Like human equivalents of the hermit crab, people have been converting these flamboyant relics of the agricultural past into places to live. Many pioneering occupants have now moved away, passing on their work to second- and third-generation owners. These are the people who are now adapting to windmill life in buildings that have already been converted, as far as possible, to human needs.
Kathryn and Colin Johnson are two such windmill-dwellers. In 1981, in a small Sussex village close to Pulborough, they bought a black smock mill (so called because its flared shape is supposed to resemble a shepherd's smock). When they first tried to view the mill, the Johnsons ran into difficulties. The owners had tired of people asking to see it out of curiosity, rather than real interest in buying.
Since then, the Johnsons' casual interest has developed into a windmill obsession. As well as becoming maintenance experts, they have amassed an archive of press cuttings and memorabilia. Several old sepia postcards, showing the mill bare of the trees that now surround it, are held up for inspection. 'These were given to me by a girl who had gone into service in Worthing in 1910,' says Kathryn. 'She was given the postcards by her mother to send home regularly to tell her how she was.'
Kathryn's life rotates between windmills. She not only lives in one, but helps at wine tastings organised at the mill adjoining nearby Nutbourne Vineyard, and is to be seen most summer mornings pedalling off on her bicycle armed with a corkscrew.
There is a price to be paid, however, for living in a windmill - and the Johnsons have paid it. The huge sails began to rot over the years, and finally had to be replaced at a cost of pounds 8,000. 'I got fed up with patching them,' says Kathryn. 'Initially we strapped them with a brace - but we were worried, because if they collapsed they could have caused a lot of damage. So in the end we bit the bullet and had them done.' Their dearest possession is a very long ladder extended up the sides to clean bird mess and moss off the black weatherboarding, and to allow them to apply fresh coats of tar.
The octagonal black cone consists of two storeys of tarred stone topped by two storeys of tarred weatherboarding, with two white sails still intact where there had once been four. 'The structure is like a wigwam with eight corners,' she explains. The grain store to the side, where the horse and cart would have once delivered grain and loaded up flour, is now a kitchen of stripped pine and intimate cosiness.
The mill houses a showpiece sitting room on the ground floor, containing some of the Johnsons' collection of antique military objects, including a full-dress naval uniform. Each of the two floors above contains a bedroom and a bathroom, and on the fourth sits the study, snug beneath the sails, with a crow's- nest view of the South Downs.
This mill was one of the earliest in the country to be converted for living purposes, due to the expansive hospitality of the owner of the neighbouring manor house. He had it turned into a weekend guest-house during the 1920s. 'A lady in the village remembers going in to help with house parties,' says Kathryn, 'and having to take the breakfast salvers from the main house over to the mill for guests.'
A measure of how hard people found the idea of actually living in windmills is conveyed by the Harrods sales particulars, dated 1931, which described this one bafflingly as a 'hunting box and summer residence'.
Many mills fell into complete disrepair before their owners realised they could provide raw material for the restoration mania which was gradually gripping the country. One such was Ecclesdon Mill, a brick tower mill set high on the hills behind Angmering in Sussex. Built in 1826 with a diameter of 18ft, four sails and a fantail (an auxilliary sail), it was described in the local paper in 1963 as 'capless and empty'. In 1973 it was restored, with a large, modern ranch-style house butting on to one cheek of it. The mill's curved wall protrudes into the sitting room, and is adorned with a curved radiator.
The owners now are Vicky and Tony Espezel, who allowed their five teenage children to occupy the mill tower, while the house, with its huge picture windows overlooking a heated swimming pool, remained the domain of the adults. Since the other children have now left home, the youngest son, Justin, inhabits the tower and has decorated it with his own mix of pop art and paraphernalia, from his Frank Zappa posters to his beloved saxophone, Budweiser fridge and Coke-tin wastepaper basket. The pair of plastic breasts swinging from the bannisters is part of a French maid outfit used for fancy dress.
The top floor, which provides views such as you might hope to get from the window seat of a low-flying aircraft, has been used as an art studio by Justin's grandmother, the local artist Margery Labram. But here, too, the maintenance of the mill tower has tried the owners' patience. Their application of coat after coat of tar has failed to keep out the damp. The whole estate, with five bedrooms, a paddock and stabling, is now on the market at pounds 400,000.
Arundel Windmill nearby had long lost its sails when Geoffrey and Jennifer Dowling bought it 10 years ago. The brick tower was so damp that the whole thing had to be stripped out and the machinery removed. 'The huge cast-iron wheels and the tackle were so heavy they came crashing down through the rotten floorboards,' says Jennifer. A kitchen, master bedrooms, bathroom and study were then slotted into the circular floors of the mill, and in another two years a weatherboarded extension with a tiled roof was added to provide two extra bedrooms, a bathroom and sitting room.
Working in the round was not a problem for the Dowlings, who are interior designers. Narrow kitchen units were placed close together to hug the curve of the walls, set off by a circular kitchen table. A hand-painted circular silk
panel is pinned to the ceiling of the main bedroom, creating yet more wheels within wheels.
In the bathroom on the floor above, romance has taken over with a heart-shaped bath (found in a catalogue) and walls painted with a trompe l'oeil Greek landscape of ruined temples, against which their two-year-old son Patrick blows his bubbles. The last floor, the study, is reached by a ship's ladder, and here the view flies you all the way to Littlehampton and the wetlands along the south coast.
'For me,' says Jennifer, 'that panorama is part of the pleasure of living in a windmill. As you climb higher, the rooms get smaller and the views get bigger.' The mill is now on the market with Fox & Sons, so she needs to find a buyer with pounds 280,000 who feels the same way.
The Wind and Watermill Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has around 800 members, most of whom are interested in mill machinery. It organises a National Mills Day on the second Sunday of May each year when working mills are opened to the public. The SPAB also has a list of millwrights and a list called 'Mills Open' (price pounds 3.50 inc p&p).