Pakenham Water Mill museum takes you back to Suffolk's bygone rural heritage
PUBLISHED: 12:55 05 June 2018
It’s nose to the grindstone at Suffolk’s oldest working watermill in its fairy-tale setting near Pakenham Fen | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
Push open the creaky wooden door to step inside what is probably Pakenham’s most time-honoured treasure, and you’ll find all the paraphernalia you’d usually expect from a museum and more.
Rural bygone bits a-plenty – gears and machinery, furniture, a horse even, stories of marriages and meals, swan songs and a strange ‘wallower’, plus a great set of damsels, crowns, spindles, spurs and shoes worthy of any Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. It’s the stuff of fairy-tales.
Pakenham’s historic working water mill, is a rare survivor, uniquely paired with a beautifully restored, working, wind-powered counterpart just across the village water-meadows. Barely decades ago, such iconic edifices of agricultural engineering were part of the scenery in East Anglia.
Pakenham Water Mill sits apart from its village namesake, close to the River Blackbourne at Grimstone End. The waters rising at Pakenham Fen have always been just perfect for filling the mill pond, so no wonder that in 1545 Robert Spring jumped at the chance to avail himself of the water mill, as well as local windmills, when their previous owner - Bury Abbey - was stripped of its assets and dissolved during the Reformation.
The family of the rich Lavenham clothier held the lease for more than two centuries. In the early 1700s the mill was rebuilt, only to be pulled down and replaced with a much larger affair by French refugees, the Leheups, in the 1780s – pretty much the mill we see today.
“Welcome, welcome,” beams one of the ‘Thursday faces’, Phil Dawes, from Thurston. Without further ado, I’m ushered towards the miller’s kitchen, a surviving and probably once thatched Tudor add-on to what would have been the core medieval mill. Phil’s introduction comes thick and fast, punctuated by glances at his wristwatch.
He sketches the past, whizzing over the centuries, painting the picture of local enterprise in the early 1800s, when the gift of subsidised flour to the parish’s poor during the post-Napoleonic war riots surely saved the mill from destruction. This building is a rare survival, and as the significance dawns, so the mill itself suddenly stirs from its slumber.
By the bread oven, beer vat and great hearth, Phil pauses in full beam as the building itself steps into the limelight and fills the silence. Time stands still and, mesmerised a moment, hardly believing their ears, onlookers do too.
As the great steel water-wheel engages the pit wheel and ‘wallower’, when spur wheels and spindles begin to turn and the mighty crown wheel gets its teeth into helping to hoist the sacks, when agitated ‘damsels’ regulate the flow of grain down through the ‘shoe’ to the grindstones, you can’t help feeling swept away, caught up in the relentless natural drive of a world going about its business as it has done for centuries.
Few experiences could be more real or more of an onslaught to the senses - the shudders, the creaks, the clanking, the textured shapes and smoothness of old wooden steps, planks and beams, the sharp smell of fresh-milled grain, the bright white coats of the millers, the incessant turning, shaking, sieving and sifting.
Few Suffolk spots could ever be more grounded, more truly at home and embedded in their environment. The mill seems to engender a sense of awe and even a strange, comforting peace that goes hand in hand with a true sense of place and belonging.
Pakenham water mill is owned by the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust, bought, saved and restored by the Suffolk Preservation Society in 1978 after the last commercial miller, Bryan Marriage, from the Chelmsford milling dynasty, failed to win permission to convert it to a house for his retirement.
“It was the excellent water supply, good machinery and the sheer hard work of millers like Walter Hitchcock and Bryan, which saw the water mill win through to the late 20th century,” explains Phil. “By the 1930s most rural mills were redundant, but Marriage had the know-how and the access to the kit.”
Tenant miller Charles Lowe invested his own cash in 1814 to swap the old undershot wooden water wheel system for a four ton iron wheel and a more efficient, high ‘breastshot’ scheme, where the water through the sluices enters the wheel above axel height.
A few steps lead outside to a world of relative calm, where spent waters, channelled under the road, rush to be released into the wild and head to the the Blackbourne beyond, just as they have done for centuries.
Then, a final introduction to another impressive old character, Blackstone Stamford, Bryan Marriage’s pride and joy, a smart 1904 paraffin oil compression engine, installed around wartime when millers were exempt from military service. It was a powerful extra driving force when he took a side step to mill animal feed for local farmers, and it still works a treat.
Inside the main mill his other major 1940s purchase, the now extremely rare ‘super-sifter’ Tattersalls Midget Roller Mill, waits its turn for the spot of TLC which might one day get it going again.
So who are the millers here today and what happens to the exceptional stone-ground wheat, spelt and rye flours produced by their weekly grind? Fortified by tea and homemade cake served from vintage crockery courtesy of the morning’s smiling tea-ladies, Bridget and Cathy, it’s time to hunt down the head honcho.
Peter Stobbart is head miller, a modest man who used to work on roads and drainage, then learnt his milling skills in later life from shadowing Clive, the eminent engineer who went before him and the volunteer on everyone’s lips as the man who really got the wheels turning.
“The mill’s fully operational once a week throughout the year and we’re all volunteers here,“ confirms Peter. “We’ve artisan bakers and local clients who count on using our flours and they’re sold in some local shops as well as here at the mill. The wheat’s all local and the spelt only has a short journey from Hertfordshire.
“I s’pose all these places are commercialised these days, but you know, it doesn’t seem like it here.”
Outside, by the mill pond, Phil and his wife have created a delightful wildlife garden. Other volunteers planted the heritage orchard and helped to clear the riverside walk which leads to Pakenham’s black-tarred tower mill and back.
Swans paddle the pond. The white blossom of wild plum trees sprinkle fairy-tale magic by the bluebells. This Suffolk water mill enjoys a contented existence, much loved and cared for - so it can simply go with the flow.
Need to know
What? Pakenham Water Mill
Where? Mill Road, Pakenham, Bury St Edmunds, IP31 2NB
When? Open March 31 - September 30 2018: Thurs 10am – 4pm; Saturday, Sunday & Bank Holidays 1pm – 4.30pm. Milling times (approx.): Thurs 10am-11.30 & Sundays in August 2pm-3.30pm – subject to operational constraints.
How much? Adults £5, seniors £4.40, children £2.50, family (2+2) £13 (includes guided tour)
Need to know: Historic building on several levels, with steps and steep stairs – not suitable for wheelchairs or buggies. Children must be supervised at all times. Tearoom and facilities on ground floor.
Find out more pakenhamwatermill.org.uk Tel: 01359 230275 / 07585 899633