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Community News

A day in the life of a volunteer: Miller

By 28 October 2015January 11th, 2021No Comments

Hi, my name is Pat Naismith and I am a volunteer miller at the Weald & Downland Museum’s working watermill. Here’s a brief insight into what my milling role entails.

My milling day always begins the night before, when I look at the weather forecast – even on the warmest of days the mill always feels three to four degrees colder than the outside temperature. And feeling cold makes for a grumpy miller, so it is essential to wear enough clothes.

I try to arrive on the Museum site at about 10am, but agricultural machinery and cyclists sometimes cause delays on the winding, narrow roads on which I commute.

Once I arrive, I sign in and see who else will be working with me. Then I walk down to the mill, passing by the mill pond and checking the water level – this affects how much we open the sluice gate, to drive the waterwheel at the required speed for milling.

Setting up the mill

On arrival at the mill, I unlock the granary and check the flour stocks. Depending on the stock level, I decide what we will mill that day.

I then unlock the mill and my first task is to check the Day Book. This book is used to pass on information about the working of the mill, so it is essential to check that nothing is broken and make sure there is no ‘Do not mill’ note.

I may be milling with another miller, a trainee miller or perhaps a volunteer with no mill experience. Depending on my colleague’s experience we share the opening-up tasks.

The windows on the stone floor need opening, covers removed from the milling machinery and the level of grain in the hopper checked. On the ground floor the sales counter has to be set out, flour bin and its equipment uncovered and the quern prepared for use.

A quern is an old device for grinding grain and its stones are much smaller than the main mill stones; it is very useful for showing how the mill works and children enjoy turning it.

I then have time for a quick cup of coffee and a brief discussion about the day’s plans. If I have a trainee working with me, this is the time to plan their day’s work.

Starting to mill

Depending on the amount of flour we plan to make, we may start milling straight away or we may freewheel – running the mill with drive to the stones disengaged. Usually by this time visitors will have started arriving at the Museum.

When we are freewheeling, both of us are available to talk with visitors and explain the workings of this beautiful old machine. I usually work at weekends and we often get visitors who have memories of working mills or maybe have worked in them, so discussions can be very wide ranging.

The quern often provokes stories from visitors with overseas connections:

  • A student from the north of South America once told me how he used to grind meal for his family’s porridge for an hour every morning, then walk six miles to school, walk home again, the a mile down to the river to fetch water. Now he buys a Starbucks and hops on the bus to university.
  • Two little boys in a family group told me how they had used a quern when they recently visited their grandmother in Kazakstan. Their mother said to me that her mother didn’t trust the flour makers; she thought they put sawdust in it, so she preferred to make her own.
  • A lady from Malaysia told me how her family had used a quern to make a paste from rice, for turning into noodles.

When we start to mill, one of us must give full attention to the operating of the mill, leaving the other volunteer free to talk to our visitors. The miller engages the stones, opens the sluice gate to control the flow of water and closes the flap to direct the water onto the wheel.

Once the mill has started, he or she must make adjustments to obtain the correct fineness of flour. Depending on what is needed, we then scoop the flour into the appropriately sizes bags, before sealing and dating them.

The quantity produced varies from day to day, but we average about 50kg. This is sold at the Museum shop, at farm shops in the area, and to local pubs and artisan bakers.

The watermill from Lurgashall

The watermill from Lurgashall was presented to the Museum by the Leconfield Estate in 1973 and it is used for grinding corn, for flour and animal feed.

The oldest parts of the building probably date from the 17th century, but many changes were made to the machinery and the building during its working life, which lasted until the 1930s.

The watermill from Lurgashall is usually working whenever the Museum is open and is occasionally closed for essential maintenance.

The milling of flour depends on the availability of skilled volunteers on the day, so sometimes the mill freewheels, so that visitors can still enjoy the wheel and machinery in action.

If you would like to find out more about becoming a volunteer at the Museum, please visit our Volunteering pages.