In 1086, there were 6,000 working windmills in Britain. In the 1930s, that number fell to 200, then to below 10 in the 1960s. Now, there are a little under 40, driven by new demands for making ‘proper’ bread from ‘proper’ flour. Hugh Thomas reveals a little known London windmill.
A windmill in Brixton?
Brixton Windmill, London’s only flour-producing mill, is one of them. You’d be forgiven for not knowing it. Or not knowing it’s there at all. Though strategically perched on top of Brixton Hill, it’s tucked away behind a council estate at the back of a park. Many have been to the Windmill pub – a bit of an institution round here – but haven’t even heard of the 200-year-old thing, situated a couple hundred yards away that it’s named after.
‘I thought, “why do you get a windmill in the middle of Brixton?”’, Friends of Windmill Gardens Chair Jean Kerrigan tells me. Jean first spotted the mill’s sails from the window of her apartment behind Blenheim Gardens. Upon investigation, the mill ‘was in a very sorry state’, she says. In 2003, Jean helped found the Friends of Windmill Gardens, a group wanting to – even at the great expense it ultimately required – restore and look after the mill, and help nurture the park as a unique space for the community.
A landmark for better nutrition
Among many other things, one of the group’s aims is to address poor attitudes towards eating and nutrition. Something Lambeth as a whole is better recognising and has gradually improved on in recent years. ‘We’ve created a herb bed over there,’ points Jean. ‘We’re planting fruit bushes at the edge of the park so people can forage. And we have a working partnership with Friends of Ruskin Park, who’ve grown a big patch of heritage wheat.’
You can guess what the plans are for that crop. In 2012, a few locals trained to use the mill as it was intended. And, since 2014, they’ve done so regularly. ‘You have to,’ says Jean. ‘otherwise you have a real problem of cleaning the stones.’ Partly for this reason, using traditional stone mills to grind grist into flour is incredibly rare these days. If commercial return was seen as the sole reward, no one would be doing it. When I meet the white-overalled millers – Timo, Anne, and Abby – they’re up on the first floor, packing flour into block-bottomed paper bags, on which are printed the words ‘Brixton Windmill’. They’ll sell a fair few of these when the mill opens to the public for an open day in a few hours’ time.
Local flour for locals
What isn’t sold to the public goes to local delis and bakeries, like Kennington Bakery near the river. ‘Within the last couple of months they’ve started using this, and they say it’s completely transformed their bread,’ says Anne. ‘When you talk to the bakers, and they know their grain and their miller – that completes the cycle. It’s how it used to be, when the millers had to have their skills to know their bit. The farmer knew their bit, and the bakers knew their bit.’
At the moment, the mill is using a regular supply of Paragon wheat from Hammond’s End Farm in Hertfordshire. ‘That’s 34 carbon miles away,’ says Timo. ‘The grain’s really high quality, much better than the flour you get if you go to the supermarket, where it’s more hydroscopic, and there’s more wasted.’
Makes you wonder where our flour usually comes from. Who makes it? And how is it milled? Almost always, the modern process isn’t a particularly poetic one, involving factories with steel rollers travelling at 500 RPM to shear through grain, enormous rotating metal boxes to sift out the bran and the germ – thus removing various nutrients – before these nutrients are, at the end of the process, introduced back.
Cogs, stocks, smocks.
A far cry from the windmill, then, with its cogs and stocks and thatched smocks. And its great big stones (which in Brixton’s case are about 100 years old) between which kernels are ground, unsifted, to flour. These have to be kept in check, as unlike industrial methods, speed here is not of the essence. Timo compares it to cold pressing, say, olive oil, where cold pressing is slower and more labour intensive, but doesn’t destroy as much of the flavours or nutrients in the olives. ‘We could let the stones go at 100 miles an hour and yes, you’d mill a lot, but you’d also cook it,’ he says.
Before they started milling in 2014, this was one of many forgotten considerations for the mill – after the Great War, the urbanisation of Lambeth (which was once countryside) and growing demand for white flour meant that 1934 was the last time the mill produced flour commercially. Until now, of course. ‘According to our millwright, who comes and looks after the mill,’ says Jean, ‘he reckons the flour we produce here is the best he’s ever seen. And he maintains Prince Charles’ mill.’
With this, Brixton, it seems, has gone back to the Middle Ages. Reminding people of its rural past, putting something into the community, and getting some fantastic bread out the other end. Lambeth – well, the whole of South London – should be proud.