Picture the scene - a bank holiday in England. Rain. No surprises there then. Not wanting to squander the opportunity of legitimate skiving, an indoors activity in the vicinity was sought out, and the National Trust's Winchester City Mill was the winner for no other reason than it was free since I'm an NT member and not yet another historic house. The history of the mill, located over the River Itchen, spans back all the way back to Saxon times when Winchester was capital and it was owned by the Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell. Sadly, the Black Death came to town in 1348 and wiped out a good percentage of the working population and, coupled with a series of bad harvests, the mill was left abandoned by 1471. But, good old King Henry VIII restored the mill in 1539 and it passed on to his daughter Queen Mary who in turn, no doubt with a guilty conscience for the cost of her wedding and wanting to keep her subjects sweet, donated it back to the city in 1554. Today's building was built by tanner James Cooke in 1743 and eventually the mill fell into John Benham's hands in 1820 where it remained in the family for some 100 years, operating as a corn mill, until it finally ceased production in the early 20th Century. During World War I it was used as a laundry and then sold in 1928 where it was passed on to the National Trust in 1931. For our viewing pleasure, the National Trust underwent a 12 year project to repair the inner workings by stealing gear parts from other mills and rebuilding the hopper and grain loading platform and by 2004 the mill was capable of milling flour again.
Upon arrival you enter through the gift shop, where potentially you could be met by rather prim and proper volunteers determined to keep the respectability of the place up and the riff raff out, especially those toting dripping umbrellas. Having been properly chastised for my soggy ways I was able to enter the mill which is pretty small, and to be honest a simple tour of the place will certainly not take long, maybe 40 minutes, as there is not a humungous amount to see. However, attempts to give it an interactive, museum-like feel have been made and there are a few points of interest that make the visit worthwhile, but I'm not sure how much would really captivate kids - I think seeing the waterwheel in action could be the highlight. Unfortunately, as now seems to be a habit of mine, I visited on a day when volunteers were sparse, so all the extra events available (which have no additional cost) including the grain milling demonstration (weekends only), costumed talks and workshops, quizzes and "bake and taste" days were all unavailable, so it is essential to carefully pick your visiting time if you wish to experience everything. These demonstrations will definitely appeal to those with an interest in history, engineering or baking, or perhaps a combination of all three but alas I cannot comment on how good they actually are.
The bare minimum tour starts with an information board which details the history of the mill through a storyboard timeline as well as laminated information sheets to take around with you plus a 15 minute video presentation which is a touch dry, but still has many interesting facts until they felt the need to describe the logistics of transporting mill stones including parking a lorry, offloading the stones, pushing them up a ramp...yawn. Next you can stop by a short section on the otter project which involved the introduction of three otters back to the River Itchen in 1994 who have since thrived and you get to see archived and live footage of these little critters in action which should appeal to wildlife enthusiasts. You can also take a quick stroll in outside garden, which is perfectly located by the River Itchen for a lovely atmosphere and those same wildlife enthusiasts can spot salmon and trout, water voles and kingfishers and also even wagtails...assuming the day is not full of torrential rain. Also, you can get a great view of the force of the River Itchen as it thunders into the mill and turns the giant wheel.
Back inside there is another room, the baking demonstration area, which if there aren't any demonstrations occurring just looks like a poor man's kitchen so despite another information board inside about the Story of Bread which is a quite intriguing look at the historic ways of making bread there nothing to see here...walk away people. Back in the main area there are many items of historical interest dotted about round the edges such as old bikes, partial wheels and cog systems, as well as the pulley system for hoisting up the finished flour. There is also a little experimentation area which demonstrates the effects of 1, 2 and 3 loops in a pulley system changing the weight distribution and making the hoisting of heavy flour easier plus a little challenge of trying to determine the lightest sack out of 5 by using scales and extremely sophisticated mathematical techniques...of course it would have helped if there were more than 4 bags available at the time...what evil fiend would think it funny to steal that all important fifth bag thus ruining scientific discovery?
