IF Stepping inside the historic rustic building housing the working watermill at Michelham Priory, Hailsham, East Sussex, England, you could have gone back in time. There is a slight smell of grain and age, and through the timber walls and floors you can feel the vibrations generated by the awesome power of the rotating iron water wheel. When it has gathered enough speed, tons of interlocking iron and wood inside begin to turn. Within minutes, grains of organic wheat, ground between the circular French Burr stones, have filtered through the system and emerge as fine textured, additive free, food quality flour.

There have been water mills in the tranquil gardens of the Priory of Holy Trinity, since the 13th Century. Served by water from the longest medieval, water filled moat in England, they were originally established, as part of a programme of self sufficiency, to grind corn for the monastery and its tenants. This mill was converted to generate electricity in the 1920’s but fell into a state of disrepair, being saved by the Management Committee of the Priory and the Friends of Michelham, who made the decision to restore the mill to full working order.

IFIt ran regularly from 1976 to 1994 when parts of the then wooden wheel disintegrated due to natural ‘wear and tear,’ bringing displays and production to a halt. Rescued once again by the Friends, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and East Sussex County Council, over £60,000 was raised to get this fascinating piece of social history working again. In 1997 it was replaced by a more durable iron wheel.

The watermill is manned entirely by enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. Businessman Sean Ring is one of the Senior Millers, having started in 2001 when he offered his engineering skills to repair their non-functioning winnowing machine, and he has stayed there ever since

IFHe said, “When I first saw the water mill I fell in love with it. I’d previously restored a Tudor building and I did a lot of further work on listed buildings, so the fascination of this water mill captivated me. Because I love old machines, I was particularly interested in the winnowing machine.”

The millers at that time took him around the mill and told him all about it. “You’re not going to get away with just working on the building,” they said, “You’ve got to learn to mill.” “So I became one of the millers. We are all volunteers, this is big boy’s toys; we can’t afford steam engines and that sort of thing, so we come to be engaged with, and work with, such wonderful machinery, and not having to pay tens of thousands of pounds to own one. This is the most economically and environmentally friendly type of machinery in the world.

“But, we were presented with a challenge when the cogs on the spur wheel began to wear out. A visiting millwright was called in and he said, ‘This is not safe, it could break.’ We were shocked because we hadn’t thought it was that bad. He said could do the repairs, but the cost would be twelve to fifteen thousand pounds and he couldn’t start work on it for at least a year, so we had to stop milling.
“Some of our volunteers had engineering backgrounds, there were retired engineers from the aircraft industry with mechanical skills, and when we looked into this we were absolutely certain we could repair it ourselves.

IF“English Heritage sent along one of their architectural management staff who looked at the wheel and discovered that some of the wooden working parts had been made of elm and American maple instead of the more suitable green apple or hornbeam. Dryness and stress damage had caused the cogs to break up. The wood is sacrificial, it can be replaced. So we did a survey, I produced some drawings, and a local joinery shop machined the timber to our specification. The cost was around £1,000.

“Having carefully put everything together, we manually turned the wheel to make sure nothing fouled, did a few slight adjustments and then ran it gently under observation. This was followed by a run with a very light load of grain, and it all worked perfectly. It was sheer delight, we were ecstatic. We didn’t doubt that we could do it, but the resulting smoothness and the mechanical efficiency now means that it takes just one and a half turns of the wheel to start milling, whereas before it had taken six turns from the opening of the sluice. I think we have probably doubled the life of the spur wheel cogs, and an annual application of beeswax helps to keep them running well.

“The millstones are French Burr Stones, the lower Bed Stone is fixed, the top Runner Stone rotates, which can grind corn to a fine texture. They are about 250 years old, and because they are kept clean and we don’t overuse them, we haven’t got to the stage where they’ve become worn and need redressing. (Chipping new furrows into the stone). We simply clean them about once a year as part of our normal maintenance. The grain we use is wheat from local organic farms, and we can produce delicious, additive free, food quality flour that we sell in the mill shop.”

IFSean added, “Anybody that does an unpaid job does it for reasons other than money. I love doing this because there is a great deal of satisfaction. The value that history and heritage have, we owe it to our children and grandchildren, otherwise how would they know about these wonderful places that are maintained and the skills that are used. If I have learnt a tenth of the skills that a millwright had 100 years ago, it is 100% more than most people will ever learn.

“The mill, I hope will go on for many more years. We make sure that maintenance is relatively easy and the parts accessible. This is exactly why this mill is still here, because each miller or millwright would add to it. When we carry out a maintenance task, we write it up in a hand book and I’m writing a newer version, which I’ve been doing for 3-4 years. When I’m beyond working here, those notes are a legacy for the next generation of millers at Michelham. For them to have to learn from scratch, because we haven’t been good custodians, would be cheating the next generation. When we learn something that we didn’t know, we have a duty of care to write it down. The Victorian millwrights were masters of their craft; if we can just shadow what they did we are serving a little bit of history and keeping it going.

Useful Information:
The water mill can be seen working on most days from 2pm to approx. 5 pm from 1st March to 31st October. There is no entrance fee but donations towards the upkeep of the mill are appreciated.
Michelham Priory,
East Sussex,