Bardwell: Windmill rises like a phoenix after the 1987 storm

WHILE the 1987 storm was devastating, some happy stories did develop from that dreadful day.

One concerns Bardwell mill, north-east of Bury St Edmunds and then recently restored at a cost of thousands of pounds. It lost all four sails in the fierce gales. Each weighed several tons and was more than 60 feet long.

It was awful for Geoff Wheeler, who had owned it with wife Enid for only four months or so, after buying it from James Waterfield, moving from Buckinghamshire and aiming to carry on milling. The sails and fantail crushed a greenhouse and badly damaged Mr Wheeler’s beloved 1920 traction engine. But it could have been very much worse.

“I can’t think of a bigger tragedy in my life,” he said on that Friday morning, adding, “I am thanking my lucky stars it fell where it did and not on the house. What course of action to take now, I just do not know. I will have to find my feet.”

His widow remembers well that awful time. There was no inkling of what was on the way, Enid told the EADT this week. “It was a lovely day, similar to this,” she says of the Thursday. “And the day after” – once the winds had died down – “was like this: a beautiful calm day. It was very cruel.

“I’d taken people on a tour of the mill – from Australia, actually – and someone said ‘Are you ever concerned about high winds?’ And I said ‘No. Everything’s perfectly OK. The brake goes on at night . . .’”

It was ironic, bearing in mind the “horrendous gale” that followed a matter of hours later.

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The couple were asleep in the mill house, “and then, suddenly, the noise of it. We had a little window in our bedroom and Geoff said ‘I’ll have to go down.’ I followed him. We had no lights. We could hear things crashing down. He wanted to try to save it, but he knew that if he had gone up he wouldn’t have made it. We just walked up and down the length of this house. He had been in the Navy and was not afraid of anything, but he was [then]. If they had fallen over the house, that would have been it. But they crashed right on his beloved engine – fell down the drive and into the garden.”

Enid had made the first 999 call she’d ever made. “Geoff said ‘You must phone them.’ It was like being tossed on the sea and you didn’t know if you were going to sink. Trouble was, they [the police] couldn’t get here [initially] because of the trees. Then they had to reverse out of the gate, the moment before the sails came down, because otherwise they would have hit them.”

When daylight came, the Wheelers surveyed the damage. “I think we were in shock. Somebody came with a bottle of brandy for Geoff.”

And then the couple realised just what a supportive community they had joined.

“Within a few days, we opened the door and there were about 24 people coming up the drive. They’d collected �500, and there were lovely flowers for me.” Sadly, Geoff died in 1995, before he could realise his dream of seeing the mill working again. “He went downhill. I can’t say for certain, but I’m sure it was a result [of this].”

Happily, in early summer, 2012, the sails started turning again, after a long rebuilding and overhauling effort. Jonathan Wheeler, son of Geoff and Enid, embarked upon the project after finding detailed drawings and notes in his father’s office.

It wouldn’t have been possible without help from local folk who formed the Friends of Bardwell Windmill group and with grants from English Heritage, councils and conservation bodies.

“We couldn’t have done it without the Friends,” confirms Enid. “I stopped at my gate, two years after Geoff died, and I was thinking ‘I don’t think I can cope.’ These young folk said ‘Look, we’ll support you. We’ll form the Friends of Bardwell Windmill.”

Now, with the sails up and turning, things have literally come full circle.

“I feel as though they’ve never been down,” says Enid.

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