A few weeks ago I visited the historic Whissendine Windmill with my friend and fellow wet-plate photographer Liz de Heveningham-Morley. The windmill is located at the end of a short track on the flanks of the village that shares its name where it has stood vigil surrounded by ancient ridge and furrow fields for the past two centuries. The Mill is one of only a few remaining fully operational examples from the period, despite being severely damaged by a gale on the 20th April 1922, and has only worked on windpower since August 2009 thanks to the tireless labours of the incumbent miller, Nigel Moon (pictured) who took over ownership in 1995. One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic, Nigel did well during the lockdown sourdough revival but the cost of living crisis has since seen a downturn in business.
Nigel is a fascinating fellow who told us that he fell in love with windmills aged five, his school reports often lamenting his dreamy window-gazing obsession. How wonderful, though, to find your calling, and we can thank Nigel for helping to locate and restore a number of mills and milling machinery up and down the country. Sadly, the outlook for mills is a growing concern, with property developers keen to swoop in and tear-out the workings to make space for quirky designer apartments. Talking with him it's hard not to share in his obvious distress that so few mills remain, with precious few people with the resources and determination to save them.
Nigel's flour is especially fine. As an occasional baker myself I can attest to its quality and flavour, so I heartily recommend a visit. He told me that the modern milling methods use extremely high temperatures that kill many of the useful microscopic collaborators that support our gut health, whereas traditional milling is cool and methodical. Judging by the way he scampers about up and down ladders he might be on to something. It certainly produces tasty bread and seems much more refined in texture, to say nothing of the obvious and welcome romance of visiting the miller in his windmill to purchase your flour. I asked him if his approach, his philosophy as it were, was anti-modern, but he disagreed insofar that his business requires a certain amount of digital alignment even if his great love is decidedly analogue in nature. I liked him a lot.
Inside the mill every available surface was dusted with flour, giving the place an appealling other-worldly quality, especially when the machinery isn't turning and the cavernous silence is broken by the occasional creak and groan of the mill shifting about on its foundation. If ever you could imagine a structure coming alive then an ancient windmill would be a safe bet. At one point I stood with back against an outside wall and leaned back against the incline looking directly up at the cap and its rudder. As a child I don't think I would have ever tired of running up and down those ladders and standing atop the mill looking out across rural Leicestershire and I suspect, or rather hope that Nigel has never lost the child-like sense of unchecked enchantment that so irritated his teachers, although the hard times have sorely tested his resolve I'm sure.
There was a steady flow of visitors throughout, some dropping by for a bag of flour, others simply curious to have a closer look. Nigel to his absolute credit was happy to down tools and offer a quick tour, eager that others should be able to spend some time beneath the sails and stones as the former Miller, John Downs, captured in a few lines of verse towards the end of the C19th.
Suffice to say it is a magical place. The way it moves with the wind, its curious giantesque proportions and neat little skirt of picketed balcony gives it a character all of its own. Nigel permitted us to climb to the very top - the cap - which can spin through 360 to follow the changing winds. In folklore millers are often untrustworthy, he told me, notorious for finding creative ways to literally tip the scales in their favour, as well as being . We talked a little about Chaucer and how a mill almost always has a cat or two slinking about for obvious reasons, although I didn't see any. On occasion, and in very severe storms a mill can be ruined by running backwards, which struck me as a wonderfully forebidding image for use in a gothic horror, perhaps foreshadowing the arrival of a mysterious stranger or a demonic force.
We're already planning a return trip.