their windmills. Staplehurst allegedly lost its windmill when the village residents set light to it, creating a bonfire to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. 

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Many windmills have met with a fiery fate, their flammable wooden structures especially susceptible to fire. Others have simply been left for ruin or converted into family homes.

Windmills were built in abundance before and during the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815), but their popularity declined when steam power overtook as the main source of energy. With the economic hardships shouldered by funding the defeat of Napoleon, The Great War and the Second World War, the numbers of windmills in Kent were decimated and their maintenance ground to a halt.

If the few people dedicated to windmill conservation hadn’t flexed their collective muscles, many more windmills would have been lost to the ravages of time.

Union Mill, Cranbrook

One such windmill is Union Mill in Cranbrook. Cranbrook is famous for its beautiful smock windmill and the town thrives, in part, because of its existence (see also April Kent Life, page 80). The windmill has survived thanks to Kent County Council and the enduring loyalty the last independent owner, John Russell, gave the mill. 

It is also thriving today because of the devoted members of the Cranbrook Windmill Association. One member, Wynn Tremenheere, gave me an insight into Union Mill’s rich past.

John Russell inherited Union Mill in 1918, but by 1950 the mill was in bad repair and John could not raise the capital needed for restoration. Hope for the windmill waned when John received a lucrative offer for the land from a private developer, but to his great credit his love for the windmill was stronger than his love for money, so instead he turned to Kent County Council. 

It was agreed that Kent County Council would pay for the repair but only if it owned the windmill thereafter. This selfless compromise by John Russell secured the future of Cranbrook as the pretty Kent village it is today, overlooked by Union Mill instead of a sprawling housing estate. 

The Cranbrook Windmill Association organises the day-to-day running of the mill, including greasing the sweeps, manning the souvenir shop, generating publicity, training volunteers to act as guides and general maintenance on site. As is the case with every windmill, Cranbrook desperately relies on volunteers, so new faces are always welcome. 

Union Mill is England’s tallest smock windmill, standing at 72ft and it is one of the few remaining mills still in operation making flour, which you can buy in the souvenir shop. Spread over seven floors, the windmill is a treasure trove of information. 

Union Mill has been an iconic symbol in Cranbrook since it was built in 1814 and Simon Hudson, Mills Secretary for the SPAB, believes it draws people to the area: “At times of financial austerity like these, it is important to take into consideration that when the windmill was closed for repairs a few years ago, many of Cranbrook’s attractions saw a lull in visitors. 

“When the windmill was re-opened, the visitors returned. The windmill really is the hub of Cranbrook.”

Union Mill

Mill Hill, Cranbrook, TN17 3AH

Tel: 01580 712984 or 712256

Open: Sat from end of Mar 2010 to end Sep, Sun: 8-9 May and mid-Jul to end Aug,

Bank Holiday Mon: Easter Mon, two May BH, Aug BH

Directions: Cranbrook is just off the A229, which runs north/south from Maidstone to Hastings. The A262 runs east/west between Tunbridge Wells and Tenterden and passes just north of Cranbrook.

Great Windmill, Sheerness

Many visitors seem to fall in love with the windmills and it is this bond that has ensured the windmills survival.  One man who is re-building a windmill as a labour of love is Caleb Watson. Since 1925 ‘Great Windmill’ or ‘Rides Windmill’ in Sheerness has stood in ruin. Further damaged by fire in the 1980s, its restoration project is ambitious and has been full of drama. 

The re-build has been lovingly restored to a high standard but this is the second time Caleb has rebuilt it. In 2006, as the build was at its ‘big wood’ stage, tragedy struck when the windmill caught fire. Luckily, some of the metal structure and brickwork survived and before the burning embers cooled, Caleb was on the phone organising the re-build. 

Today, he has elaborate security measures in place and is continually working on his dream to produce a historical landmark for Sheerness so that the windmill becomes a focal point of which local people can be proud. Situated just off the high street, the windmill will become an office and living space instead of a working mill.

Caleb believes providing a modern use for the mill will ensure it survives into the future. He has worked with the council, conservation officers and National Heritage Trust on the project with plans being meticulously scrutinised, as the windmill is a listed building in a conservation area. 

The mill has three floors, an 8.5 tonne cap and a cellar. On the second floor you have access to a 360� walkway and the cap offers sea views. The inside remains traditional, even if modern materials have been used to safeguard the future of the mill.

The smock and cap have been made from cement particleboard, which gives the authentic look of weatherboarding but is flame resistant and woodworm don’t like it!  This material may be used on other listed buildings due to this successful project. In the cap alone there are more than 6,000 fixtures, all individually greased and secured by hand.

Caleb has some help in the way of labourers - and resident ghosts, too! One spectre is seen standing outside and the other is a flickering shadow on the first floor that moves tools around. Caleb is nonchalant about it, explaining that they exude waves of positive energy, so whatever phantoms do roam the windmill, at least they are friendly.

The attention to detail in the build is exquisite. Caleb has installed traditional Bullseye windows, original hinges, beautiful timber staircases and huge wooden mill doors, which gives the windmill its sense of history.

The marshland setting is a building challenge, but the land has yielded some interesting finds, including two huge millstones and some bronze pins from the original build, which Caleb will re-use. 

The bronze pins are marked with the ‘crows feet’ naval symbol and Caleb hopes to find out which mighty ship has helped build his mighty windmill. He plans to dig up the surrounding concrete area and create a garden and admits: “Building the windmill on clay soil is like building on a big blancmange!” 

The windmill should be complete this August and Caleb has nicknamed himself ‘Windy Miller Watson’. “It is a money pit,” he admits, “but I can close my eyes and see the waste ground that stood here before and when I open them I see the building that’s here today - that’s got to be worth it.”

