Written by James Currey for the Walkern Journal
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Walkern Flour Mills stand guard at the southern entrance to the village as the road crosses the River Beane. A small river but the water has repeatedly been turned to valuable use. The watermark in the paper from which Chaucer?s Canterbury Tales was printed by Caxton shows that it came from a mill where the River Beane joins the River Lea at Hertford. The Priors at Clay Hall [now Walkern Hall], as told in The Chronicle of Small Beer, fished for trout there, and in 1884 one trout weighed in at 1lb and 12 ounces. There is rather less of the Beane these days. So much water was being extracted by the Three Valleys Water Company that in the late nineties after several dry summers we called it ?The River Has-Beane?.
Lionel M. Munby in The Hertfordshire Landscape takes a particular delight in the Beane; its valley runs, from the Thames/Ouse watershed some four miles north of Walkern and down the centre of northern Hertfordshire to the county town. He says that these fine veined rivers of north Hertfordshire, such at the Beane, the Rib and the delightfully named Mimram, had numerous mills of all sorts to serve London?s needs: fulling cloth, grinding flour and making paper. And London served the needs of the millers; at Walkern Mill we have the cast iron manufacturers? balancing weight which had been used to trim a millstone:
WM GARNER AND SONS
57 MARK LANE E C
It is argued that the industrial revolution could not happened without the mechanical skills and crafts developed in the water and wind milling industry. The Cromer postmill, driven by wind on the ridge above the Beane valley, possibly came to be replaced or at least rivalled by the water mill in the valley.
Walkern?s water-powered Flour Mill was built a mile downstream from the church because there is a sharper fall in the River Beane at that point. A seismic geological survey in about 2000 identified a deep fault of some 50 metres in the rock under the river at this point and the land drop reflects this. A millpond grew north of the mill. Behind the dykes and sluices a substantial enough store of water could be built up to power the original wooden waterwheels. The earlier mill would probably have been only two stories but, at various points in the nineteenth century, was enlarged to the four storey building that we see today with its typical mansard roof. According to John Vines (Discovering Watermills Aylesbury Shire 1980 p.22) it is only the position of the waterwheel which is likely to be constant as a mill changes and grows.
In 1831 George David Pearman, who was a substantial local farmer, bought the mill site from the Garratts, and during the nineteenth century there were two or three enlargements. We found in the river a piece of marble cut to the size of a brick which has been roughly incised ?GDP 1865?. At one time during the mid nineteenth century there was enough demand for the miller to build a second mill race and to run two large cast-iron wheels (the two bricked up arches can be easily seen on the north wall of the mill and one of the mill races has been turned into a cellar under the mill).
At Walkern water power had given way in part to steam by 1861. On the front of the Walkern water mill under the gables of the mansard roof overlooking the bridge a proud announcement was cut into the into a white panel in the glowing red brick:
Somebody has scratched the dates 1828, 1836 and 1856 in the spaces between the large 1881 figures, which were probably the dates when enlargements made.
Following bad harvests in the 1870s prairie hard wheat was imported into Britain for the first time and with it came the industrialised processes of steam baking. The soft white flour, used by the French to this day for their bread, went out of fashion. The degradation of British bread was on its way. Water power was no longer powerful enough to grind the new hard wheat. The Garratts and then the Pearmans boldly invested in the new technology, and by the bridge rose the brave new mill and from the southern corner emerged a dark satanic chimney almost twice as high as the substantial new mill building. A steam engine?s coal smoke spread up the village by the prevailing south-westerly wind. At some time, probably in the early twentieth century, a grain silo was built into the corner of the mill which was rather higher than the mill itself. The mill stopped work before 1939. In 1940, under the threat of German invasion, the Home Guard scratched out the name ?WALKERN? to confuse any Panzer division which advanced up the Beane valley. The Home Guard used sandbags to build a sniper?s nest in the mill. Local people saw the working mill, and I would love to collect their memories. Please contact me through the Walkern History Society…
Walkern Mill was converted for the Priestman and Currey families between 1979 and 1981. The derelict mill was being pulled into the river by the broken chimney. Clare Currey was inspired to save it and the architect Martin Priestman, with the designer Jane Priestman, produced two imaginative modern houses within the mature brick walls. Clare and James Currey have now lived at Walkern Mill for over thirty years.
Dennis Hart, with his son Brian, did all the substantial timber-work to convert the mill into modern living. It was only recently that we learnt some of the reasons why the Hart?s had such a deep commitment to converting and saving the derelict mill from collapsing into the Beane. One of Dennis Hart?s forbears, possibly his great grandfather, had at the end of work been washing the flour off his arms in the mill pond; somehow he slipped and was drowned when he was swept under the mill race. His Grandad Gordon drove wagon and horses for the mill, and his father, also Gordon, still a boy in 1914, was taken on to work at the mill because the men were volunteering for the Hertfordshire Regiment at the beginning of the Great War.
The miller?s cottage stands alongside the mill. It is a classic Hertfordshire timber frame building which has a history stretching back before the great brick mill was built and enlarged during the nineteenth century. During the second world war and afterwards the cottage was used, with dormitories in the mill, as a foster home which was run by Mrs Stephens (see photo opposite) .
The mill gradually decayed during the war and at some point the chimney broke in half and the bottom half, still the same height as the mill, began to pull the south-east corner over into the Beane. In the late fifties the mill and miller?s cottage were bought by Peter and Prue Bugge. Peter Bugge, a Norwegian, was a test pilot for de Havilland at Hatfield in the days of the development of the first jet airliner, the Comet. He loved working with wood and we came to call him ?the Norwegian whittler? as he could create the most beautiful curves, bends and individual touches.
In 1959 they asked a young architect with a practice in Hitchin to draw up a plan for converting the whole mill and the miller?s cottage into a grand single dwelling complete with a music room. Martin Priestman rose to this commission with an elegant modern staircase sweeping up three floors. It was way beyond what even a test pilot could afford. And in any case Peter Bugge rather wanted to do the job himself and he continued to strip the mill. With the help of a young boy in the village he managed to deconstruct the grain silo which occupied what is now the forecourt, and he restored the roof which slowed the decay within. Later the Bugges commissioned from a Hungarian woman architect a more modest plan for the mill to be converted into three flats; she provided an attractive design with three wooden balconies overlooking the river.
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