I stood in a dusky room, my back to leaded windows and my face to the roaring water.
The air was full of angry moisture. It was spoiling for a fight.
The miller grinned at me and reached into the stream of flour falling into a sack nearby. He threw it out to a mother duck and her ducklings, outside in the sunlight on a calmer part of the River Itchen. This mother knew what she was doing. A National Trust volunteer miller likes to keep the locals fed. Delighted ducklings puttered around hoovering up.
But they had to work fast. Because the speed of this part of the Itchen was fast enough to be of considerable use to the men who have farmed the current for a thousand years.The water takes no prisoners.
This miller mills for the pure satisfaction of the job. He doesn’t draw any salary, or get financial recompense for how many bags he fills. But he was still tutting: because the waters were sluggish today.
He gestured, disgusted, towards the bag collecting the flour falling from a chute in the ceiling.
“It’s really slow today ” he mourned. “We’re only on our second sack. Someone up the river will have put down some sluice gate or other, and that has a direct effect on us. Usually we can fill a sack in half an hour: today it’s taking about one and a half hours.”
We looked sympathetic. Winchester Mill sells its flour to the visitors, and less flour means less money in the Trust coffers. Still, this was a thoroughly modern miller: he had never lost out because the local townspeople had not got enough grain for their bread. Hungry townspeople, I imagine, in those days of yore, would not pull their punches.
One thousand years of hungry townspeople: that’s a lot.
Still, it keeps one in trousers. It’s a livelihood worth protecting.
“These days,” the miller told us, “all we have to do is pick up the phone and call the Environment Agency. But in the old days the miller would pick up his shotgun and head off down the river, to find out who had stopped the water.”
Like everything, life was a bit more touch-and-go. Law enforcement was not what it is today: it could be a very DIY matter. I gazed out past the great wooden wheel to the banks of the Itchen, where millers of centuries must have strode with a purpose born of necessity.
Hydro power. The art of making water do something for us: it’s ancient. Water wheels have been around for a very long time: the Greeks and Romans operated them. There is some evidence that a Roman tidal water mill existed on a small island at the mouth of London’s Fleet River as far back as 100AD when a watercourse was dug through it.
Winchester Mill belonged to the nuns: I have mentioned it before. It figured as part of a very strange deal indeed, carved by Mary Tudor. Her father had wrested it from the hands of the nuns in his 1539 liturgical trolley dash. She chose Winchester Cathedral in which to marry the Spaniard, and by all accounts it was a lavish affair.
It cost the City of Winchester dear, and Mary knew this. She gave the mill to the city as some recompense, along with parcels of land nearby.
And the millwheels have been turning, off and on, with times of fortune and periods of misfortune, boom and bust, ever since. It has lain derelict in 1471, and the early 1900s; it has been a grain mill, a tannery and a laundry. It has been built and rebuilt.
But still the river flows through it: fast and slow, angry and calm, a continuous roaring presence, hurling moisture into the limpid air.