Video/Gallery: Flour production at Woodbridge Tide Mill

James Marston visits the historic landmark of Woodbridge Tide Mill. James Marston visits the historic landmark of Woodbridge Tide Mill.

Sunday, June 22, 2014
10:30 AM

It is one of Suffolk’s iconic landmark buildings. And today it is going from strength to strength. James Marston visits Woodbridge Tide Mill.

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The history

• The earliest record of a tide mill on this site by the River Deben is in 1170.

• It was owned by the Augustinian Priors for around 350 years until Henry VIII confiscated it, and for the next 28 years it was in royal ownership.

• Elizabeth I sold it to Thomas Seckford whose family owned it for over 100 years, followed by several private owners.

• In 1793 the present mill was built on the site of earlier ones.

• By the 1950s it had become the last working tide mill in the country, but in 1957 finally closed.

• It was saved in 1968, restored and opened to the public in 1973.

• More recently, further protection and restoration work has brought it back into use as a fully working tide mill as well being a living example of industrial and cultural heritage.

It’s a milling day today on the River Deben.

And at 9am Bob Spillett, miller and vice chairman of the Woodbridge Tide Mill Trust is opening the sluice.

As water rushes down the mill race, the English oak water wheel begins to turn and the mill rumbles into life.

One of Suffolk’s best known buildings, Woodbridge Tide Mill is in an atmospheric spot overlooking the tidal Deben.

For over 800 years generations of millers have harnessed the power of the tide on this spot to grind wheat into flour. And today, the fully restored mill is one of just a handful working tide mills in the world.

Inside on the Pit Floor, miller Nigel Barratt, who is also chairman of the trust, explains the process.

He said: “As the waterwheel goes round it turns a smaller wheel called the pit wheel that engages with the wallower - effectively a huge cog – and this in turn powers a vertical shaft carrying the spur wheel above the wallower.

“As the wallower turns it turns the spur wheel which in turn engages the stone nut which sits on a spindle. Balanced at the top of the spindle is the runner stone set just above the bed stone. As everything goes round the stone nut turns the runner stone which grinds the wheat between the two stones into flour.”

Admittedly it sounds complicated, but in practice a series of cogs and gears turn a large French burr stone on top of another stationary stone which grinds the wheat.

Nigel said: “The trick is to get the balance right between the flow of grain into the eye of the stones, the distance between the stones and the speed of the stones as they grind.”

At 9.30am a group of schoolchildren arrive – education is a significant part of the mill’s work – and Bob starts giving them a guided tour.

Divided into three main floors – pit floor, stone floor and crown floor – the mill is hand operated and Nigel spends some time getting the balance right.

On the stone floor – the first floor of the mill – he ensures the flow of wheat through a hopper into the eye of the stones. Too much wheat and the stones will stop grinding, too little and friction will scorch the flour and destroy the proteins in the flour which are essential for good baking.

Nigel said: “We use Canadian wheat grown in East Anglia which has a high protein level. This enables our stone-ground wholemeal flour to be made into a lighter loaf than wholemeal flour milled by more modern machinery.”

The mill makes two grades of flour:

• Fine similar to a plain flour, but wholemeal, and suitable for most baking purposes: bread; savoury pastry; pizza bases; biscuits; and slightly denser cakes.

• Traditional slightly coarser texture with identifiable (small) pieces of bran – ideal for bread and other bakery products with a little bite.

The mill currently makes about ten tonnes of flour a year – 80kg an hour when milling - and sells its flour in Woodbridge and other outlets in the area. This month the mill published its first recipe book which includes a variety of breads, cakes and biscuits.

by 9.50am,.after several adjustments and running up and down some of the steep stairs between floors, Nigel is covered in flour looking every inch the miller.

He checks the quality of flour as it comes straight off the mill between his thumb and forefinger.

He said: “You check the quality of the flour by feeling it. Once you learn the process you can experiment to get it right. It is a matter of constant checking.”

Upstairs on the crown floor Brian, Keith and Louie are busy bagging the flour into 1.5kg bags.

In September Louie Long, 17 and one of the mill’s youngest volunteers, is going to Otley College to study motor mechanics but in the meantime he is volunteering at the mill.

He said: “I left school in January and I wanted to do something with my time rather than sitting at home. Someone suggested I came here and I started two weeks ago. I really enjoy it. It is practical and hands on and I have met some great people. It is a lot of fun.”

At 86 retired farmer Keith Bolton is the mill’s oldest volunteer. He remembers carrying the 16-stone bags that were used to transport grain before the introduction of modern bulk transport.

He said: “Milling is interesting and I am with everyone doing a job that is worth doing. It is something useful.”

The Trainee Millers

Run entirely by volunteers, Woodbridge Tide Mill is open to the public and attracts around 11,000 visitors a year.

Bob said: “We have about 20 active volunteers and 85 friends who support the mill. We could always do with more volunteers as visitors love to learn from the millers and guides.”

Trainee millers Dil Brereton and Peter Luxmoore have been watching Nigel closely as he mills.

Dil said: “I think the tide mill is something very special that we must preserve. I have been very impressed with the amount of hard work the volunteers to do keep it going.”

A retired sales manager Peter is the mill’s in house carpenter. He said: “We like to make sure all our volunteers are capable of doing the majority of jobs. It is an important community effort and the mill is one of Woodbridge’s greatest assets.”

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