Sunday, 12 June 2011

Run Of The Mill

You may be wondering what happened to those cygnets that hatched out at Grantchester Mill a week or two ago - well, so am I. They've disappeared, as they do every year at this time, probably to a quieter stretch of the river. But they'll be back I'm sure.

Grantchester Mill

I couldn't help having a look at the millpond as I was passing. The mill house reminded me of my grandmother and a visit we made to this spot about twenty-five years ago. We sat pretty much where the above photo was taken, "I've been here before, haven't I ", she said. I confessed that I hadn't a clue but she went on to explain that when she was a little girl she had come here, on top of a cart, with her father. That must have been just after 1900. There had been no real wind for weeks so the windmill at Bourn, which usually ground their wheat, had not been able to operate and they had to take the grain to Grantchester watermill. She had waited in that very spot till it was time to return home. 

She also recalled that the mill was much larger then. That was because the old mill had burned down in 1929 and only the miller's house was able to be saved, the rest of the mill, a wooden structure, was burned down. The mill had been owned by the Nutter family and as a result my mother now lives at the unfortunate address of "Nutters Close".

The windmill at Cley

Windmills and watermills were for centuries the backbone of the farming economy of Britain. Without mills to grind the wheat and barley  there would be no bread and, just as importantly, no beer. The two types of mill complemented each other in the way described; if there was no wind you used water power and equally when the streams were low people turned to windmills. On the coast the wind is more reliable and many mills like the one at Cley still remain though most are converted to rather idiosyncratic holiday homes.

The Mill at Cambridge

Other mills have all but disappeared though often the evidence is still there for those who care to look. How many people, I wonder have sat drinking a pint on the bridge outside The Mill pub in Cambridge without realising that they are sitting on the foundations of the old King's Mill. If you peer closely at the brickwork in the photo above you can see the mark made by the rotation of the water-wheel.

Wicken wind-pump

But on the Fens many of the windmills aren't mills at all, but, like the one at Wicken Fen, pumps to drain the land, . This building still retains its internal workings even though it's no longer in use.

The workings

I hope that in a future blog I'll be able to show the inside of a working grain mill; there are a number still in existence. I'm also trying to find out the truth or otherwise of a snippet of information which I have in a very dusty and little visited part of my mind. From somewhere I have the idea that all the terms in the children's rhyme "The Cat And The Fiddle" relate to parts of the machinery involved in milling. All I've found so far is that there are several pubs called The Cat And Fiddle near the sites of windmills, but no one else seems to have heard the rumour which I dimly recollect.

Take care.


  1. So now I've learned about windmills. I like admiring them from pictures...we don't have any around where I live in this county. If I travel about 2 hours south, I'll find plenty, but none as picturesque as these. Thanks John...oh, and I don't know anything about The Cat and The Fiddele...I think that's Granny Sue's specialty. :)

  2. Interesting post John. There were many mills along the rivers of Sheffield and the surrounding areas (one of which I live in) but they were all water powered and mainly used for industrial purposes. Abbeydale Hamlet still has it's wheel and they have working days which are interesting but not as romantic as the wind and water mills that were used for grinding corn. Hope you remember about the Cat and the Fiddle - there's a pub of that name high up on the moors near where I used to live in Cheshire and it gave its name to the road between Buxton and Macclesfield. All local children, including me, were hauled up there when they had whooping cough because the air was supposed to cure you:) As a starter there was an old agricultural tool called a seed fiddle - wonder if this has a connection?

  3. Thank you for the comments. Having been to the Cat And Fiddle near Buxton on a number of occasions I should think that the air would either "kill or cure". As I remember it the "cat" consisted of a small cogwheel above a large one while the fiddle was an arm which was moved back and forth by the wheels, but the dog, the moon, the dish and the spoon also had some connection. But I don't remember where I learned this and I can't find any reference to it anywhere.

  4. Interesting post, John. I visit Grantchester Mill a lot, the place is very beautiful. However, one point I would like to mention is that the weir on the image of the Cambridge Mill is not actually the Cambridge mill- the restaraunt MillWorks has been built over the mill.
    I was wondering if you knew why at times the small arch under the bridge at the Grantchester mill throws out a massive jet of water into the pond?

    1. I'm not familiar with Millworks, but Googled it and found that it's on what we used to call Newnham Mill. If it's where I think it is then it's housed in what was actually part of the mill buildings, which was still used as a factory in my lifetime, before being converted into a pizza restaurant. King's Mill, which I photographed, used to stand near The Mill pub, near the University Centre. The jet of water at Grantchester Mill is what in former times used to turn the waterwheel, I think it's only opened up now to flush that section of the river which otherwise silts up.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).