Meet the characters behind the mill

With just a week to go until Sacrewell Mill reopens its doors, we thought we’d give you an insight into the interpretation that’ll bring the mill back to life.

“Let me tell you my story…” are the first words you’ll come across as you walk into Sacrewell’s 18th Century grade II* watermill, which reopens on 19 July.

It is a story that spans thousands of years, beginning with the Romans who founded the farm and mill in Thornhaugh in about 43AD and taking you through to the recent £1.8m Heritage Lottery Funded project to restore the watermill and its associated buildings back to working order.

Obviously, the mill building that is on site now doesn’t date back to the Romans. It was built in 1775 with various alterations throughout the years, but the character of the mill and its various guises will come across as you make your way around the fully revived and interpreted building.

“We wanted to find a character who represented Sacrewell throughout the ages,” explains learning and interpretation officer, Nikki Cherry.

“We thought of the miller, but they would have come and gone, or the river that powers the waterwheel. But in the end decided that the only thing that could tell the story, could be the creaky, ancient mill itself.”

Historians at Sacrewell know of the Roman establishment because an archaeological excavation of the site revealed storage buildings and pottery, associated with farming 2,000 years ago. The waterway that runs from the River Nene is also Roman, flowing underneath the A1 which was once known as Ermine Street, a Roman trade road that ran from London to Lincoln.

“The first written record of there being a mill at Sacrewell is in the Domesday Book of 1086. It lists three mills in the Wittering area, of which Sacrewell would have almost certainly been one,” Mrs Cherry continues.

“It was a working mill in the area right up until the 1960s when it was decommissioned due to the lack of people to operate it and because there were new health and safety guidelines coming into play.”

Now, with the help of the William Scott Abbott Trust, which runs Sacrewell and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the watermill has been restored and will begin to grind wheat into flour once more.

The centre, near Wansford, has been run as an agricultural education charity for 51 years, following the death of former owner William Scott Abbott. Abbott and his wife Mary had no children of their own, so in order to retain his legacy and continue his work of educating people about food and farming, the Trust was founded.

William Scott Abbott ran Sacrewell from 1917 until 1959 and during that time embraced experimental farming, retained traditional methods and even turned to the Land Army during the Second World War to help run the farm.

In fact, the mill house will be set dressed to represent the Land Army girls who ran the farm in the early 1940s and volunteers dressed as the girls will bring the interpretation to life.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that some of the Land Army girls who ran Sacrewell still live in the area,” Mrs Cherry disclosed.

“They have been extremely useful in helping us to understand what life at Sacrewell was like during that time and their stories will be included in the offer here.”

Once such person is Mary Watson from Wansford who arrived at Sacrewell aged 18 and worked there from 1939 – 1943, living in the farm house with William and Mary Abbott.

Mrs Watson recalls Mr Abbott being very particular, calling them out if they were late for duty at 7am every day and ensuring those on “spudding” (weeding) duty got all the stray weeds-whether they were in the crops or the hedgerows.

“He didn’t want any nettles, thistles or brambles in the hedgerow,” Mary remembers. She was trained in all aspects of farming, from milking the dairy cows to ploughing with the horses.

“I was mostly given Lion and Captain [to plough with] and I said their speeds were slow and stop,” she laughs. “I think the old ways persisted at Sacrewell longer than in some cases.

“Cossack was the float pony. A float was a sort of box on wheels. The miller used to take bits of food out to people who wanted it for their hens and pigs and if a calf was to go to market, it would go on the float.”

Cecil Robinson was the miller at Sacrewell during the 1940s and among her many memories, Mary remembers him standing in the doorway of the mill with flour caught in his bushy eyebrows.

During your journey around the mill at Sacrewell, you’ll come across the character of the miller and his young apprentice, Jack.

Working from dawn until dusk, both would be tuned into the mill’s every movement, ensuring it all ran smoothly and tackling any problems that cropped up, including a constant battle with their arch nemeses-the rats.

Mrs Cherry says they have included the character of the apprentice to appeal to school children of a similar age who will be working with his character through the centre’s educational programme.

“He wouldn’t have been that much older than them,” Mrs Cherry explains.

“It helps children to identify with the history of Sacrewell if they’re able to put themselves in the position of one of the children who would have worked here. They’ll be able to find out about Jack and even see where he slept each night.”

The work to the mill has been carried out by Stamford firm, Messenger Construction, which has been on site for almost a year.

The first task for them was to waterproof the back of the building to ensure no water from the mill pond was leaking through. They have also cleaned and repaired the Collyweston slate roof, secured walls, replaced rotten floorboards and repainted the interiors and exteriors of the buildings.

Messenger worked with external contractors Traditional Millwrights to restore the waterwheel and as part of the project have installed a hydro-electric generator, completing the interpretation by including green energy and waterpower to finally bring the mill into the 21st Century.

Mill project officer Jane Harrison says that despite the building work being over, the project is far from complete.

“We’re recruiting 75 volunteers over the three-years of the project to really involve the community in what we’re doing here.

“From gardening and milling to dressing up in character and bringing the mill to life, this project will very much remain a story of the people. Who knows, in 1,000 years they might be writing about us.”

The mill will reopen to Sacrewell members on 18 July and the public on 19 July from 9.30am – 5pm. It will be opportunity to see the interpretation in full and meet some of the characters who have helped to bring it to life.