diamond geezer

 Monday, May 15, 2017

Where did you go for National Mills Weekend?
I went to Shirley.

Shirley (on the east side of Croydon) is home to one of London's handful of surviving windmills... and one of the last to be built in England before mechanisation took over. It's very much a 19th century windmill, having first operated in 1808 and ceased in 1892, with a complete rebuild halfway through. Prior to 1854 it was a post mill, which meant the whole building turned, and since 1854 it's been a tower mill, which means only the cap does. They'll explain all this if you come along - they have wooden models of the two types they wheel out onto the lawn.

Shirley Windmill lurks up a cul-de-sac in the most incongruous of locations, a modern housing estate. You walk up into what looks like Brookside Close, and there at its centre is this windmill in the middle of a buttercup lawn. This suburban-rural hybrid goes mostly unnoticed, as much as any tall be-sailed building can, but on seven days a year The Friends of Shirley Windmill put their cones out, open up their tearoom, and allow the inquisitive public up to the top.

Every visit inside a windmill is somehow the same, and yet very different, depending on the clutter and the state of the machinery. Shirley's 17m-high tower has five floors, and four ladders to negotiate, with tours starting beneath the cap and working down. A giant wheel with 172 applewood teeth meshes against the central iron cog, which would be turned by the windshaft if only the sails were operational, which at Shirley they're not. The Friends have restored their mill to almost-functional, but decided not to go the whole hog because the resultant health and safety requirements would likely place this Dust Floor out of bounds.

Lower levels feature grain bins, chutes and hoppers, plus the obligatory pair of millstones so that guides can explain the groovy grinding process. One feature that sets Shirley above other windmill visits is the quality of its models, from scaled-down stonecases to rotating furrows, plus a fair bit of Meccano because one of the volunteers is a big fan. I'd often wondered precisely how the fantail rotates a windmill's cap as the wind changes direction, and another model demonstrated this particular bit of physics using a rotatable modified blowdrier. If there's a budding small engineer in your family, a visit to Shirley will intrigue and inspire.

As well as National Mills Weekend, the windmill is also opened up for free hour-long tours on the first Sunday of the month from June to October, and for Open House too. A tiny Visitors Centre explains more of the building's background and sells historical souvenirs, along with tea and particularly generous slices of iced cherry sponge. If you're vaguely local you might even consider signing up as a Friend, a merry and very sociable band from what I saw, and custodians of a fantastic agricultural relic.

London's windmills
Barnet Gate (Arkley, private, off-limits) [attempted photo]
Brixton (newly restored, pre-booked tours available) [I've still never been inside]
Keston (private, occasional tours by appointment)
Shirley (next open Sunday 4th June)
Upminster (splendid, but closed for restoration until 2018) [I've been]
Wimbledon (mid-common, contains an excellent museum)

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