The Mill


Back to the grind

The Bridge Mill at Bridgerule, near Holsworthy in Devon, is grinding by water power again for the first time in 60 years. Owner and SPAB Mills Section member Alan Beat tells the story.

A water mill was recorded here by the Domesday survey of 1086, and it almost certainly stood on the same site as the present Victorian building. There are references to the mill in the Launceston priory records of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while from the mid-eighteenth century it was owned by the Molesworth estate based at Pencarrow in Cornwall.

In 1920 it was sold to a local man, John Honey, who continued to grind by water power until about 1947, when he installed an electric motor to power the stones through a flat belt drive. The two water wheels and most of the machinery were broken up and carted away for scrap. After John died in 1959, his farming relatives occasionally worked the stones to grind their own livestock feed, using belt drive from a tractor, until 1968 when the mill fell silent.

Rosie and I moved here in 1987, with the intention of restoring the buildings and land into a viable smallholding, and the distant dream of restoring the mill to water power. With a young family to raise there were naturally other priorities, but little by little work began on conserving the mill waterways, building and machinery.

For several years we searched for a suitable old wheel to re-home, but the relatively small diameter of eight feet made this a rather forlorn hope, and eventually we accepted that a new one would need to be purpose-made, along with a pair of large bevel gears (pit wheel and wallower) that were also missing. A modest grant was obtained from the Countryside Stewardship scheme to support this work, as it complemented the educational visits we were developing for schools and adult groups to the smallholding. We had joined the Mills section of the SPAB, and from 1997 onwards opened on National Mills Day to raise funds for the restoration.

With a background in engineering, I was able to draw up my own designs informed by observations and measurements from other mills. A friend in the village had experience of pattern making and kindly offered his skills. Iron castings were made from his wooden patterns at a local foundry in Wadebridge, transported in the back of my estate car (!) and manhandled into position for assembly in situ. The foundry also cast replacement plain bronze bearings for the original steel axle. Wooden buckets were fashioned from boards of pressure-treated douglas fir. The new water wheel turned successfully in the year 2000, but the bevel gears failed to mesh properly so with some disappointment it was back to the drawing board.

To cut a long story short, after much research and several “blind alleys”, the wallower was redesigned and recast, then the teeth were accurately machined using computer control to obtain the correct pitch. With this new wallower in position, the corresponding oak teeth of the pit wheel could be hand fitted, wedged into place and finally profiled for smooth meshing. To correct inaccuracy and run-out of the pit wheel casting, I devised a method of profiling these teeth in situ using a router within a sliding fixture attached to the hurst frame, so that the teeth have accurate pitch and run true although the casting does not. It took several hundred hours work spread over two winters, within the cramped confines of a dark, damp wheel pit, to fit and profile one hundred teeth. 

On 9th March 2012, the millstones turned by water power for the first time in 60 years (videos here: and and there were big grins on our faces! I never anticipated it would take more than 20 years to achieve our dream, or that it would be so technically challenging, but we’ve had wonderful support and encouragement from the local community.

From an article in The Holsworthy Post

An opening ceremony was held at the Bridge Mill in Bridgerule on Friday 13th April to celebrate the turning of the millstones by water power for the first time in over sixty years. Guests included members of the Brock and Honey families who are descended from past millers, alongside local people who played a role in restoring the waterways, building and machinery.

The guest of honour was Christine Parsons, former owner of the mill and niece of the last miller. She gave a short speech before cutting the ribbon to re-open the mill, then closed a trapdoor to send water pouring over the wheel and set the mill in motion.

The water supply once came from the nearby river Tamar, but is now limited to a pond that stores natural drainage to power the wheel for short periods. Rosie said “Our intention has never been to grind commercially, but instead to demonstrate a process that was central to village life for a thousand years, and to share this with the local community.”

The mill has been opening to the public on National Mills Day each year since 1997 to raise funds towards its restoration, and this year it can be seen working  on Sunday 14th May, from 11am to 4pm.

Accomplished musician, Phil Williams from Whitstone wrote and performed an amusing song about the mill restoration. He set the words to a morris dance entitled “The maid of the mill”

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Click here for detailed information about the history of the Bridge Mill.