Letheringsett watermill is two hundred and twelve years old and was first mentioned in the domesday book as ‘leringseta’. The domesday mill was owned by one Walter Gifford, the first recorded miller, he was one of eight known owners, although the mill was part of Letheringsett estate, its grandeur meant that it was regarded as a separate property. Over the centuries there was a succession of mills on the site, all of which burnt down.
The structure that stands today was built by Richard Rouse in 1802, it is made with red brick with a black pantiled roof.
He built the mill to twice the size of any of the former mills in order for it to house an iron wheel capable of driving four sets of stones, two of which are still working.
Not very much of the mill’s history is known, as in 1960 the mill was broken into and historical documents were stolen. The mill changed hands in 1972 when it became an animal feed mill, flour production had become uncompetitive.
Peter Warwick, the miller in 1984, reinstated water power to supplement the Ruston and Hornsby diesel engine.
In 1987 Michael Thurlow leased the mill with the idea in mind to restore the mill back to its full glory and to sell the flour to its full potential.
Restoration started with 10,500 feet of flooring, compliments of the 1987 gales. Michael had no milling experience when he took on the lease as he had spent twenty years of his life in the royal navy as a radar operator and had travelled the world seven times. He therefore gained all his knowledge from milling books and from visiting existing running watermills.
The workings of the mill also had to be restored, the water wheel for one had to be realigned and its buckets rebuilt taking in to consideration that Letheringsett’s water wheel was of an unusual design - it is capable of running both breastshot and undershot, meaning the water can either hit the centre of the wheel or the bottom of the wheel to fill the buckets with water, this was done to maximise the usage of the ever changing water levels of the river Glaven.
The mill now houses two sets of grind stones, these are made up of a bedstone (a stone that doesn’t move) and a runner stone that rotates on a shaft. A pattern is chiselled in to the face of each stone so that the stones cut the wheat into smaller and smaller pieces instead of rolling (crushing the wheat) as most modern day mills do today, the closer the stones run together, the finer the flour is. The stones are powered by the water wheel via the great spur wheel.
At the end of the war a Ruston and Hornsby engine was installed converting the mill from water to diesel power. The Ruston engine was used, partly because of the amount of available water but also because the stability of the wheel axle was questionable and many of the cogs were very worn, so the connection from the waterwheel to the stones was bypassed until restored by Michael Thurlow.
The way the flour is made is done in stages, the wheat is brought in (by horse and cart in former days) and then hoisted to the top of the mill via the chain hoist to the top floor, where it is cleaned and stored. The hoist is operated by the waterwheel but using a different set of cogs that are engaged when the stones are disconnected, the hoist chain passes over two pulleys in the roof where there is a drum on which to wind the chain, When unwound, the chain reaches down through three sets of trap doors to the ground floor.
Once needed it is placed in a large hopper which then feeds a smaller hopper on the floor below floor. When the mill is set in motion the grain is fed into the eye of the stones and to ensure the wheat keeps flowing, a jiggling mechanism operates immediately above the stone, known as the shoe and willow. Flanges on the top of the stone nut shaft clatter against the side of the shoe to keep the grain on the move, the willow is a piece of wood attached by string to the shoe that keeps the shoe against the flanges. The wheat enters the stones and gravity and the movement of the stones drags it through until the flour spills over the edge of the stones. The draft created by the stones spinning keeps the flour moving around the tun until it reaches the flour chute and falls to the sack below.
It is hoped that Letheringsett watermill can one day the mill once again house the four sets of grindstones as intended by Richard Rouse. The stones themselves are hard to find, the best stone is found in France this is known as French burr stone and is hard and brittle, thus impossible to cut into the round shapes necessary for mill stones, therefore they are cut into chunks and then held together with plaster (a bit like crazy paving). An inferior grade of stones are found in the peak district, known as millstone grit that make very nice round millstone shapes but they do not perform nearly so well.
Now that the mill is virtually fully restored, it turns over an average of three and a half tons of flour a week. Three types of flour are ground, all grown from English wheat and the flour is sold to customers far and wide some has even been exported to Russia and New Zealand. Michael managed to restore the whole building to make a very successful and profitable business, which has received the top tourist attraction award for seven years running.
The mill now is recognized as one of the great Norfolk mills and their flour and bread is sought after all over the country. It is the only working watermill in Norfolk.
A little hard work pays off in the end!
Unfortunately Michael Thurlow passed away in June 2013. The business then became a partnership between Michael’s wife Marion and their daughter Michelle who continued to run the mill in the way that Michael wanted. Since taking over the mill, two sets of fully operational millstones have been installed. Much of the flour produced comes from wheat grown locally in Norfolk, including spelt flour.
Sadly, Marion Thurlow passed away on 23rd August 2015 - the mill is now run by Michelle, who along with a team of skilled and dedicated staff, continues to keep the mill running in all its glory for the foreseeable future.