The Windmill and the Pole Lathe

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Sussex folk have some interesting pastimes if you know where to look. We walked to Oldland Mill for its open day, as it's in the middle of the remaining countryside and doesn't have any space for parking. As soon as we arrived, we could see there was something of a party going on. People were crowding around a refreshment tent on one side of the track and the windmill on the other. Parents with children, old people, a couple of cyclists in helmets. Oldlands Mill looked splendid, with its brick roundhouse, white clapperboard clad tower and white sweeps (which is the correct term for sails in Sussex.) The sweeps were turning briskly, driven by a chilly wind.

We paid our entry fee and edged in through the gate. The first thing we saw was a sign advertising beer made by the local Hurst Brewery for sale in the roundhouse. As we went in, I noticed the trunk of a mighty oak behind the casks and the people serving beer. Oldlands Mill is a post mill, so the entire body ( the main floors, millstones and machinery) is built round a central post. But to call this a post is like calling an ocean liner a boat.

Equipped with beer and shandy we wandered out and came across two men operating pole lathes. These looked like the simplest of technology. The man pressed his foot on a treadle, which pulled a rope which turned the piece of wood he was working on, while he used a chisel to shape it. The other end of the rope was fastened to a bent pole. They were making rolling pins, candle sticks and old-fashioned pegs. I looked up pole lathes when I got home and they have been used since Saxon times.

We had to wait to go into the working floors of the mill, as there isn't much space inside and people coming out were edging carefully down the steep wooden steps. Once in, I was impressed by the oak beams held in place by wooden pegs and a collection of big saw blades. Above we could see the bases of two big millstones, while an old one stood at one side, several feet in diameter and notched in places. There was a wooden hopper and a bag half full of flour.

There was a display of the restoration of Oldland Mill. It's said to be the oldest working mill in Sussex. It was built in 1703 and worked for two centuries before being abandoned in 1912. In the 1980s, all that was left was a stump. It took a group of volunteers 15 years to strip it down to the basics: the main post and the windshaft that holds the sweeps. Then they rebuilt it, using original timbers when possible.

We climbed another set of steep steps to the higher floor. Here, there were two big wheels turning as the sweeps went round. This is a technology I could understand. The wind turns the sweeps, which are mounted on the same windshaft as the two big wheels (called the brakewheel and the tailwheel). As the big wheels turn, they drive smaller cogged wheels called stone nuts. These are mounted on small vertical shafts called quants which drive the millstone. I wondered where the corn came in. Someone pointed out two small ladders which the volunteers use to climb to the top floor. The miller wouldn't have had a ladder, but would have climbed the beams. This fact made me imagine a life of hard work and some risk.

Clearly we don't want to return to the technology of the 18th and 19th century, as our lives are much more comfortable. But it was interesting to see it reinstated like this – and we bought a bag of organic, wholemeal flour.

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