News (and stuff) from London E3

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Three Mills

Britain's oldest, and largest, tidal mill is in Newham. But it's also in E3. It's the House Mill, at Three Mills. And it's open every Sunday afternoon if you fancy a look round.

Three MillsThere are only two mills at Three Mills, although there used to be eight in medieval times. One survivor is the Clock Mill, so called it has a clock on the tower [photo], and the other is the House Mill, so called because the miller's house used to be nextdoor. The House Mill's the bigger, and dates back to 1776 in approximately its current form [photo]. It was built to grind grain not for flour but for the distillation of alcohol, most notably gin. All that came to an end one incendiary night during the Blitz, and it took sixty years for the mill to be rebuilt and restored. A fine upstanding body of volunteers maintain the site and open it up once a week (once a month in the winter) so that visitors can take a look around. It's busier than it could be, but not perhaps as busy as it should be.

Unlike most modern visitor attractions, the café and gift shop are located on the way in. You can have a sandwich or a toasted teacake while your tour guide gets ready, and maybe watch the introductory video (if you can hear the commentary above the hubbub of raucous diners). It's all endearingly amateur, even the unlikely second hand book stall in the corner, and all the better for it. Eventually you'll be heading off up the metal staircase which links together the old and the new parts of the mill. The miller's house turns out to be the wholly new part [photo], containing offices and a penthouse conference room, although from out the front it's a terribly convincing fake. Up top there's a fine view of the tidal river, and how it splits in half to feed the two different mills on the site. You also get some idea of the grand scale of the Three Mills film studios nextdoor, once all part of the same refinery complex, and apparently a former distribution centre for Bacardi.

But it's the old mill you'll be wanting to explore. This is a splendid building, on several storeys, lovingly assembled from pine beams beneath a steeply pitched roof. Some of those beams are English Heritage replacements, but others (the chunkier, woodwormier ones) date back over 200 years. Health and Safety dictates you can't climb right to the top, but you can look up to see the wheel which hoisted sacks of grain to the high level bins. A series of hoppers and chutes directed the grain back down, ensuring it ended up between the right millstones at the right time, ready for the clunking machinery to whirr into action and get grinding. You have to watch your head lest you hit some wooden or metal protuberance, and watch your step in case you dislodge some trapdoor and open up a direct route to the floor below.

Eventually the tour reaches ground level, which is where the milled grain ended up and where the four waterwheels are. They're in two pairs, and also from completely different generations. The largest is a metal Victorian contraption, while the oldest is wooden and so fragile that the trustees daren't even touch it. All are controlled by their own sluice gate, and exist in a dark netherworld of decay and pigeon feathers. If there's ever any money going for further restoration, it's hoped that at least one of these wheels might turn again, powered as before by the ebbing tide. Alas, given that Newham can no longer spare any money even for local schoolchildren to come visiting, further regeneration may be several years off.

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