Mill Skills in the Broads

10 December 2018

Mills are emblematic of the Broads, as much as part of its character as its waterways. The Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes is out to save these majestic heritage sites as many of these iconic structures fall into disrepair. Demelza Craven from the Broad's Authority has more...

It’s a bright clear day and the view from the scaffolding atop North Mill is a thing of beauty. A network of rivers dazzle beneath a winter sun, cattle graze on the drained marshes, the occasional Chinese water deer bolts from a reed bed. Dotted across the fields are a collection of heritage drainage mills, relics of the way life used to be and in the far off distance is Great Yarmouth with its vast expanse of wind turbines heralding the future from their place in the North Sea.

The stunning Broads view!

The stunning view around North Mill. Photo credit: Tom Barrett, Broads Authority.

The Broads National Park is a landscape like none other. It is Britain’s largest protected wetland and has an extraordinary history entwined with its people. By the 12th century, much of east Norfolk had been cleared of its woodland and over the following 350 years, peat digging became a major industry. As sea levels rose, the diggings were abandoned and left to flood, creating shallow stretches of water known as Broads.  Over time the people who lived by the broads harnessed the environment in different ways, creating the iconic drained grazing marsh landscape through the use of drainage mills. These mills have become emblematic of the Broads, large stately structures, often made of traditional Norfolk red brick which are as much a part of the heritage of the Broads as its wherries and churches.

By the 1920s the traditional wind powered drainage mills had become obsolete and in the time that has followed fewer people have had the skills or the will to restore them. Fast forward to today and the conservation area in which North Mill stands, near Halvergate, has been included in Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, a clear sign that these once majestic buildings are in need of salvaging before they crumble into the reeds.

Restoration at North MillRestoration at North Mill. Photo credit: Tom Barrett, Broads Authority.

And that is why the Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes initiative has stepped in. A grant of £2,437,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund through its Landscape Partnership programme for the Water, Mills and Marshes project means that something is being done about the fate of the declining drainage mills. When added to match funding this means there’s a total budget of around £4m for 38 projects that can be delivered over a five-year period. The projects will help identify, preserve and improve the incredible heritage of the Broads National Park, focusing on environmental and archaeological assets within the area. There will be many learning opportunities and people will be able to contribute in practical ways to ensure access for future generations.

North Mill by Tom Barrett, Broads Authority

North Mill by Tom Barrett, Broads Authority

So the scaffolding which bedecks North Mill is there for a very good reason. The Broads Authority is now offering City College Norwich construction students the opportunity to learn the heritage restoration skills they need to maintain and preserve these majestic structures. Students come on a weekly basis and organisations from charities to schools take trips to see the buildings, learn about their history, and even try taking part in some restoration themselves. So that in the near future these once forgotten heritage pumps such as North Mill might have the sails to wave back to their descendants in the North Sea, reminding us of how the future still owes a thing or two to the past.     

By Demelza Craven, Broads Authority