You've just missed National Mills Weekend - two days when more than 300 UK wind and watermills opened their doors to the public. Yes, who knew? It's an annual event, apparently, but not the sort of thing that gathers a huge amount of pre-publicity. I mean, where should one go to see advance notice of this kind of thing? Time Out missed it completely. Enjoy England, the official national tourist website, is always unhelpfully location-specific rather than time-specific. Visit London continues to emphasise the mainstream, and hides the occasional quirky gem deep within its unmanageable database. It was only by chance (and at the last minute) that I discovered this weekend's windmill festival on the ever-comprehensive 24 Hour Museum website, which is currently celebrating Museums & Galleries Month. You didn't know that either, did you?
Anyway, despite the limited promotion, I thought that a visit to one of London's few remaining windmills was required. I've not been to the millat Upminster before (nor, indeed, to Upminster full stop), so that's the windmill I chose. It's only open on a handful of weekends each year, so probably won't be accessible when I finally pull Havering from my special jamjar. And the mill is free to enter and staffed entirely by volunteers, which I always think are two damned good reasons for visiting anywhere. So off to the eastern extremity of the District Line I went.
Upminster Windmill is very much in the middle of suburbia. There are semi-detached houses on three sides of Windmill Field, and the mill would have followed suit had Essex County Council had their evil way in the 1950s. But local people successfully fought off the developers, and when the area was transferred to London in 1965 the new council was rather more sympathetic. What's special about this windmill is not its history or its design, but just that it's managed to survive.
Recently the mill has fallen victim to the wind it was meant to tame. A particularly violent storm on 18th January 2007 snapped off one of the sails, and the opposite sail then had to be removed to allow the structure to balance. Since then the windmill has looked slightly lopsided, with only two sails, while a pair of traditional replacements is built. These should be up and operational next month, paid for by the council's building insurance, and Upminster's iconic four-ness will be restored once again.
Sails aside, this is a traditional five storey smock mill. The tower is octagonal, with sloping wooden sides, topped off by a cap and fantail that allow the sails to rotate into the wind. It stands 17 metres tall and, yesterday at least, formed a perfect backdrop for the taking of artyblue-skiedphotographs. The mill dates back just over 200 years, built on the highest point in Upminster, and continued to grind wheat until the 1930s.
My guided tour began with a ladder-climb to the very top, beneath the cap, where the power of the sails is transferred to the central vertical shaft. Here we came face to beak with some pigeons who've recently broken in through a gaping hole in the woodwork, and are now making a mess with their roosting, nesting and guanoing. As we slowly descended, our guide explained the mechanics of flour production one floor at a time. Hoist up each sack using this, drop the grain through that hatch there, crush the kernels with these stones here, and filter out the surplus bran through this. It was an appropriately interesting 45 minute tour, illustrated with various tools and machinery, and kept children involved and entertained throughout. Admittedly Upminster's innards aren't yet restored to full working order - a Lottery grant will be required for that - but hopefully proper functionality will come soon.
I was especially impressed by the (mostly retired) volunteers who keep the windmill open, tirelessly battling against petty vandalism, irregular opening hours and mechanical failure. Only through their dedication has Upminster Windmill survived through the years to inspire and to educate. It's important to remind each new generation that we didn't always have the convenience of ciabattas, ovenbake baguettes and sliced bread. They were bloody clever, our forefathers, and Britain's remaining windmills stand as a monument to their ingenuity.