A History of the Watermill

"The Mill's Tale"

Little Salkeld Watermill is one of the country's few working waterpowered corn mills still producing stoneground flour the traditional way. The growing of grain is a sign of social stability - a change from the nomadic way of life of the hunter-gatherer to the more settled existence of the subsistence farmer, growing enough for immediate need, and taking a tithe to the lord of the manor for storage against famine.

And so it was in the Eden Valley in medieval times, and the Salkelds made good from the 12th century, owning land and property (including Salkeld Hall and Corby Castle) for half a millennium.

They'd lost it all by 1700 and the Scots were still revolting, so it was only after Bonnie Prince Charlie was finally sent packing at the Battle of Clifton Moor on 17th December 1745 that the East Fellsiders felt secure enough to start building for the future again, and that included Little Salkeld Watermill, built from red sandstone hewn from a small quarry not half a mile away. It was a modest affair then, just a two up two down for the miller and his family, and a one storey mill with no granary. The farmers would arrive by horse and cart with sacks of grain, enjoy a good crack whilst waiting for them to be milled, then off again up the hill past Long Meg to feed their hungry stock.

But the coming of the iron horse changed all that, for the Settle-Carlisle line passed close by, and the Irish navvies brought trade, and a millshop opened, and then the mill prospered, a granary floor was added, and two new over-the-top cast iron waterwheels from Barry Henry of Aberdeen; and the miller stored oats, and roasted them, and made haver meal and porridge, and sent it down the line to Leeds and London to the south and Glasgow and beyond to the north. But that very same porridge fed the shipbuilders of the Clyde that built the ships that brought the grain from the New World that made lighter cheaper bread that millers and bakers preferred.

And so it was that Thomas Carr built a massive steam powered mill at Silloth and took away the business from Little Salkeld mill and many like it up and down the Fellside so that by the 1930s it was a quiet place again and not much of a living to be had unless you had a few acres and a few cows and the monthly milk cheque to keep the wolf from the door. And then came the war and the machinery was ripped out and turned into guns, or left to rust away.

And so it remained a backwater for twenty odd years until men with diggers started to eat their way through the granite on Shap Fell to build the M6 Motorway. Soon cars and coaches and lorries from the south began to teem through Tebay and down into the sleepy valley of Eden; and they came on high days and holidays looking for the old fashioned way of doing things and found the mill still grinding, slow but sure, as long as the rain kept falling high up on Cross Fell not nine miles away. And they began to realise that new was not always best, and that there was something to be said for farming without chemicals, farming with compost, old rotations, and that stonegrinding with clean self renewing waterpower was good for the earth, good for the wheat, good for the baker and good for hungry hunters young and old. They saw golden grains of wheat as concentrated sunshine, powerful seeds of light, baked into delicious loaves. That was all more than twenty years ago, and the Mill is still young and beautiful, looking forward to the next thousand years.......

[Woodcuts from "Orbis Sensualium Pictus", first published in Nuremberg by Joannes Amos Comenius in 1658]