Ancient Mill Back in Action to Meet Coronavirus Demand
In Britain, a historic and ancient mill, that dates back a millennium is once more producing flour after 50 years. The Sturminster Newton Mill is milling flour to meet soaring demand during the coronavirus pandemic. This mill is usually a tourist attraction but is now playing a role in the most serious public health crisis in a hundred years.
Watermills were first developed during the Hellenistic era. A horizontal wheel mill was invented in the ancient city of Byzantium in the 3 rd century BC and a vertical wheeled version was in operation in Ptolemaic Alexandria about 240 BC. The Romans adopted the technology and it soon spread throughout their empire.
History of Watermills
Following the Fall of the Western Roman Empire , local lords and monks continued to build mills and further refined the technology. They were used to mill flour and also for industrial purposes such as powering sawmills. During the Middle Ages and Early Modern eras, they were the main source of power. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution , in the eighteenth century, the technology was gradually replaced.
This mill is on the River Stour and is set in some beautiful scenery. The Dorset Echo reports that “the Grade II listed mill is thought to predate the Norman Conquest when it was part of Glastonbury Abbey's Dorset estate.” The original mill was built during the Anglo-Saxons period, about 1016, and it was mentioned as one of the 6000 flour mills in the kingdom in the Doomsday Book (1086). However, the current structure dates from the 18 th century.
Close up of the ancient mill in Sturminster Newton, which is also a National Trust heritage site in the UK. ( Sam / Adobe stock)
The great author Thomas Hardy lived nearby and the mill “inspired him to write two poems, Overlooking the River Stour and On Sturminster footbridge ,” according to the Dorset Echo .
Ancient Mill Still in Action
Like so many other mills, the Sturminster Newton Mill ceased producing on a commercial basis in 1970 because of competition. Pete Loosmore helped to restore the old mill some 26 years ago and it is now a heritage site, overseen by the National Trust. Remarkably, the site is still a working mill.
Mr. Loosmore, whose grandfather was the miller here, continues to mill flour along with his colleague Mrs. Imogen Bittner. They produce small amounts of flour on a part-time basis during the tourist season, which they sell to the many visitors of the heritage site.
Coronavirus Crisis Presents Unexpected Opportunities
However, Mr. Loosmore decided to ramp up production at the mill, when he heard about flour shortages among grocers, because of the current pandemic lockdown in Britain. Quite simply more and more people are baking their bread and confectionaries at home. Mr. Loosmore is quite happy to be milling on a full-time basis and he told the BBC that the “work has been a pleasure.”
Mr. Loosman at first thought that like everything else, the site would be forced to closed down. He told BBC that “our first impression was that we couldn't do anything with the mill because of social distancing.” The demand for flour is such that the mill did not close but was operated full-time for the first time in almost half-a-century.
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The ancient mill at night with stars in the sky. ( Oliver Taylor / Adobe stock)
Sharp Increase in Demand
Typically during a year, the millers use a ton of grain during the vacation season. Now as they try and meet the demand from local retailers, they are using much more. Mr. Loosman told the BBC that “this year we have got through the whole of that ton in two to three weeks and we're still chasing more and more grain.” The millers have supplied about 300 bags of flour to local shops and convenience stores.
The sudden demand for flour is some good news for the millers, because the lockdown means that there will be few tourists this season. The extra income from the production of flour is helping the mill at a very challenging time. Mrs. Bittner told the Dorset Echo that “we're only doing this while the crisis lasts and it's not only helping us but the local community because there is a shortage of flour.” Once the pandemic eases, they both hope that this fine example of industrial archaeology will once again be thronged with visitors.
Top image: The ancient mill in Sturminster Newton. Source: Eugene Birchall / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan