1968 Floods at Walkern Mill
An extract from A Mill on the Beane
Written by James & Clare Currey for the Walkern Journal
In 1968 there was a dramatic event which led to a transformation of the grounds round the mill. One autumn night exceptionally heavy rains fell and, as routinely happens, floods came to the Beane valley. It was September and there were stacks of straw bales from the recent harvest in the farmyards. In the night, bales were swept out into the road and, jammed together, they formed a dam which held back the rains running off the hillside down the Stevenage road. At some point that dam burst and a wave of water swept down the High Street to the mill which was already surrounded by water. Denis Hart went down to see the floods and, as he got closer to the mill, he heard a roaring sound. ?Noise. Pigs. Poultry. Everything being swept down!? Prue Bugge?s Fiat 500 had been swept out from behind the Miller?s Cottage, round the Mill and into the Beane.
The River Beane still meanders from the north end of the village with a mazy motion through the willows down the land of the Old Rectory farm and then across the church ford and along the water meadows at the back of the village, parallel to the High Street, but straightened by the River Board into a deep plain trench. From behind the primary school, there starts the mill?s own water meadow which has provided pasture for generations of the cart horses. This stretches a quarter the length of the whole village and in the lush grass under your feet you can still feel the banks and hollows of the former winding water course.
The mill pond, besides storing enough water to power two large iron wheels during the middle nineteenth century, acted as a settling bed for everything that came down the River Beane – human, mineral and animal. The reeds in the photos are prolific. Handsome ash trees flanked the pond. Only in the sixties was Walkern provided with mains drainage.
The Thames Conservancy River Board decided that it was necessary to reduce the flood risk by substantial landscaping works round the mill and by completing Fred Savage?s dumping in the mill pond. They scooped out the new cut for the River Beane and used the soil to infill the pond. The new cut was dug along the path of the old miller?s leat, which lies under the steep bank which is the foot of the hill rising firmly up to Clay End. The new cut was swung with an assured elegance between two well-established ash trees, which later provided a natural site for an Edwardian summer house. Bund walls have been thrown up to the north of the mill and miller?s cottage to replace the sluice gates which had channelled the water into the waterwheels. The outfall of surplus water descended into the second lower pond through an arch built of stock brick which still exists and is known as ?the Traitors? Gate?. The sudden drop in level of the river height, upon which the power of the mill depended, has been imaginatively handled by the River Board with a waterslide, which sweeps the waters from the new cut down to what is now called the mill pond, which in milling times would have just been the second smaller pond below the outfall from the great rushy mill pond. Across the waterslide a light and elegantly arched bridge has been constructed from cunningly engineered laminated beams. Bugge, an engineer and woodman, must have had a strong influence on the River Board?s minimalist design.
From the pond, which is spring fed from a surprising depth, there is a deep straight channel alongside the mill down to the road bridge which carries the road to Watton. The bridge is a bottleneck. Four hours after heavy rain the level of the river rises fast and there are just six feet to the top of the arch. Then frighteningly the water can be seen almost walking up the banks. The millers knew what they were doing and provided what they called ?a spending plain? in the empty meadow opposite the mill. When the rising waters cover that plain they have spent their force and the mill is out of immediate danger. Water pours across the mill?s forecourt and the road. Much drama but less danger because the waters can now spread over acres of water meadow down the valley.
The worst flood since 1968 descended one October night in the late nineties, when the leaves were still on the trees. The water reclaimed fifty metres across the valley bottom where the mill pond had been for centuries. This was the highest flood yet to test the combined ingenuities of mill builders, the River Board and Martin Priestman. We were eight inches ? just two brick courses – from substantial trouble, and watching ominous clouds all afternoon to see if the rain would come back. We would then have had to see whether sandbags on the ground floor level could have saved us. Global warming will undoubtedly lead to new records.