1,000 Years in the Life of a Buckinghamshire Village: windmill stories from Brillennium
It is October 1906, and little Edie Nixey is skipping excitedly alongside her mother as she strides out towards the windmill along the muddy track rutted by the wheels of the mill cart. Across Clamp Hill, the track dividing North Hills from South Hills, she can see the giant skeleton of Parson's mill, struck by lightning the previous year. they pass the wooden granary, raised on its straddle stones to keep out rats and mice, and approach the mill steps. Mrs Nixey is taking breakfast to her husband Albert who has been milling through the night in a keen westerly wind which sprang up soon after dusk. The sails are turning under full canvas, almost seeming to scrape the ground as they swoop down from the leaden sky. Edie pauses a while before following her mother up the steps. She looks up and feels giddy as the top of the mill seems to move agains the racing clouds.
Having fed another sack of barley into the grain bin, Albert appears at the door and beckons them inside. He looks ghostly, a pale and dusty figure emerging from the shadows within. Edie squints in the gloomy interior, and sniffs the mill smells: the dry nuttiness of warm meal, the sacking, hot grease on the cogs, the recently snuffed out tallow candles. As her parents talk, she shuts her eyes and listens to the rumbling machinery, feeling the mill sway slightly beneath her feet. Albert turns to her and lifts her up so she can see through the slit window. Below she can see the brick cart shed, where the mill cart is kept, and beyond it the cottages along the track to Monk's Hill where the ragged children live. Looking the other way along Clamp Hill, the kiln of Poore's brickworks send a dark plume of acid-smelling coal smoke scudding across the Common. All this is still new to six-year-old Edie as she has just moved to Brill from Chalgrove. Her Uncle Andrew has returned to the family farm there and given the mill to her father to run in addition to an expanding carting business connecting the Tramway* to the village.
*Brill Tramway was the name given to the branch railway line running from Wotton to the foot of Brill Hill from 1872 to 1935. The line from Wotton connected to the main line service to London at Quainton Road. The Brill Tramway was built and owned by the 3rd Duke of Buckingham. It was later operated by London's Metropolitan Railway. Read more in this excellent piece on Wikipedia.
Time moves on. It is now September 1914, and Jack, one of Albert's sons, is returning with the mill cart from the twice-weekly round of the neighbouring villages. He takes the cart around Oakley, Stanton St John, Horton-cum-Studley and back via Boarstall, collecting corn to be milled and delivering the meal, bran and all, back to the customers. The return load today is particularly varied, with all sizes and types of sack holding the small amounts of grain to be milled for each smallholder. Jack sighs as he thinks of the work ahead working out all the weights of meal to be returned later in the week. He feels lucky though because, although he is part of a large family, they all at least have enough to eat. Some of the smallholders around here are trying to eke out a living on tiny parcels of land, or on allotment strips by the roadsides. They may keep a pig or two, certainly some chickens, and grow little patches of corn both for animal feed and for their own bread. Albert helps some of the poorest by not accepting any money for the grinding and the Pointer's bakehouse on Windmill Street bakes it for nothing too. This is the only local flour that gets into the bakehouse, the Brill product being reckoned of too low a quality to sell for human consumption and so used for animal feed.
Jack negotiates the turn by the old Brickmakers' Arms onto the mill track, careful to keep away from the edge of Payne's Pit, which drops away steeply to the side, and where most of the village rubbish is dumped. A good horse this one, well able to pull the heaviest loads up Tramway Hill. They were lucky the Army didn't commandeer him last month when all the working horses were ordered to be taken to The Green for inspection. As he reaches the granary, his brother Tom bounds down the mill steps and helps him unload. When they finish, they rest on the lower step, looking out across the Common. The kiln chimneys stand dormant now, the brickyard having closed last year, and the nettles are already closing in around the site. There is a sense that nature is taking over again as the scars left by the extraction of clay, stone and sand begin to heal. Lone workers still appear at times with wheelbarrows to shovel loads of sand to local builders yards and make a bob or two, but the large scale works have stopped now on this side of the hill. There were times when Albert worried about the safety of the mill as the shovels dug closer and closer, threatening to undermine the mound.
Parson's mill has gone, deemed unsafe and demolished a year after the lightning strike. Jack smiles as he remembers the mystification of old Parsons when the timbers disappeared overnight, probably into local yards and to feed winter fires. Only the millstones remained where they fell, too heavy to be carted away, and now disappeared beneath the undergrowth. Jack's thoughts return to the only mill now left working in the village. Oak timbers over 200 years old, and still standing, although it was rebuilt in the 1750s according to Uncle Andrew. They cannot afford to do all the necessary repairs now, and have to keep the mill going by sheer hard work and by making do. One of these days the wind will have its way and win, but meanwhile they just do what they can to keep it working week by week. Some of the boards are rotten and need replacing, and new teeth really ought to be fitted to the great spur-wheel before they get stripped off. All the boards will need tarring before next winter. The stones need dressing yet again, only a month after they did it last time. It was Albert who had the idea of building up the thickness of each millstone with a skim of cement, as they were getting too thin to dress otherwise. Then they have to pick out the grooves with the mill-bits. Jack rubs his bare arms, scarred and pitted with black pockmarks where the iron splinters from the mill bill have worked their way into his skin. He bids farewell to Tom, and leaves to get to Brill Station in time to help unload the evening goods train.