As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Howardian Hills AONB, Paul Miles goes in search of markets and mills in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and comes across a Gothic eye-catcher of a mill on the River Derwent.
“We live up t’hill from t’mill,” says a blue-eyed man drinking a mug of Yorkshire tea in a village hall. As an example of vernacular, at least that parodied by t’ comedians, 78-year old Douglas Horne’s talk is rich. “Aye, every village had its mill,” says the old-timer, taking a break from serving refreshments during Hovingham’s monthly foodie market where artisan bakers and brownie makers sell their wares. “But many people left villages and t’ small mills to work in textile mills in cities,” says Douglas. It was the Luddite riots – burning the machinery – that inspired the now familiar Yorkshire saying: ‘trouble at t’mill’.
One mill that has turned trouble into triumph is in Howsham, a village on the River Derwent. As with other villages in the Howardian Hills AONB, its roadside name sign is attached to millstones. It’s a sign of how important mills were in village life in the area.
“Your daily bread was dependent on the miller milling the flour,” confirms Liz Vowles, education officer at Howsham Mill, which now generates electricity rather than grinding corn. The beautiful grade II listed building, a fine example of Gothic revival, with graceful ogee curves, quatrefoils and crocketed finials, is finally complete and open to the public after a £800,000 restoration and hundreds of hours of work by volunteers. You may have seen it featured on BBC’s Restoration Village in 2006 when it was a northern region finalist. The 18th-century building, which ten years ago was a roofless ruin with a tree growing out of the middle, stands on a small island in the middle of the river Derwent, once navigable by cargo boats that passed through a series of locks.
This mill is unusually ornate as it was a ‘Gothick eye-catcher’, an important feature in the Capability Brown-designed landscaped grounds of nearby Howsham Hall, to which it belonged. It wasn’t built just to be pretty though; the mill produced all the flour for bread and cakes eaten by the Cholmley family and their servants. “They used French blue stones that made fine white flour, a status symbol,” explains Liz.
The mill last ground corn in the 1940s and the number of people who remember it is dwindling. “A local man, Albert Fox, who used to deliver grain to the mill by horse and cart has talked to us for a video clip for our website,” says Liz. “It was very emotional. He came here with his family to show them the restoration. He talked about unloading huge sacks of grain and how it was difficult to turn the cart around in the small space,” she says.
Now the mill itself has been turned around. Instead of producing flour, it generates electricity. You can stand on a glass floor and watch as water gushes from the mill race at 2,000 litres per minute and sets the massive steel wheel spinning, generating up to 11kw of power. Outside an Archimedean screw turbine – the first to be installed in the UK - also harnesses the power of water from the weir and directs it into the national grid. Together the two hydro-systems can provide all the electricity needs of 70 homes and should bring in £35,000 per year in revenue. Howsham mill is proving to be a fine example of the work that can be achieved by the Renewable Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation that was established to manage this ambitious restoration and adopted as its strapline: “old buildings, new energy.”
The mill on its SSSI-listed island is reached via public footpaths over fields from the small road to Howsham village, just three miles from the A64. However, flooding is often a problem in the winter when the mill and its island may be under water and it is not possible to visit. This year – 2013 – marks the completion of the restoration and events are being held in the mill and on the island, such as willow weaving workshops, puppet theatre and a Christmas fair.
Otherwise, the mill is locked up when not in use, although private tours can be arranged by appointment. Or just wander around its exterior, the roof surmounted by a graceful steel mesh sculpture of Diana the hunter, as you look out for kingfishers darting along the river and, if you’re very lucky, an otter. On the island, you can uncover fragments of original masonry and remnants of ancient millstones from tendrils of vegetation. There is even a barbecue spot that can be used with care. As you tuck into white burger buns from the supermarket – or even an artisan loaf from a village market - you may like to think back to an age when your daily bread meant a daily grind and you hoped there’d be no trouble at t’mill.