Taking centre stage of the room is the upper grinding area which is where the demonstrations would occur (if you were sensible and picked a day they were actually running) and you can see the entire system starting with the hopper which is a chute to pour the grain down onto the mill stones to be grinded into flour being driven by the below waterwheel and you can learn about the importance of the bell which rings if the hopper runs empty to alert the workers above to refill or serious damage to the stones could occur with wear and tear and even fire if sparks fly. I would have liked to see this in motion as when I went the mill stones weren't even in place, so it was just an idle structure which failed to inspire the senses. However, below deck you get to see the giant waterwheel in action and see the massive intensity of the River Itchen rushing by rather spectacularly with white frothing water - falling in would be a calamitous mistake so best avoid that. The walkways are also a bit slippery and with low hanging beams there are plenty of ways to injure yourself, so taking care around this area is also advisable. Here you can learn about the mixing of wooden and stone cogs to help prevent fiery sparks and you can also keep an eye out for vain otters hamming it up to the audience as this is a favourite haunt of theirs.
Upon exiting the mill, rather expectedly since you go out the same way you entered you are back in the gift shop where you can buy all the usual things you expect from a National Trust shop including books, local produce including delicious ice-cream, wines and liqueurs as well as fresh flour milled on site which is the highlight of the shop to be purchased by the same stern volunteer that welcomed you in. So, all in all, visiting the city mill is an interesting experience, that I believe would be greatly enhanced by visiting during a time when demonstrations were running as seeing is better than boring old reading and I think would appeal to kids more, but there is still enough to see on skeleton days including the working waterwheel and pleasant garden outside to earn your money's worth (even if you had to actually pay) but you are looking at a very short visit time, so if you wanted to make a day of it the mill is within about a 10 minute's walking distance of Winchester Cathedral which I can recommend and there are several pubs nearby if you fancied a nice pub lunch.
===How to get there===
Bridge Street, Winchester, SO23 0EJ
Telephone: 01962 870057
Driving in the easiest way is to take exit 10 on the M3. There is no direct parking for the mill, but there are several pay and display car parks in the vicinity - the closest, Chesil, is a mere 3 minute walk away. The closest train station is Winchester which is about a mile away, so a good 15-20 minute walk.
===Facilities and Access===
* Pushchairs are admitted
* There are stairs up to the main mill and down to the waterwheel so wheelchair access is not supported
* Braille and large print guides are available
* No toilets...and with all that water swirling around...the nearest toilets are 220 yards away in The Broadway.
The mill is open 10am-5pm daily with the exception of December, January and early February where it changes to 10:30am - 4pm, is closed over the holidays and Tuesdays-Thursdays.
===Prices (free for NT members)===
Gift Aid - Standard
Adult: £4.20 - £3.70
Child: £2.05 - £1.85
Family: £10.25 - £9.25
Groups: N/A - £3.50
WINCHESTER CITY MILL
We recently spent a few days down near Winchester and we wandering around the city when we came upon this little treasure and as a bonus it was a National Trust property so we flashed our cards and went in.
The mill is built just near the City bridge over the River Itchen as it flows through Winchester down near King Alfred's statue. For a thousand years this old mill was busy grinding whatever grain local farmers brought in and it fell into disuse about a hundred years ago. For some time it was used as a youth hostel and then finally in 2004 it was fully restored and began milling flour once again for the first time in over 90 years.
As you enter the building you pass an old bakers bicycle with basket with the name of the mil advertised on its side. You enter through the shop which has the usual souvenirs plus recipe books and you can also buy some of the flour milled at this very mill to take away with you.
You then go on into the mill through a door on the right. The floor is wooden and all you can see is the hopper where the grain is fed into the mill and a large column on this level. There are several volunteers who are on hand to answer questions and the miller is you visit on a day when they are milling.
