Star turn at the mill
PUBLISHED: 16:30 04 February 2014 | UPDATED: 16:30 04 February 2014
Sam Woor visits restored Woodbridge Tide Mill, where the stones are once again grinding flour
A product of almost 50 years of dedication and a triumph of modern restoration, the Tide Mill, Woodbridge, is a shining example of local food and heritage working hand in hand to preserve a very special piece of local history.
The Tide Mill offers a fascinating glimpse into the distant past, yet also a glimmer of hope for the future as once again the huge water wheel turns and the skills many had thought to be lost in modern society are revived.
Woodbridge is one of my favourite places in Suffolk. So rarely do we visit places now where tradition has largely escaped the ever encroaching threat of modern life. But Woodbridge feels different. Yes, there are supermarkets, but this small town is still very much connected to its heritage. I am thankful for this. It is this attitude towards preservation of the past which saved the crumbling Tide Mill from demolition back in the 1960s and the reason why the mill stands in solitude as the last working tide mill in the country.
The mill is situated on the banks of the River Deben, where there’s been a mill since the 12th century. Here the shrieks of sea birds circling overhead greet you and it’s not hard to imagine yourself standing there 800 years ago with the same sounds carried on the crisp salt breeze as you go about your day’s work in the then newly constructed mill.
It’s clear to me why the Tide Mill team is so passionate about saving this building. How could you not be? To be part of such a magnificent history, to stand alongside past owners including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I – there must be immense pride and satisfaction in knowing that what they’re doing is keeping us connected with our past and keeping tradition very much alive.
The current mill was built on the site of earlier ones in 1793. After a succession of private owners, it closed in 1957, the last working tide mill in the country, It was saved in 1968 and, following restoration, reopened to the public in 1973.
Today the mill is run by the Woodbridge Tide Mill Trust, supported by a group of enthusiastic Friends of Woodbridge Tide Mill. It wasn’t until recently that the trustees decided to take a leap of faith and truly breathe new life back into the building, setting the cogs turning, the stones grinding and doing what the building was built to do – produce flour.
It was an ambitious goal. The mill had not been in operation for over 50 years and a lot needed to be done.
When I went to visit, Bob Spillett, the vice-chairman of the trust, told nightmarish tales of rotten wood and all sorts of other obstacles which sought to stop the restoration in its tracks, including sourcing a five metre diameter English oak water wheel to power the milling process – no easy task, you can imagine.
The team endeavoured to save as much detail from the original building as they possibly could, from the most warped beam to timeworn artefacts such as the miller’s record book, which Bob pointed out to me with immense pride.
From the outside the building looms over the river, as if carved from the landscape, a world away from the near ruin it was not so long ago.
It is not known as ‘The Living Museum’ for nothing and is alive with action from the gushing rapids flowing through the water wheel to the immense, revolving mill stones used to produce their flour. I find it hard to imagine the building as anything less than the industrious landmark it is today.
Inside, a fine white crust cakes the original beams, filling cracks and crevices like veins running through the building. On closer inspection it is flour, built up over centuries of production, an example of layers of history being created every day, each miller contributing his own flour to this illustrious ancestry.
While we were examining the impressive water wheel, there was a resonating clunk followed by a series of clicks and bangs like the waking of some great beast beneath our feet before slowly, but surely, the water wheel began to move.
The water in the tide pool, collected at high tide, was released in a silvery cascade, crashing and running in rivulets across the moving oak.
Wheels and cogs began to move inside the mill and flour, warm from being freshly ground, began to pour from the chute like a waterfall into the miller’s waiting arms, creating a silvery mist as the last sun of the day shone through the windows.