Great Windmill

To the rear of 11 High Street, Sheerness, Swale ME12 4BN.

Tel here: Private number only

Open: The windmill will open to the public after the restoration is complete in August. It can be seen from Sheerness High Street.

Directions: The only way to Sheerness by car is to use the Swale crossing. From here, follow the A249 then turn right onto the A250 and follow signs to Sheerness High Street.  The windmill is half way down the High Street at the end of a short track behind the shop frontage.

Role of Kent County Council

Windmills are expensive to sustain, let alone restore. Kent County Council owns eight windmills in Kent: Cranbrook, Chillenden, Stelling Minnis, Kingsdown, Meopham, Herne, Wittersham and Margate.

“Windmills are so elegant and that is one of the reasons Kent County Council owns eight of them, ensuring that they stay part of Kent’s landscape,” Allan Cox from Kent County Council explains.

“The most expensive aspect is re-weatherproofing the outside of the windmills. Over the next year, the budget will be in the region of �70,000 -�100,000, due to the external works. In a normal year it costs approximately �20,000 toward all running costs.”

Allan adds: “Over the coming months, there will be a cycle of re-weatherproofing the windmills at Cranbrook, Wittersham, Chillenden and Stelling Minnis. There will also be refurbishment of the Sweeps at Drapers Mill in Margate and new shutters for Herne Windmill.”

It is a balancing act for KCC, but it does provide the people of Kent with eight fantastic windmills to visit. When I asked Allan which windmill enjoyed the best views, he explained why each enjoys its own spectacular setting.

“Union Mill in Cranbrook has impressive views over the town and countryside. From Herne windmill, there are views out towards the wind farms off the north Kent coast and the distant views towards Herne windmill are impressive when approaching from the A2990 Thanet Way.

“Chillenden windmill (one of two post mills owned by KCC and the last post mill to be built) sits serenely in an open field, while Wittersham (the other post mill - reputed to be the tallest example) is tucked away from view. 

“Margate and Meopham both have semi-rural contexts, giving a glimpse back into a more rural past, while West Kingsdown and Stelling Minnis still hold onto their agricultural and rural settings.”

Commonly on higher ground, windmills are popular with walkers. Chillenden and Meopham windmills rely on pedestrians to admire their windmills. “Our main visitors are walkers and the windmill is seen as a great landmark in Chillenden,” says Paul Allen. Paul is spokesperson for the Friends of Chillenden Windmill, which blew down in a storm in 2003 but was re-built by Reading-based Millwrights and erected again in 2007. 

Meopham Windmill

Meopham Windmill is a small mill built by the Killick brothers to showcase their building skills, using timber from the Chatham Dockyard. You have views over the village green from the third floor and windmill guide, Ian Kerr, told me that in Edwardian times the ladies used to climb to the top of the windmill, crowd around the windows and enjoy the Crystal Palace fireworks display every year.

For the Edwardians and Victorians, windmills were popular curiosities but visitor numbers have fallen in recent years. “We want to preserve the windmill to continue to be a village landmark for years to come,” says Ian.

“When I started as a guide in 1973 we had about 1,700 visitors per year - now it is more like 570.”  For SPAB National Mills Weekend, Meopham Windmill is hosting the local radio station Cray Valley Radio and visitors can all get involved.

Meopham Windmill

Wrotham Road, Meopham, Gravesham DA13 0QA

Tel: 01474 813518/812794

Open: Sun and Bank Holidays from May to Sep, 2.30-4.30pm

Directions: Situated between Maidstone and Dartford, Meopham is on the A227 Wrotham to Gravesend Road south of Longfield. From the A20 the A227 takes you through Vigo, Culverstone Green and South Street before reaching Meopham. From the A2, travel through Istead Rise and Sole Street before reaching Meopham. The windmill is on Meopham cricket green.

The popularity of windmills has diminished, but they are still seen as great educational tools for children as well as adults. Cubs, scouts, brownies, guides and school parties all learn from windmills and run home talking of ‘spiders’, ‘caps’, ‘sweeps’ and ‘fantails’. 

Intrigue and mystery surround windmills, with tales of ghosts walking the floors and the sweeps being used to send signals to smugglers. There is so much more to windmills then their beauty so why not take advantage of the SPAB National Mills Weekend and pay one or two a visit? 

Find out more about these powerful buildings which once dominated British industry and snap some fabulous photos of your home county at the same time!

Windmills open for SPAB National Mills Weekend

Ashford Willesborough


Cranbrook Union



Margate Drapers


Sandwich White


Stelling Minnis

West Kingsdown



The opening of further windmills may be announced nearer the date (consult the SPAB website). Windmills have a nominal charge for entry or simply a donations box. All website details can be found in the ‘Links’ section of our website:

Kent’s windmills

1.Barham.                    12. Guston.                  23. Sarre.

2.Biddenden.                13. Herne.                    24. Sheerness.

3.Bidborough. 14. Keston.                  25. Stanford.

4.Canterbury.               15. Margate.                26. Stelling Minnis.

5.Charing.                    16. Meopham.              27. St. Margaret’s Bay.

6.Chillenden.                17. Northbourne.          28. West Kingsdown.

7.Chislet.                      18. Oare.                     29. Whitstable.

8.Cranbrook.               19. Ringwould. 30. Willesborough.

9.Eastry.                       20. Rolvenden. 31. Wittersham.

10.Edenbridge.             21. Sandhurst.              32. Woodchurch.

11.Copton.                   22. Sandwich.

Did you know?


�–  There are more than 800 mills in England and 500 are recognisable as windmills

�–  SPAB stands for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and was founded by William Morris in 1877

�–  There are eight windmills currently owned by the Kent County Council

�–  There are only 12 Millwrights listed by the SPAB as practicing in Britain