Stour flour's last mill grinds to a halt: Peter Dunn on how the EC's passion for hygiene has made a meal of a West Country institution

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The Independent Online
ONE THOUSAND years of idyllic rural history on the banks of the river Stour in north Dorset have been quietly buried by the European Commission's passion for hygiene.

Outside the market town of Sturminster Newton, the river's last working corn mill has ground its final bag of Stour flour and is to become a museum.

It is a sad day for Brian Young, a local farmer who worked the three-storey mill for seven years. 'It's very galling,' he said. 'The fact is it's been sitting there grinding food for humans and animals since Domesday and now suddenly people decide they can't have it. A lot of it is EC regulations and modern-day thinking.'

Anthony Pitt-Rivers, the land owner who owns the mill and is helping to underwrite a three-year plan to restore it as a working museum and craft and education centre, was more pragmatic.

'It's a question of whether you like your flour flavoured with rat shit or mink shit,' he said. 'Speaking as a district councillor there would be very little hope of getting Sturminster mill up to the required human consumption standards.'

Centuries of farmers in the Blackmoor Vale, Thomas Hardy's vale of the little dairies, have baked their bread and fed their cattle thanks to Sturminster mill. A mill was recorded in the Domesday Book, though the present buildings date back to the 17th century. Its cavity walls are filled with rubble to absorb the violent shaking of the mill stone. In 1904 the water wheel was replaced by an underwater turbine, driven from a weir and still running on its original wooden ball bearing.

David Wills, a retired engineer who builds sugar mills around the world and is now chairman of the mill trust and Sturminster town council, organised the rescue plan when he realised the mill's working days were numbered. Lining its ancient hoppers and chutes with steel and turning it into a fortress to keep out the rats would have cost pounds 40,000, too much for a small community.

'It's like everything else with the European laws - they go a bit too far,' he said. 'This beautiful old building is a gem of the area really and to let it fall into decay would be a great tragedy. It's important for our heritage that children can see how things used to be done. The older it gets the more precious it becomes.'

Brian Young, who left the mill three years ago and whose successor, Chris Eyres, has just resigned, said: 'The fact was I always kept it spotlessly clean. And I kept on top of the rats. We'd catch them coming in and on the way out you'd always make sure they had something tasty to eat.

'The health inspectors might have a little moan, the occasional niggle, but they left me alone. I know I didn't kill anyone; no one complained to me that they'd died. They say all the food has to be so clean these days. Fact is, I don't think we get enough bugs in our tummies to keep ourselves immune. Then people wonder why they keep getting tummy bugs.

'People say to me now, 'Cor, I wish we could still get your Stour flour.' We'd deliver it to shops as far away as Weymouth and people used to come all the way down from Sussex and go home with a paper bag full of Stour flour. We had a lot of school parties round who all took back their little bit of flour to mum or they'd use it in their school kitchens to make bread.

'Well, it was good flour because it was done slowly. Milling flour under stones is not the same as using hammer mills or the high-speed machines they've got in modern flour mills. That's where the flour's spoiled. It's half- cooked before we eat it.'

Brian Young and David Wills agreed that country millers across the Channel would simply ignore the hygiene police in Brussels. As Mr Wills put it: 'I'm sure the French and Spanish and Italians will stick two fingers up at everyone and get on with it. We're too law-abiding in this country and that's the truth of it.'

(Photographs omitted)