Around the wall are displays about how a mill works, how flour is made, the surrounding area and watercress farms in Alresford nearby, other locally grown crops and wildlife as well. There is a scale model of the mill showing all the different wheels and pulley and an explanation of how the mill works. There was also a problem solving activity with a scale and five bags of flour and you had to use the scale and work out which was the lightest bag which was a nice hands on activity for children.
We sat and watched a short film about the history of the mill and its restoration. When it was a youth hostel apparently the guests would wash in the fast flowing river below by handing on to a rope. It must have been a dare as not only is the river very fast flowing, it also looks pretty mucky and would be extremely cold too so nothing would have made me get in there!
The mill stones needed replacing so they had exact replicas made in Holland and shipped over, the film showed how carefully these had to be brought into the mill, lowered in to position and levelled precisely so that they ground the grain.
Besides the history of the mill there was also a lot of information about local wildlife and more specifically the local river otters which came to the mill at night. They had set up a web cam to watch these wonderful creatures playing, catching fish and also catching a mink to eat. The film we watched was taken the night before so they do visit quite frequently.
The end part of this level had further displays about bread making and I think they do cooking demonstrations there at times as there was a donation box for contributions towards ingredients and for the recipe cards which were there for you to take if you wanted to. There were other children's activities like colouring activity sheets in this area too. This section was where they had had the bunks for the dormitory when it was a youth hostel; the mill area was the dining room. I think it must have been pretty basic accommodation.
We went below to see the mill wheels and the flour coming out having been ground. The water wheel was huge and then there were several other wheels and cogs which gradually turned faster until the gear which turned the mill stone. It was strange to think how much huge machinery went into crushed the grains to produce the flour, a very simple process but it required a lot of very heavy machinery.
Going back upstairs we had a chat with one of the volunteers who said that a lot of the flour they produce is sold to other National Trust properties for use in their tear rooms for cakes and bread etc. He showed us the raw grain and explained that sometimes they got grain with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds as well as the husk of the grain but what they actually bought was husked whole grain the rest just came in accidently.
We then went out and walked around the little island garden which was in full flower and looked very pretty with a backdrop of the river with the biggest weeping willows hanging down into the river. It was not big at all and was very shaded so a perfect spot to get a little shade if it was really hot but on the day we went it was actually quite chilly so we didn't stay too long as we were wearing only light summer clothes.
The price for entrance for non National Trust members is £3.60 for adults, £1.80 for children and a family ticket is £9. I you want to gift aid your entrance fee then another £1 is added to the family ticket and 20p to each of the other ticket prices.
Opening times are quite complicated so I suggest if you are interested in visiting that you go on the website www.nationaltrust.org.uk to check. It seems to be closed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the months of January and February and on the other days it is open from 11 am to 4pm. From 18th Feb until Nov 30th it is open daily from 10 am till 5 pm, from December 1st until Dec 23 the opening times are 10.30 am till 4 pm. However I would check as they may change.
They don't mill every day and so that would need checking if you specifically want to see the mill working. Usually the demonstrations are on Saturdays and Bank holidays until October 31st between 11 am and 4 pm. On Sundays and School holidays they mill between 2 pm and 4 pm until October 31st again. The milling is always subject to river conditions and having a volunteer miller available too.
There are so many different activity days where cooking demonstrations or treasure hunts are arranged but for these special days I would suggest getting a leaflet from the mill, the local tourist information centre, the NT website or phone the mill on 01494 755500.
This is an old mill so accessibility is tricky so they suggest contacting the mill before you visit if you will need any assistance.
This is a lovely little working mill with a lot of history in a very charming building. I don't think I would make a special visit to Winchester solely to see the mill as we spent about an hour there altogether. If you had children with you they might have wanted to spend longer doing the little activities. I suspect it is used a lot for local school trips for learning about the making of bread from beginning to end.
If you are in Winchester and passing then I would certainly say pop in and have a look. I particularly enjoyed watching the CCTV webcam footage of the otters playing and catching the food. Anyone interested in history and old machinery would also find this a fascinating place to visit.
Thanks for reading. I hope this has been of some interest to you. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.