Tucked away off a quiet lane in the village of Stock, in between Chelmsford and Billericay is a bit of a treasure: a brick tower mill dating from around 1800, which has been restored to full working order. We came across it when we were doing some more general research about milling in the region, so more on that in the near future.
The mill at Stock is only occasionally operated, but is supported by a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of local people. They share the history and workings of the mill on open afternoons every 2nd Sunday of the month between April and September, and if you’re lucky, they’ll even mill some flour. We went along to the September opening, so thought we’d share our photos and a few of the facts we picked up.
During the 19th century the mill was one of three on the site. The other two mills were post mills, one of which had been picked up and moved from its original site across the Common by horse and cart to join the others. Those were the really busy days when the mills, like so many others around the region, serviced farmers from all over the surrounding area. There’s no longer any sign of the two post mills – they were demolished at the end of the 19th century – and despite attempts at modernisation, the tower mill ceased working during the 1930s. Fortunately Essex County Council restored the dilapidated mill in the 1990s, and they’ve done a great job.
Previously I’d never really stopped to appreciate the ingenuity that went into the design of windmills. Not only to mill grain into flour, but allowing most of the process to be automated. I still can’t claim to understand it fully, but helpfully we broadly followed the path of the grain – first heading to the top of the mill, and then gradually downwards.
At the top we saw the inner workings of the cap, which can be rotated 360 degrees so that the sails gain the optimum energy from the wind. It’s also where the brake can be applied to stop the sails from moving if the mill’s not in operation, or to stop the top of the mill being ripped off in gales. From the sails the energy is passed down the windshaft to the great spur wheel, three floors below.
The millstones themselves (there are three sets to allow different farmers’ grains to be milled simultaneously) are on the floor above the great spur wheel, which drives them as it rotates. The millstones and can be adjusted by a device called ‘the guvnor’ so that the gap in between the stones is increased or decreased.
The final product that they showed us smelled lovely, but was still quite coarse, so wouldn’t have made a perfect loaf. But it was great to see the mill in working order, and for there to be such interest in it, both from the guides and the dozens of people going up and down the little ladders between the floors. We left with a new-found respect for the technology and the art of milling. Even though a lot of the process could be automated, it needed a knowledgeable and experienced miller to end up with a quality product – still sounds familiar with a lot of things today!