Willesborough Windmill, Past and Present

Celebrating Willesborough Mill’s 150th Birthday, July 2019; photo by the Author

An Ashford Landmark

Willesborough Windmill is a landmark in the south east of Ashford. It is run by a small but enthusiastic group of volunteers who devote as much time and energy as they can to ensuring it survives, not only as a local landmark but also as a fully-functioning windmill and an attractive venue for public and private events as diverse as Teddy Bears’ Picnics and Weddings. 

Lightning Strike Destroys Mill

153 years ago, however, its predecessor was destroyed:

One of the sweeps of Willesborough windmill was struck and shattered, the electric fluid damaging the cap and passing down the chain, many links of which were soldered together. In the lower storey it tore up flooring and passed out of the basement, bursting open the doors, and tearing down brickwork and zinc placed around the mill to keep the wet out. Two heavy iron bolts from the sweep were shot out a distance of fifty yards. The damage done was considerable; … In the adjoining field six sheep belonging to Mr Cornes [the miller] were struck and five of them killed.

Mr Cornes lived and worked at Willesborough Windmill in the 1860s, and this extract from the Kentish Express of 18 July 1868 records the devastating effects that “one of the heaviest and most destructive storms of thunder and lightning ever known in this neighbourhood” had on his property. The storm had hit on the previous Sunday night – 12 July 1868 – and also caused significant damage in the villages of Nackolt, Mersham and Sellindge. 

Although, the paper reports, Mr Cornes was successful in claiming £70 from his insurance company, the damage to Willesborough windmill proved irreparable. It was, instead, demolished and a new mill built on the site.

A New Mill Arises

The new Willesborough windmill, which still graces the local skyline today, was built in 1869 and received Grade 2 listed status in September 1951.

Unfortunately, no photographs survive of the old windmill, but the current one is an eight-sided, four-storey white smock mill with four sweeps and it sits atop a two-storey red-brick base, with a miller’s cottage attached. The downstairs rooms of the cottage, furnished as they might have been in Victorian times, can be viewed by the public on guided tours, but the upstairs rooms are let to private residents.

Outside, the mill boasts a neat and colourful flower and herb garden, a spacious paved yard, a tearoom and cycle museum housed in a considerately converted barn, and a few small workshops, in which volunteers skilfully make or repair the materials needed to preserve and maintain the mill.

The field in which Mr Cornes’ sheep perished now provides ample space for stalls, marquees, sideshows and/or temporary car-parking as required, and is also home to the railwayman’s hut that sat beside the level crossing at Aylesford Place, Willesborough, until that crossing was removed in the early twenty-first century with the coming of the high-speed rail-line. 

The windmill’s sweeps have patent shutters on a cast-iron windshaft, operated manually from the staging by a weighted chain. Nowadays, the sweeps can regularly be seen turning as volunteers work to produce and bag a fine stoneground wholemeal flour that can be bought either onsite or in one of several local outlets. 

Wind-power from the sweeps has been augmented since 1872 by engine power. The steam engine installed in that year was replaced in 1912 by a Campbell gas-oil engine, which served until 1938, when electricity became available in Willesborough and a 25-horse-power electric motor was installed.

However, electricity proved the downfall of flour production at the mill as cheaper, more efficient factory milling processes stole into the market. Today, a 1906 Hornsby 14-horse-power gas-oil engine – similar to the previous Campbell model – is attached to the sweeps’ auxiliary drive and internal mechanisms.

Willesborough windmill remained with the Cornes family until the first world war, when it passed first to the Manwaring family and then to T. Denne and Sons. In the 1940s, it was used primarily for the production of animal feed but by the 1950s it was being used for storage and then, through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, purely as a private residence.

Dilapidated and in dire need of restoration and refurbishment, the mill was bought by compulsory purchase order in 1991 by Ashford Borough Council for, as the windmill’s website states, “the benefit of the citizens of Ashford and the public at large”.

Willesborough Windmill Trust

It is now maintained by The Willesborough Windmill Trust. Trust volunteers, with the advice of Norfolk based Millwright Paul Kemp, have fully renovated and refurbished the internal structure and mechanisms of the mill to provide a safe working environment for the production of flour in compliance with modern health and food safety regulations. Soon, the Trust’s designated Miller, Brian Stamp, informs me, a second set of working mill-stones will be installed and the smock and cap will be repainted.

Open to the public

Fundraising is, of course, integral to the Trust’s activities, so, alongside events such as those mentioned above, the mill is generally open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from April to October, and on Wednesday afternoons in July and August.

As well as delicious cream teas and cakes in the barn, visitors can enjoy a guided tour that takes them right up into the cap and introduces them to both the history of the mill and the milling process. Children can even grind their own corn into flour to take home with them, and receive a miller’s certificate. The ladders and stairs can be too challenging for some visitors, but ground-floor exhibits compensate for this to a great extent. 

The barn is also home to a collection of Norman Cycles, manufactured in Ashford from  1921 to 1961. Exhibits include bicycles made for children, clowns and trades-people as well as men’s and women’s cycles, tricycles and mopeds. 

Listed on bridebook.com as a “unique and inspiring wedding venue”, Willesborough windmill has been offering small, bespoke ceremonies on the ground floor of the mill for more than ten years, and the barn offers similarly personalised reception and catering facilities. More details can be found at windmillweddings.co.uk

The mill can, of course, be hired for other private functions and more information about that and the mill itself can be found at www.willesboroughwindmill.co.uk