The miller's tale

A mill conversion sounds idyllic - but you need to do your homework carefully. Chris Partridge investigates the pleasures and pitfalls
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The Independent Online

For centuries, mills were the cutting edge of production technology, harnessing wind and water to grind corn, hammer iron and weave cloth. The arrival of cheap electricity put them all out of business, and many were demolished or converted into houses. But today former mills are earning their keep once again, with the owners living in one part of the building and using the rest as offices, shops, restaurants or tourist attractions. Some are even being used to grind corn, supplying organic wholefood shops with unadulterated, stoneground flour.

For centuries, mills were the cutting edge of production technology, harnessing wind and water to grind corn, hammer iron and weave cloth. The arrival of cheap electricity put them all out of business, and many were demolished or converted into houses. But today former mills are earning their keep once again, with the owners living in one part of the building and using the rest as offices, shops, restaurants or tourist attractions. Some are even being used to grind corn, supplying organic wholefood shops with unadulterated, stoneground flour.

When Barry and Joy Lee first saw Barnham Windmill in West Sussex 10 years ago, it was in a sorry state. "It was completely derelict," Barry says. "There were no sails or fantail and it looked just like a dead dalek." However, enough of the machinery survived to make restoration feasible, and the mill had a range of outbuildings with enough space for a house and business premises. It also had planning permission for restoration of the mill and creation of a tearoom and restaurant.

Barry, a builder, started by researching the mill's history and creating a restoration plan. "We traced it back to the 17th century when a post mill was built but we took the restoration back to 1890 when it last had a major overhaul," he says. Some mill enthusiasts wanted him to go right back to its appearance when it was built in 1829 but Barry resisted: "1890 is the earliest date that we have photographic evidence for - anything earlier has to be speculative," he says.

The mill is now almost complete, only the sails and some gearing being needed to start grinding flour again under the "Creamawheat" brand used by the Victorian miller. In the old mill stores, the Lees created a tea room, restaurant, bar and function room, complete with professional kitchens. "They have been far more successful than we ever imagined," says Joy Lee, who runs them. "There was nothing like them in the area, and we have had weddings, birthdays, club meetings and many other events here."

On the other side of the yard, a four bedroom home has been created so the owners can live close by the business but not directly over the shop. The business has now been almost too successful - the Lees now want to take things more slowly. So they are selling the mill at £950,000 through Jackson-Stops and Staff (01243 786316).

Water mills often have huge appeal as buildings, and also tend to sit in particularly lovely settings because of the river and pond they need to operate. Many sites are incredibly ancient - water wheels were originally introduced by the Romans and are recorded in the Domesday Book. Woodham Mill in Wroughton, near Swindon, dates back to 1049 but the current redbrick flour mill was erected in 1771 and was converted to steam power in 1842; the giant chimney still has a fireplace at the bottom.

Power was distributed to the millstones by shafts and belts, some of which can still be seen, and a number of millstones stand decoratively around the house. The side building that used to cover the giant overshot iron wheel is now a two storey annex some 33ft long by 21ft wide, which could easily be used as an office.

Woodham Mill is on the market with Carter Jonas (01672 514545) at £850,000. Blackdown Mill, near Leamington Spa, is another mill that was converted from water to steam in the middle of the 19th century; the chimney is even taller. The complex was converted into a house with an antiques showroom and workshop between the wars, when a number of picturesque wooden balconies were added that would certainly not be allowed today. They certainly soften the outline of what must originally have been a rather hard industrial building.

Although the current owners have been using the place purely as a home, the planning permission for retail and workshops is still in force so it would be simple to set up shop again. Blackdown Mill is for sale at £1.7m with Knight Frank (01789 297735).

Few mills now remain unconverted but an unusual specimen has come on the market in an unexpected location. The Water Mill is powered not by a wheel but a turbine, and it is not in a remote country valley but in the self-consciously pretty-pretty village of Shamley Green, in Surrey.

The original mill was built in the 15th century but the turbine was installed as part of a comprehensive modernisation in 1885, which also saw the introduction of a shaft-and-belt system. The buildings are not immediately impressive, being simple weatherboarded sheds for the most part, but the main interest from a historical point of view is the machinery, which is Grade-II listed. This poses problems for conversion, but a plan has been drawn up and approved that makes the remaining shafting and millstones into features of the house.

The end result should be a stunning five-bedroom house in seven acres of garden in a quiet area of lovely countryside. The plans even include a layout for a new millpond, because the original pond was sold off with the miller's house next door. Being Shamley Green, one of the premier commuter villages of Surrey, the cost will be considerable.

The mill is for sale at £1m but it is expected it will cost at least another £1m to restore the building and convert it into the kind of luxury home that is on the market in that neck of the woods. The agent is Savills (01483 796800).

Conversion pros and cons

PROS

* Tend to occupy sites on hills or next to rivers

* Huge floor areas;

* Interesting and attractive buildings.

CONS

* Machinery in the way and may be listed

* Windmills make awkward circular rooms

* Millponds and races give parents the willies

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