Mapledurham Mill, Reading
'Are you the writer? You look like a writer.'
He was a big guy, solid and broad, with a dusty workboots and shoulders that would have looked great on a rugby player.
'Yep,' I said. 'That's me.'
He grinned. 'I'm Corry. The miller.'
He unlocked a set of large gates, beyond which the Thames drifted, its surface a languid green. A creamy-pink building crouched on the bank - Mapledurham Mill, a 17th century water mill and the last working grist mill on the River Thames.
It was Monday, and Mapledurham Estate - which also holds a 12th century manor house, a working farm, a church and a golf course - was closed to the public. As far as I could tell I was the only visitor, allowed in because I had organised a private tour of the mill months before, from Australia. I was well into writing a manuscript for a novel set in 1660, which included a few scenes set in and around a mill. As you'd expect, there aren't any 17th century water mills in Australia, and I just couldn't miss the opportunity to see one.
Corry, a no-nonsense sort of bloke, immediately began firing off information, hauling open the gates so I could see the water wheel rumble and turn (it's an undershot wheel, if you're wondering). I followed him into the building's dim, woody belly, scribbling furiously in my notepad. I had come to see the mill, but also to hear it and... well, feel it. (Actually not as weird as it sounds. The timber parts of a mill are always moving, swelling and shrinking, so a miller would be constantly listening, checking, laying his hands on things to 'feel' that all was well. A miller's thumb would be worn smooth from constantly checking the grindstones.)
So I brushed the old wood with my fingers, breathing in the scents of dust and timber and age. There has been a watermill on the Thames at Mapledurham since the time of the Norman invasion and it is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. It was built and rebuilt over the centuries, but the present mill was built in 1626.
Back in the day, it would have been an uncomfortable, dangerous sort of place, hot in the summer and freezing cold in winter. There would have been vermin, and plenty of cats to control them. The two millstones, capable of grinding six tonnes of flour per day, would have grumbled from dawn till dusk. A weir upstream of the mill forces the water level to rise to 7 feet, and the bottom of the mill, where the pit wheel lies, would have been watery, cold and damp. Flour dust is warm - it steams in the snow - and it can easily ignite with a single spark, so the risk of fire was high, especially when the water wheel was often used to power a grindstone for sharpening blades and farming equipment. The mill would flood too, when river levels rose. There was nothing for the miller to do then but brace the wheel, remove the paddles, open the door and let the water rush on through.
Mapledurham Estate lies in southern Oxfordshire. I reached it via a hair-raising drive through winding single lanes flanked by fields and hedgerows, quietly panicking about what I would actually do if I encountered an oncoming vehicle. Miles of reversing? Or would I stop the car, clamber out and shriek 'I'm AUSTRALIAN, for God's sake! I can't drive under these CONDITIONS!'
I recommend a visit, though. The mill is wonderful, and if you're not into history you might like the fact that it's been used in movies and TV series such as The Eagle has Landed, Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders, and Sharpe. It also featured on the cover of Black Sabbath's debut album in 1970. (Who knew?)