A living lesson in flour power
West Ashling Mill in West Sussex retains much of its original machinery. Mary Wilson discovers how millstones and crushers have been cleverly incorporated into a family home
Wednesday 09 July 2003
Not many mills have been driven by three different power sources but West Ashling Mill, near Chichester, West Sussex has, in its time, used wind, water and an Armfield turbine. The mill was originally used for producing flour, but in 1832 it was converted to make paper pulp, before reverting back to corn milling in 1950. In 1896, the mill was sold by the estate of a Miss Chorley for the grand sum of £700 and at that time it had six pairs of millstones; only three remain today and the windmill, which was still in operation in the early 1900s, was not finally dismantled until 1954.
When Ian McGrath bought the mill in 1981, it was derelict, although an old gentleman had been living in the cottage which was added in the early 1800s, albeit in rather primitive circumstances, with no running water, no drains and no loo (he used a hole in the middle of the field). "It was a little like the Marie Celeste," says Ian. "It looked as if the mill owner has just upped and left one day, leaving everything behind. I was looking for a property which had space, large rooms and character and this one sounded interesting. I only saw it once, for half an hour, but knew it had potential and turned up at the auction two weeks later, not expecting to see lots of other interested parties there as well."
But Ian successfully topped the other bidders and the mill became his. He moved in straight away, living in a caravan during the six months it took to make the cottage presentable. The mill itself took five years to restore and needed a new roof, but the most difficult task was finding wood which matched the existing timber.
In every room, there are reminders of the building's milling days. The three millstones loom over a long collecting trough beside the utility area and in a store room below the millstones, the original belts still lie where they were left. The central beam of the family room has the old grinder on it, with corn still in it, while running along and above the hallway which joins the main bedroom to the other bedrooms is the main feed hopper and huge wooden power shaft. On the landing is a large crusher/grinder, and in all the bedrooms there are various bits of machinery, from wheels to shutes and troughs.
The mill wheel and sluice gates are long gone, but beside where these would have stood is a mill-race viewing deck, designed so that the McGraths and their friends could enjoy a drink in atmospheric surroundings. They've subsequently found that the noise of the water roaring down the sluice has made it a rather impractical idea. "I had a few people around to explain what the various bits of machinery were for and how it worked. It was quite a challenge to modernise it, while at the same time retaining the character," says Ian.
On the ground floor, there is an open-plan kitchen to the family room, which still has the original flagstone floor. "It used to be 18 inches lower and was covered by a ghastly wooden floor," says Ian. "We have lifted it up and put in under-floor heating which we, as well as the animals, love".
The drawing room is upstairs. One of its old wooden pillars has the name of the last owner, James Hackett, carved into it. Also scribbled in pencil on the pillar is a list of items and their prices (presumably an order) written by one of the millers. And on one window sill is an old leveller (made to level the millstones) on a slate bed fixed into the sill. "I love all these little details, and we have only moved stuff which was in the way," says Ian.
In one corner of the drawing room, there is a flour sifter, which he says he has always wanted to make into a cocktail cabinet, but has never quite got round to. The room which Ian uses as an office from which to run his business-consultancy company has a large angled section of wall at each corner; it was above this room that the windmill once stood. The walls of this room - along with the other walls in the house which are not panelled - are white-painted brick.
Outside, the McGraths have made a big terrace at the back of the house, built a swimming pool and also dug out and restored the mill pond to what it was like before it became silted up. "We looked at an old map to find out large it used to be and have returned it to its original shape," says Ian. The water, which attracts ducks, coots, moorhens and black swans, lies to the front of the mill and makes it feel quite secluded, even though it is on the edge of the village, and beside the local primary school.
At the back there are fabulous views over the mill's own pastureland, and then woodland beyond. The cottage, which has two bedrooms and a sitting room, is useful for overflow relations or friends or, but it could easily be rented out to provide an income.
Now Ian, his wife Yvonne and their children, Alexander, 12, and Nina, 11, are fulfilling another dream and moving to a house not far away on the coast. "We both love the sea and the chance has come up to buy a house right on the beach" says Ian. "I also want to reduce my working hours, so we can spend some time travelling and since we can only that do by downsizing, it seems a good time to sell."
West Ashling Mill has 9.5 acres, a large heated outdoor swimming pool and six bedrooms. It is on the market through Jackson, Stops & Staff (01243 786316), for offers in excess of £1.5m.
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