Water, water

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.

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29 thoughts on “Water, water

  1. Man cannot live on trousers alone, so it’s good that there’s a bit of bread to go with them. I’m fascinated by water mills of which there are many in the Vendee. There a mule tracks to the windmills on the ridges where millers would take their grain in high summer when the rivers were low.

  2. So many watermills lie derelict. It’s lovely to see one working. I love the sound of rushing water – as long as I’m not in it (showers excepted) 😉

    1. Me too, Myfanwy. One day, when my ship comes in, I’d love to live in a water mill. With a nice engineer who comes along each day to tend it,a and teach me how to mill my own flour. One day 🙂

    1. It is: and even now conversions which favour a modern system to harness the hydro power are encouraged, even though they are quite drastic changes to listed buildings. We all know water power makes sense 🙂

  3. The pics are great and the history even better. We saw an old mill turned into a restaurant on our recent trip to Italy and Croatia, amazing places.

    1. They are, Lou – and so dramatic. To sit and watch the wheel turn as you eat a meal: it is unforgettable. Your restaurant sounds as if it was very special.

  4. This is just up the road a few miles from us, yet I’ve never been there! I don’t think there’s a water wheel involved there, however; at least not the picturesque type. https://plus.google.com/113450853708131894289/about?hl=en How different this place looks from that pastoral one in your photos. 🙂

    When I think of water power my thoughts go to this system in WA and places I HAVE visited many times. See: http://engagingresources.org/2012/03/the-skagit-river-watershed-histories-submerged/ and: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=5347 It’s interesting to me, however, that I was never compelled to research much about the history of this system of dams on the Skagit when I lived in WA, so I didn’t know, for example, how many people were displaced because of it (another tale entirely), nor that the threat of further displacements continued into Canada until a treaty in 1984!!

  5. I was just visiting our own little mill on Sunday afternoon, Kate. The water was forceful that day and the old wheel churned, much to the satisfaction of the miller. I like the angles of your photos. There is a bit of a controversy starting to brew here between the historians and the environmentalists. The environmentalists want to reverse the dam, which was manmade a century and a half ago, to let the fish through. Of course, without the dam, there is no milled cornmeal for the tourists and schoolchildren and history buffs.

    1. Yes: history is all very well, Penny, but we all have to live. It is a shame we cannot find a way which allows nature all its traditional paths, and yet lets us use the water for our needs as well.

  6. What a beautiful setting for the mill. I do remember your previous mention, and I am really fascinated by the history connected to its operation. I am captivated by the story of water, hydro-electric power, and the creative ways that lifegiving water is supplied to every-increasing populations. Here in California the story of water is quite amazing. I might think about sharing that sometime…we do live in a “real” desert…and if Northern California ever shuts off the tap, we’re in trouble! 🙂 But oh my, Mary Tudor! Debra

    1. I’d love to read the story of water in California, Debra. And Mary, yes, well: rob the religious to pay for your wedding, but somehow in the middle the poor get a good deal. Not sure how to look at the whole business, really. Mills were such an essential thing to have in a town.

    1. Not this time, although I often do. Our bread maker has given up the ghost, and we’re waiting for a new one. It does make heavenly bread, when mixed with white flour, though. The flavour is out of this world. And volunteer cooks use it to make things to sample at the mill: scones, cake and even a jubilee cake: you may have spotted it in the jubilee pictures on Sunday. Yummy.

  7. Dear Kate, Waterwheels must have a history in most countries. Certainly they do here. And the study of how towns and villages and cities flourished along the waterways is the study of the spread of civilization. But, oh, when you connect all that with the man with whom you are speaking in that mill, how real it all becomes. Thank you. Peace.

  8. He was a lovely bloke, Dee, and so ready to share the workings of the mill with us. The great story of water and how it has fostered peoples: it is a wonderful one. Reading about the Roman tidal mill at the mouth of the Fleet, on the Thames: it is an eye opener. The mill, if its existence can be conclusively proved, must have supplied old Londinium well.

  9. Water powered flour mills, rising bread under a moist towel on the window sill have all but disappeared. Makes one dream: with the rising cost of energy, sky rocketing grocery bills, a health minded consumer; if a crack may open wide enough for a would-be miller to slip the break of a water wheel to turn the massive stones and once again produced proper flour. To which households will explode with the perfume of freshly baked bread. Sighs! I am a dream’n man, I am, I am.

    ‘Angry moisture. It was spoiling for a fight’. A+++ for that line.

  10. Kate, you make the world so very interesting. “Oh, an old mill”…yawn. Then Kate shows up with her pointer which she uses to raise layer upon layer of lively facts that bring brilliance to items we dare overlook as mundane.

  11. Love the photos, particularly the one of the old bridge through the perspective of that old window and its latch – there’s a ghoulish Name-of-the-Rose type story in there just waiting to be told 🙂

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