Wednesday, 4 December 2013

An impressive display of mill power

Martin Watts: no run-of the-mill speaker

Living as we do on the coast, it’s all too easy to think that Devon’s all about seaside holiday resorts, smugglers’ coves, sea shanties and swashbuckling nautical heroes of the past. So the subject of a talk on 26 November in Knowle Village Hall was well chosen by the Otter Valley Association, given the importance of mill power over the centuries in our corner of the West Country.  

And they couldn’t have chosen a better speaker than Martin Watts from Cullompton. One of only thirteen practising millwrights listed in the Mills section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was able to draw on his many years’ experience as a miller and student of mills since the 1960s. With an impressive range of slides and a seemingly endless supply of facts about rivers, leats, millstones, gearing, overshot and undershot wheels he kept his 60-strong audience fascinated by his story of how the ancient industry of milling had developed since the Middle Ages, with a special emphasis on East Devon.

The entrance to Otterton Mill shop and gallery and the mill workings

There had been, we learnt, about 2,000 mill sites in Devon over the last thousand years. The Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 had listed 96 mills in the county, mostly in East Devon. Cornwall, in contrast, had only six. And milling had thrived until quite recently. Only 30 years there were still 600 corn mills; contributions from various members of the audience at the end of the talk proved that milling memories were still fresh in people’s minds - elderly though some of these may have been.

The Otter Valley was an especially productive area, including mills at Ottery St Mary, Dotton, Colaton Raleigh and especially Otterton. In fact, if you missed the talk, and haven’t visited this most celebrated mill so close to Budleigh there are plenty of opportunities to see it in action. The photos don't really do it justice.

The mill building at Otterton sits astride the mill leat, and houses two independent mills sharing the same stream. There are two water-wheels, which would previously have driven two pairs of milling stones housed in each mill.
With a total of four pairs of stones, Otterton Mill was for much of its life the largest watermill in Devon. The millers grind their signature stoneground flour twice a month and on milling days are very happy to chat to visitors and explain how the mill works.

There’s much more than milling to enjoy at Otterton, fascinating though it is to watch those amazing wheels going round. With its idyllic setting, award-winning cafe-restaurant, celebrated bakery, art gallery, local food shop and live music events it’s one of East Devon’s major attractions. Click on to find out more.

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