A historic English mill is being recommissioned to handle the needs of its local community. Flour made the old-fashioned way is making a comeback. The Sturminster Newton Mill in Devon England has started producing vital supplies after a break of half a century! The mill is one of a series of ancient flour mills constructed on the River Stour. There is evidence that a mill existed on this spot in 1016 AD during Saxon times.
Food shortages currently have left people short of essentials. Which is why workers Imogen Bittner and Pete Loosmore are putting their traditional skills to use, helping the local community. “In one way we have an advantage over the bigger mills,” Bittner told the Bournemouth Echo, “which are used to selling large sacks to the wholesale trade and don’t have the machinery or manpower to put the flour into small bags.”
Typically smaller amounts of flour would be produced to support the mill as a tourist attraction. This operation however is on a whole other level. The Echo reports, “in just 10 days they have already milled a tonne of wheat – which is usually a year’s supply for the facility.” The unexpected move has “supplied 200 bags of flour weighing 3.3lbs to local grocers and bakers.”
In the process, much needed income has been generated for the business. Like many other public venues it’s been closed whilst the current situation keeps people at home. Usually the mill would open part time, so this is quite a change!
When the mill shut its doors in 1970 the place seemed done and dusted. Yet its rich heritage led to it becoming a stunning local feature. With its picturesque location on the River Stour, it draws many visitors. Charity the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust have been in charge, starting 1994. Loosmore was behind the shift, performing restoration work on the machinery. For him it was a family affair – his grandfather was the miller there for approx 50 years. Quoted by the BBC, Loosmore says “It’s been nice to bring the place truly back to life and back into something like it used to be when it was working six days a week.”
There were several flour mills along the Stour – this classic example, a Grade II listed structure, represents a 1,000 year legacy of production in Sturminster town. The impressive millstone, sorry milestone, was reached in 2016. Over the centuries the mill witnessed the worst plagues in history. Sturminster Newton Mill has a degree of fame, thanks to its inclusion in the Domesday Book (1086). Speaking of books, author Thomas Hardy lived close by. His classic novel The Return of the Native (1878) was penned in the vicinity.
In 1994, when the current owners took charge, a Hallmark adaptation was made starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Clive Owen and Joan Plowright. However Exmoor National Park was chosen as the filming location! In addition to writing The Return of the Native, Hardy’s poems ‘Overlooking the River Stour’ and ‘On Sturminster Footbridge’ have obvious associations with the town.
How did the business run back in the day? “Until the turn of the 20th century, Sturminster Newton Mill was powered by a pair of undershot water wheels working side by side which drove four sets of stones” writes the website of Sturminster Newton Museum Trust. “The last pair of water wheels, fitted by William Munden of Ringwood in 1849, were capable of a combined output of 12 horsepower. In 1904 the mill was upgraded, and the two water wheels were replaced with a single water turbine.” (SM)
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With cultural institutions around the world struggling, online resources have become a lifeline. Some are making their world class exhibits available to view in virtual tours. Meanwhile, enterprising employees are showcasing their weirdest and wildest features under the hashtag #CuratorBattle. Once the crisis is over, things should be returning to normal for the mill. Despite the circumstances, it’s heartening to see community spirit alive and well in the 21st century…