Malcolm Rigby explores Clapton Mill, an old Somerset watermill that is being restored

PUBLISHED: 12:49 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

The historic mill

The historic mill

Malcolm Rigby explores Clapton Mill, an old Somerset watermill that is being restored for exhibition, demonstration and ultimately production

Malcolm Rigby explores Clapton Mill, an old Somerset watermill that is being restored for exhibition, demonstration and ultimately production

After a hiatus of 18 years the wheel is turning purposefully once again at Clapton Mill. This historic listed building, just outside Crewkerne, was run commercially up until the early '90s and is now being given a new lease of life as a working museum. The owners, Craig and Gale Taylor, initially focused their time and energy on the adjacent stable block, converting it into residential use and a caf/tea room. That done, Craig could turn his attention to the mill and the all-important 21-foot (6.4m) diameter wheel in particular. Although it could move it wasn't working properly, so the couple had been exhibiting it as a static display.

"Essentially we were going to replace all the buckets on the wheel, but on closer investigation it turned out that the whole thing had to be rebuilt, which doubled the work. So we took the plunge and started in May of last year; literally in the last couple of weeks we finished it and actually ran it again. It's quite a big deal but there's still lots to do," says Craig.

So far, new staircases have been fitted, floorboards have been replaced and windows have been repaired. This year's project is an overhaul of the roof and a thorough tidy-up operation. Grants have been difficult to come by as the Taylors are private individuals rather than a trust, charity or community project, but South Somerset District Council saw the tourism potential in a revolving wheel and gave half the money towards the materials.

Craig describes himself as a building surveyor by profession and a hobby engineer by desire; little, mechanically, can faze him. But what makes a man buy a watermill? "Absolute lunacy," he says with a smile, and then confesses. "Well, I'd always wanted a mill; we'd searched for about six years for a suitable one. The problem with buying a watermill is invariably they've been mucked around with, either completely converted into residential, or bits taken out, or the water supply cut off. Inevitably there is some sort of issue if you want to run it commercially. Even restoring a water supply is not easy: once it has been blocked off, the Environment Agency is very funny about opening up old leats. We haven't had to do that because it was always running. All the leats were still in operation and are now."

As he releases the brake that sets the waterwheel off on its first ponderous revolution, I see a glimmer of pride cross his face; this is seriously big 'toys for the boys', with giant iron cogs that make you feel as if you are inside a clock. Look around and you find a century's worth of discarded milling machinery, from a white-flour plant to the original Ruston & Hornsby back-up oil engine.

First records show that there's been a corn mill on the site since at least 1263, but probably the true figure is much earlier. The present four-storey building is about 200 years old, with the machinery dating back to the mid-Victorian era. The business was run by one family, the Lockyers, from 1881 up until its closure.

Owing to the fact that the wheel has been stationary, visitor numbers have been disappointingly low over the last couple of years, but Craig is hoping and expecting that to change. "Because it's not been working it's not attracted so many people. It's important for schools and younger people, they want to see it going round. A static mill doesn't mean a lot to an eight-year-old, they want to see the wheels turning... and for adults as well. Even if we don't grind for sale straight away, which we can't for health and safety reasons, we can immediately grind for demonstration purposes, so people can see it going through, they can see the product coming out, and have a go if they want - it's not beyond the realm of possibility if people want to come and try it."

The ultimate aim, of course, is to get the mill producing flour on a commercial basis. "We want it to produce, but just on what scale yet we haven't actually decided. Trying to start something new in this sort of economic climate is not good, although there is a demand for locally sourced flour, so there has been a lot of interest and there's not a lot of people doing it round here, particularly by water power."

Whilst commercial flour production may be some time away, energy production is already online. Clapton Mill is one of ten mill sites in Somerset taking part in a government-backed pilot scheme to install water-driven generators to provide electricity for local households. Since December 2006 a hydro-electric turbine has been generating green energy for the mill and for others - in fact, twice as much is produced than is needed so the excess is passed on to the national grid and every now and then a cheque falls on the doormat. The project is so innovative - the first in the country - that the Energy Saving Trust put up good grants to pay for the machinery and make it financially viable. It is thought that should the scheme be extended, 2% of Britain's entire energy requirements could be met by harnessing the flow of the country's streams and rivers.

So, if after the tour of the mill you stop at the caf for tea and cake you can rest assured that your cup of Darjeeling has been brewed with green energy.

Meanwhile, in the background, no doubt Craig will be basking in pride. He says: "I love the mechanical side of it, the engineering side, how else can you as an individual buy a mammoth waterwheel with huge gears? I find all that fascinating. But mills generally are on nice sites, there are water courses, rivers, ponds and wildlife. You get the whole package here; it's a nice place to live, it's an interesting hobby and we wanted a business opportunity."

Contact Craig and Gale Taylor for tour times and caf opening hours on 01460 72142.

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