The Miller's Tale

There is something rather wonderful about mills, water or wind powered, and I have a bit of a soft spot for them. It's the rhythm they lend to their work, the turning sails or wheel, the stones grinding down the corn and the gentle thud of the flour as it lands in the hopper. Tucked away in the woodland at Acorn Bank there is a working Water Mill powered by the Crowdundle Beck and recently, whilst on holiday in Cumbria, we took a trip to visit this little bit of preserved heritage.

The Workings Of The Mill:

A pitchback wheel turns the mill stones and flour is milled there today by volunteers of the 'Acorn Bank Watermill Trust'. This dedicated community group formed to allow the mill to continue running after the pandemic and ensures that the mill is open to visitors on weekends and bank holidays. They raise money through the sale of the flour, delicious scones and shortbread, booklets and recipe cards.

The first meniton of the mill is in the 1300s and whilst it fell out of use in the 1940s, thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, the flour was once more ground there in 2011.

Theives & Vagabonds:

The volunteers there are very knowledgeable in the ways of the miller and Neil has some great miller tales. Millers were often considered to be theives and vagabonds as millers took their cut from the flour once it was milled.

The farmer would have to bring the harvest to the miller that was connected to the lord's land, there was no other choice. The lord who owned the land took a cut, the miller then took his cut and the miller's boy was allowed to take two handfuls for himself. As you can imagine the farmer sometimes felt cheated and as such the miller often got accused of taking more than his share.

Sometimes millers were indeed a little underhand with their tactics. Their wage often consisted of a percentage (around 10%) of the flour they produced and so they would bulk it out with chalk, floor shavings, dust from the milling process and even worse, lime. Furthermore, to prevent farmers and farm workers from grinding their own corn, querns were banned.

The Miller's Language:

Phrases associated with milling are 'nose to the grindstone' for obvious reasons, and 'showing your metal'. At the windmill in Bursledon the miller told me this was because for every 100 ton of flour the millstone needs to be re-ground. There would have been very little health and safety precautions taken. No goggles or protective clothing, so bits of stone and granite would end up stuck in your face. When you asked for a job in another mill you were asked to 'show your metal' as the amount of shrapnel in you from the millstones indicated how long you had been doing the job and how good you were at it. This is a great story, however, Neil at Acorn Bank has another theory. He thinks it was more to do with showing the wear and tear on the tools you would use to re-shape the millstone, which sounds a little more plausible in my humble opinion.

‘The rule of thumb’ is also a phrase that comes from milling. White flour, middlings and bran are the three grades the flour comes in. The density of the flour that is being ground is measured by the miller by rubbing it between their thumb and forefinger, this is the 'rule of thumb'.

The Miller's Tales:

Neil also told me of the local legend of how a section of the community near Penrith wanted to divert some of the water from the river Petterill for drinking water and went to the Bishop to ask for permission. The Bishop said that they may do this but that they were only allowed to divert as much of the river as would ruin through the centre of a millstone.

You will find plenty more tales of miller's and millstones in the Grimm's Tales as ...

The Juniper Tree

The Girl Without Hands

The Poor Miller's Boy & The Cat

And of course Joseph Jacobs collected tales:

Tom Tit Tot

What There Is To See:

Acorn Bank working Watermill is a fabulous place to visit if you are in the area and below is a very short video here of our day out exploring the mill. With thanks to the volunteers of Acorn Bank Watermill Trust for keeping the wheel turning.

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