Saturday, 8 August 2009

Gants Mill: Hydropower Revolution

Water was for centuries Britain’s main source of power, and at Gants Mill in Somerset it is making a remarkable comeback. Looming over a quiet valley a mile downstream from the ancient town of Bruton, the tall stone edifice gives the visitor a first impression of great antiquity and power. But though the walls are old and the foundations medieval, this watermill has a new role – generating electricity.

The first recorded watermills in Britain date from the eighth century, when Saxon invaders brought with them new technology and engineering skills, and by the Norman Conquest there were over five thousand around the country. With bread the universal staple, the watermill revolutionised food production and made the miller’s role vital but not always valued. Aloof from other folk in his castle above the water, the miller was neither churchman nor landowner yet he had power, and this made him a decidedly equivocal figure in medieval society.

Chaucer’s Miller, to take one famous example, is both an outrageous drunkard and one of the most complex and interesting characters portrayed in The Canterbury Tales. His irreverence so offends the Reeve that this stern gentleman retorts with the story of Symkyn, a miller whose type would have been familiar to Chaucer’s readers:

A theef he was for sothe of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usaunt for to stele.
(A thief he was, in truth, of corn and meal,
And that a sly, accustomed well to steal)

The miller was resented for his monopoly on waterpower, but that power shaped medieval England in a way we tend to overlook.

It is no accident that Gants Mill retains the name it derived from John le Gaunt, who built a fulling mill on land granted to him by Hugh Lovel, Lord of Castle Cary, in about 1290. John’s venture would enjoy success for half a millennium, and it was motivated by a Royal decree that shaped the medieval economy: the imposition, in 1275, of a tax on the export of raw wool.

Previously wool had gone more or less straight from the sheep’s back to Flanders, but now it had to be made into cloth. In a long and elaborate process, the raw wool was first spun and woven, then the rough cloth was taken to a fulling mill to be scoured and felted. Before the invention of the fulling mill, people had no option but to remove dirt and grease by stomping the cloth in buckets of water mixed with pig’s urine, so the introduction of wooden hammers driven by waterpower constituted a genuine industrial revolution. The addition of fuller’s earth – a limey kind of clay – improved the cleansing process further. Nevertheless, it still took twelve hours to process a batch of cloth, after which it was hung up on racks to dry.

Merchants continued to export finished wool from Somerset for more than four hundred years, and for most of that time Gants Mill was owned by the Westons of Stalbridge, Dorset, who leased the mill to a succession of wool merchants. A still-extant document of 1619 describes a lease to William Yerdburie, including “all those two water milles commonlie called and knowne by the name of Gauntes Milles”, along with various parcels of land. Amazingly, the annual rent of forty shillings and four pence was exactly the same as it had been back in 1360.

But the end was not far off for the Somerset wool industry, which could not compete with the factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire as the Industrial Revolution took hold. In a few short decades, techniques and methods that had changed little since Chaucer’s time were rendered obsolete, and lacking the concentration of resources and modern communications to compete, industrial Somerset began its long decline.

It remains a fully functioning mill, however, and I took advantage of one of the regular open days to take a guided tour with Brian Shingler, the current owner, whose parents bought Gants Mill in 1949.

In tune with changing times, the mill now relies on tourism for most of its revenue, but Brian introduces himself as ‘the miller’ and he does indeed continue to grind barley for animal feed. The interior of the building is crooked and dusty, and when the miller turns the giant wheel that opens a valve below us and sends water rushing to drive the Victorian turbine the whole place begins to rumble and shake. Dust fills the air as the belts and shafts connecting the turbine to the millstones on the floor above us grumble into life, followed by the millstones themselves. After a minute or two, in a wonderful display of simple but effective mechanical engineering, coarse ground barley begins to flow down the antique wooden chutes above us, to fall into hessian sacks.

But the demonstration is not over yet. After closing the valve, Brian goes over to a hi-tech control panel on the wall and flicks a switch. Now the water is forced along a different pipe and a second turbine comes into play, only this one, installed as recently as 2003, is connected to a generator. On the control panel, revolving numbers tell us that electricity is flowing into the National Grid.

Once again Gants Mill has responded to a new government policy, in this case a commitment to producing 10% of Britain’s energy by renewable means by 2010. The resulting grants and tax breaks encouraged a flowering of technological invention that may one day be seen as the start of an Energy Revolution, and when Brian Shingler brought together a dozen Somerset mill owners to study the feasibility of installing hydropower equipment, the results were positive. Now Gants Mill generates 30,000 kWh per year, enough to power about ten households.

This is just the beginning. Around Britain there are more than twenty thousand functioning or salvageable watermills, and word is gradually spreading among their owners. In Somerset alone, work is progressing at more than a dozen sites, each one, like Gants, rich both in history and potential and possessed of a unique sense of place.

Hinton Mill is supplied with water from the River Yeo via a tunnel 1500 feet long, dug out of the rock in the eighteenth century, while Carey’s Mill near Martock functioned as a snuff mill before becoming part of the well-known Parrett Works. At Tellisford Mill on the fast-flowing Mendip river Frome, the twenty-first century miller has installed generating equipment powerful enough to supply the whole village. Tellisford has a history dating back to the Roman occupation, when a road crossed the river at a point later chosen by Saxon engineers as the site of a corn mill.

When the new machinery was being installed at Gants Mill a stone was found in the medieval foundations with the letters ‘R En’ carved into it: the mark, possibly, of Robert Edwyne, the miller before John Le Gaunt. Now, as it did then, the watermill faces a long and productive future.

Extracted from an article in British Heritage, autumn 2007

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