National Mills Weekend
by Philip Hicks
Mills across Sussex are opening their doors for a weekend of historic delights.
The 13th and 14th May is National Mills Weekend, which is the annual festival of Britain’s milling heritage and provides a fantastic opportunity to visit mills, many of which are not usually open to the public. For the past few years the event has been given a theme for mill owners to follow and provide relevant displays and exhibits. The theme for 2017 is ‘Engineers and Engineering’ to celebrate the engineers and millwrights who built and repaired mills as well as their machinery.
Before the widespread use of fossil fuels and electricity, wind and watermills provided the only source of power for many different manufacturing processes – from making flour, paper and cloth to hammering metal and extracting oils. You can explore mills that produced, or still produce these products, some restored to working order, others derelict, and some still working commercially.
There are three main types of windmill in Sussex – the post mill, smock mill and tower mill. A post mill is so named because the timber body pivots round a central timber post so the sweeps can always face into the wind. The body containing the machinery and millstones weighs over twenty tons and the mill was often turned manually by the miller using a long timber pole projecting from the rear. Later post mills were fitted with fantails which harnessed the wind to turn the body automatically. Tower mills have a static tower of brick or stone topped by a timber cap which could revolve to allow the sweeps to face into the wind. Smock mills have a tower of timber construction and are said to have taken their name from a resemblance to an old farm worker’s smock garment. Sweeps is the term used in Sussex and Kent for the windmill’s sails.
During its peak, milling by wind and water power saw a rise in numerous mill-wrighting businesses trading in every county. They were often run by father and son or by brothers, with skills being passed from one generation to the next. In addition to working on mills, millwrights were often employed to execute heavy engineering work such as erection of steam powered machinery or hanging church bells, as they possessed the necessary know-how and equipment.
Life for a millwright was not easy; it meant hard work and long hours. They often faced a challenge to recover debts from their customers and hence many millwrights went bankrupt. Nowadays there are just a few commercial millwrighting companies situated across the UK who are mainly concerned with restoration work.
Mill opening times over Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th May
Chailey Smock Mill – Radio amateur enthusiasts will be broadcasting from the mill all day on Saturday 13th and on the morning of Sunday 14th but the mill itself will only be open to visitors on Sunday afternoon between 3pm and 5pm.
Nutley Post Mill – The mill will be open on both Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th between 10.30am and 5.30pm.
Jill Post Mill, Clayton – The mill will be open Sunday 14th between 2pm and 5pm.
Oldland Post Mill, Keymer – The mill will be open during the afternoon of Sunday 14th between 2pm and 5pm.
Sheffield Watermill – The mill is rarely open to the public but can be viewed on either day by prior appointment only, please phone in advance of the weekend for an appointment.
Cobb’s watermill, Hurstpierpoint – This mill is also rarely open to the public but visitors will be welcome on Sunday 14th between 10am and 4pm.
Other windmills in Sussex open to view include West Blatchington (Hove), High Salvington (near Worthing), Windmill Hill (Herstmonceux), Stone Cross, Polegate and the newly renovated post mill at Argos Hill (Mayfield). The watermills include Batemans Park (Burwash), Michelham Priory and Lurgashall (at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum). If you are travelling a long distance please confirm opening arrangements with the individual mill in advance. Some mills may either charge a small entry fee or ask for a donation towards running costs.