BRIXTON HILL in south London is about the last place you might expect to come across a windmill—but lo, at the end of Blenheim Gardens, about halfway down the hill, there it is, a socking great four-sail windmill, gleaming in the sun.
Inside, the mill is on and there’s a heck of a racket—flour is being made. Brixton Windmill was built in 1816, and operated by the Ashby family, which owned a couple of mills locally. In the early 1860s, her sails were removed and she lay quiet for a century, before new ones were fitted by London County Council. The Friends of Windmill Gardens society was formed in 2003, intent on restoring the mill, and she re-opened eight years later, after a long programme of works. Today, the sails turn, but an electric motor powers the mill. The resulting flour is sold in more than 10 shops in south London and is supplied to local food banks. Brixton is back doing her job.
There are about 140 windmills left in the UK today—of these, about 40 still work. By comparison, explains Mildred Cookson, chair of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)’s mills section, there were more than 1,000 in the 1890s. They tend to take one of two styles: the brick-built tower mill, where only the cap rotates, or the wooden post mill, which fully rotates around a vertical post and dates to about 1185, when one was built at Weedly, East Yorkshire.
Those that remain are a varied bunch. Six-storey Quainton Mill, Buckinghamshire, is owned by a descendant of its 1830 commissioner. In Mayfield, East Sussex, Argos Hill Windmill—a post mill with a pretty red top—is currently undergoing restoration. Close to Cambridge, miller Jonathan Cook produces flour from Fosters Mill and near Sheringham in Norfolk is Cley Windmill, converted into a house in the 1920s and partsponsored by Mary, Duchess of Bedford. In 1979, it was inherited by Col Charles Blount, father of the singer James Blunt, who spent much of his childhood there.
Some are more famous than others. John Constable painted the mill at Petworth, West Sussex, and, in Buckinghamshire, Cobstone features as the home of Caractacus Potts in the 1968 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the BBC’s mystery crime series Jonathan Creek, starring Alan Davies, it’s King’s Mill in Shipley, West Sussex, that steals the show.
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