There’s nothing better than the smell of chocolate brownies baking on a chilly Saturday afternoon. That morning, my family had bought fresh stoneground flour from Winchester City Mill and we got the brownie recipe there too – the National Trust has produced it as part of a fundraising campaign to help save the Mill.
My sons stayed up at street level, watching a miller feed grain into a hopper which trickles it steadily down between two mill stones. The upper stone grinds the grain as it turns, flour is sprayed out through a chute by the lower stone and this is bagged up for sale in the shop. The power house is at river level. The force of the River Itchen rotates the paddles of the mill wheel and its energy is transmitted upwards through a mighty set of gears to the mill stones. The Saxon millwrights who first built here picked a good spot: the site beside Bridge Street is at the narrowest point of the main channel of the River Itchen in Winchester. It’s the perfect location for harnessing the maximum power from the river – but not so good when the river floods, as it did in February 2014.
I went down to the basement to see the damage. The room seemed dry and I could hear the controlled rushing of water through the fast channel next door and the Mill rumbling industriously above. However the manager, Ric Weeks, remembers standing neck-deep in water there nearly four years ago. ‘It was like a giant washing machine, with water coming in around the window frame and running out through the walls. The whole building was shaking as debris washed down the river and crashed into it.’
Winchester was saved from flooding by a bold scheme. The Environment Agency closed one lane of the M3, allowing the fire brigade to lower 70 one-tonne bags of gravel into the swollen river, damming it and filling the floodplain near Easton. This stopped more water entering the city and the floods subsided in most places after a couple of weeks. But this did not help the Mill – water could not escape downstream and it remained submerged. Ric said, ‘Those were the worst three months of my life, trying to fire-fight the flood in the hope there would be something left at the end of it.’
Volunteer miller, Charles Lidbury, lives in a nearby cottage with a garden running down to the river. He had a ring-side view and a special interest in observing what happened next. ‘The Mill was the pinch-point in the river, so the Environment Agency installed a pump and an enormous pipe from up by The Willow Tree pub, along Water Lane, round the Mill and back into the river.’ Eventually the trapped water was pumped away and the Mill emerged from the flood. It was still standing, but how much damage had been done inside?
The paddle wheel and milling machinery had been completely destroyed, but insurance covered this and they were repaired within a year. Inspectors took the opportunity to remove old wall partitions and ceiling panels which had been installed throughout the basement in the 1970s, during the YHA’s tenancy of the building. They revealed a wonderful surprise – ancient timbers made from wood which had been growing during the time of the Norman Conquest. They also revealed wet rot, expedited by the flood, galloping through the structure. Ric showed me an antique lintel with the consistency of Weetabix and a joist, which was supposed to be resting on the lintel, floating in mid-air. More than 50 emergency props were promptly installed to support the two stories above.
Since then, the public has come to the Mill’s rescue, supporting raffles, events like a ‘Millathon’ (30 hours non-stop milling) and a duck race. So far, they have raised £80,000 of the £125,000 required to secure the Mill, enabling the restoration work to start. Despite the complexity of the repairs, most of the Mill remains open. Visitors can watch conservation carpenters from a special viewing platform, as they gradually take down the ancient timbers, exposing the bowels of the building, before replacing the rotted parts with modern wood, then putting them back again. If all goes to plan, the Mill should re-open in time for Easter when families can watch hot cross bun-baking demonstrations or explore the Mill’s nooks and crannies on a Cadbury egg hunt. And I highly recommend chocolate brownies made from fresh stoneground flour – they’re delicious.
Donate – You can donate online to the National Trust on call: 01962 870057. Or you can stop by the mill any time and donate or buy a National Trust Special Places raffle ticket.