Have I got what it takes to be a medieval miller?

Date:21-02-2014 08:58:06 read:2

Have I got what it takes to be a medieval miller?

One of Britain’s few working tide mills has a vacancy. Sarah Rainey went to try her hand at the ancient craft – and discovered it’s not for the faint-hearted

Sarah Rainey cleans the grain with chief miller David Plunkett, 70, at Eling Tide Mill in Totton, Hampshire Photo: Clara Molden

On the fringes of the New Forest, at the mouth of the River Test in Totton, Hampshire, is a piece of England that has lain undisturbed since the Domesday Book.

To one side, pastel-coloured rowing boats bob up and down with the ebbing tide; to the other lies a muddy millpond, scattered with fallen branches. Joining the two, on a toll bridge over the river, is Eling Tide Mill, one of just two working tide mills in the UK and the only one to regularly produce flour, around 10 tons of it – and two different varieties – a year.

It is an unassuming building – red brick, slightly tumbledown – with just a tiny signpost by its wooden door. Inside, low-slung beams and rough-hewn floorboards make it dark, dank and difficult to move around in, not unlike the conditions when it was first used more than 900 years ago.

Though steeped in history, Eling is not averse to change and, since it reopened in 1980 after nearly 40 years of decay, has been kept running by a succession of dedicated local volunteers. This week, an advertisement for a new, paid full-time miller (24 hours a week, no experience required) made national news, with applicants from all over the country bidding to keep the ancient tradition alive.

The man in charge of training the new recruit is David Plunkett, 70, Eling’s chief miller, who has worked here on a voluntary basis for almost 40 years. Plunkett, who greets me with oily workman’s hands and a set of creased white overalls, has agreed to show me the ropes and put me to the test as Eling’s first female miller.

“This has always been my escape from work, even though it has been more physically onerous than anything else I’ve done,” he explains. “It is a huge privilege to do this job because it is so rare and the surroundings are wonderful. I’ve trained up nearly every miller they’ve had here since 1975. It’s a great line of work but it’s not easy.”

David, who has been a stonemason and clerk of works at Windsor Castle, knows this place like his home. He can spot a bad grain of wheat with a glance; pick out a poorly oiled wheel from its creak. He was, he says, drawn by the building’s history.

Though no one knows when Eling was built, it was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, and later owned by King John, who sold it to the Bishop of Winchester in the 1200s. The bishop entrusted it to a college he was building, now the public school Winchester, which owned the mill (and leased it out) until the middle of the last century. Today the mill is run by the local council, who will pay the new recruit around £16,000 a year.

Its longevity illustrates just how vital tide mills once were throughout Europe and America, before the invention of the steam engine led to their gradual decline. As well as milling flour, they were used for sawing wood, operating the bellows and hammers of ironworks, making cotton and grinding spices and gunpowder. Before it fell into disuse, Eling produced animal feed.

Today, the mill works in much the same way as it always has. Sea gates trap tidal water in the millpond, and when the tide has gone out again, sluice gates open to direct a jet of water at the 12ft waterwheel. Its axle turns a complex series of gears, which drive two huge millstones, quarried from France’s Parisian Basin and weighing half a ton each, which grind the grain. The process operates at a rate equivalent to 29 horsepower, and takes place over five hours, twice a day with the changing tides.

Being a miller, however, is not the quaint role you might imagine. Inside the undercroft, where David is showing me the inner workings of the waterwheel, a deafening gush of water sloshes just inches beneath us in a terrifying white froth. We are balancing on one of the pit wheels, which is lathered with thick blue grease, and I’m praying I won’t slide off. So what’s he looking for in an applicant?

“You need to be strong – but you’ve got to have a good head on you,” David explains. “I’m used to shimmying up ladders and lugging bags of flour. When there’s a full pond of water and the tide is out, the waterwheel is amazingly powerful. It goes like an express train.”

We leap out before he can show me, and I have a go at filling the “eureka” machine, used for cleaning and separating grain. It whirs into action and out spews a torrent of pure, golden granules – all over the mill floor. I’m clearly not cut out for it, but the response to Eling’s job advert has revealed a wealth of prospective tide millers across Britain. They’ve had around 30 applicants for the role and today they’re interviewing the best.

“After all this publicity it wouldn’t surprise me if there were people banging on the door,” laughs David. “We’ve had all types here – one was an ex-Rhodesian farmer who knew grain and how to mill it instinctively well. I think we had one female on the applications once, but she didn’t get shortlisted.”

One of the candidates, Matt Painter, 24, from nearby Marchwood, is a medieval history graduate who tells me working at Eling would be a “once-in-a-lifetime job”.

Another, Roy Moult, 46, from Portsmouth, is an ex-Royal Navy nuclear submarine operator. “I want to go back to working with machines; I love working with my hands,” he explains. “Young people today think flour comes from Tesco. This is an opportunity to show them how things used to be.”

David thinks the surge of interest in Eling may also be due to growing curiosity about green power. Wind turbines may not be to everyone’s taste, but historic mills (wind and tide) remain universally popular. Sadly, their reliance on tradition doesn’t make them immune to modern nuisances: the floods have hit Eling over the past few weeks, making production difficult – and very soggy. “We do have to put up with unusual weather, and we’re very aware of it because we’re constantly monitoring the water,” says David. “We know what global warming is down here because we can count the number of times the water has come over the floor. You also get the odd log or tree coming down. That’s why the first thing I’ve got to teach this new miller is not how to start the mill, but how to stop it when something goes wrong.”

David is keen to do more to stop the skills he has perfected from dying out. His step-grandson, Josh, has been to visit the mill with his father and David is eyeing him up as an apprentice. “I’d quite like to entice him,” he says. “The rest are all girls. It does make me sad to see the tradition coming to an end.”

After all this time, I ask, what keeps him milling? He cocks his head and wipes his hands on his overalls. “It’s seeing the flour coming out and knowing that you’ve got it right,” he says. “That is the best feeling. What you’re looking for is wholemeal that contains nice flaky bran. The bigger you can get it, the better. If the flour is smooth in your fingers, and you can’t feel any roughage, you know it’s perfect.”

He sends me home with a bag so I can see for myself. It’s silky smooth, dusty-white and flecked with hearty flakes of bran – perfect for a homemade wholemeal loaf. David should know: his wife, Ros, makes him one every week from the flour.

I’m surprised to hear, though, that Mrs Plunkett doesn’t insist on the same traditional methods as her husband. “She just bungs it all in the breadmaker,” he smiles. “Presses the button and off it goes. Mark my words: best loaf you’ll ever taste.”

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013