Historic Water Mills in England and Canada Have Turned Back Time!

The revival of flour mills that go back centuries in Ontario and Dorset, is meeting the home baking needs of local families during quarantine season.

Apr 25, 2020
Historic Water Mills in England and Canada Have Turned Back Time! | The revival of flour mills that go back centuries in Ontario and Dorset, is meeting the home baking needs of local families during quarantine season.

Two historic water mills in Dorset, southeast England, and Ontario, Canada, have whirred back into production to successfully meet the flour supply needs of the multitudes of new home baking fans during the current pandemic.

Sturminster Newton Mill: From historic tourist attraction to full-time working mill!
Before the Industrial Revolution and its innovation of steam power, thousands of water mills dotted the English landscape, the majority used to grind flour. Most of those that remain, were  converted into homes and offices, and only a handful have been restored to show visitors how mills once operated.

Famous as a historic landmark for tourists, and a scenic spot for landscape painters and photographers, Sturminster Newton Mill is one of several ancient flour mills built on the River Stour, and rebuilt over the centuries. It chugged along as a working museum, selling small quantities of flour to visitors ever since it ceased operating as a commercial mill in 1970.

But when he saw that local shops reported flour shortages due to a renewed passion for home baking during lockdown, and that social distancing had effectively halted tourism, miller Peter Loosmore had an idea. He decided to turn the mill museum he manages into a fully-functioning mill to help his community.

 “We're only doing this while the crisis lasts and it's not only helping us but the local community because there is a shortage of flour," co-miller, Imogen Bittner, explains.

And production has taken off! While the mill typically gets through a ton of grain during the tourist season, Loosmore told the BBC that the mill had used up this annual quota in just two-to-three weeks, and was rushing to source more grain.

This mill celebrated its millennium in 2016!  It was given to the Abbot of Glastonbury by King Edward Ironside, The King of Wessex, in 1016, and is verified by The Doomsday book, considered the first ever national survey, 70 years later.

In the nineteenth century, the Sturminster water mill inspired famous Victorian novelist, Thomas Hardy, who wrote nostalgically about the vanishing pre-industrial world, and lived just yards away. He even wrote his popular novel “The Return of the Native” there.

As he explains, Peter Loosmore has been Sturminster’s miller for nearly three decades. Despite having zero experience, he felt drawn to apply for the role due to his family’s connection: “My grandfather was the miller here for all his life.” Almost immediately, he restored the machinery and reopened the mill as a heritage center.

Historic Arva Flour Mill and store est. 1819
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, Canada’s oldest water-powered mill, the Arva Flour Mill in London, southwestern Ontario, has seen an encouraging revival during the current pandemic. This has been happening as it meets the needs of customers disappointed by emptier grocery store shelves just when they can no longer rely on restaurants for food.

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, estimates that before the pandemic, almost 40 percent of meals were served through the restaurant industry. As we’re learning how to cook again during our extended time at home, he explains, there’s also greater pressure on local grocery stores to meet our expanded cooking ingredient needs.

Arva owner, Mike Matthews, has continued to produce flour in a more limited way in recent years, but he speaks of a dramatic, eight-fold rise in demand from home bakers created by the lockdown over the last month. He reports some 300-500 customers waiting in line daily to buy flour and yeast from his mill.

As Matthews told the The Province local newspaper, he’s been pleasantly surprised by this reborn interest in home baking, and a more traditional self-reliance behind it, even if it’s been a challenge to keep up with demand, and he’s had to bring back his retired miller to help out:

“I’m not exactly sure why everyone’s making their own bread again but it seems when a pandemic comes along, people want to, I guess, make sure they can look after themselves and just do the stuff that used to be considered basic that everyone’s sort of lost touch with. [But] if we can do something to help with the community, it’s even better!”

This sentiment is echoed by Roland Hofner of the baking and pastry program at the local Fanshawe college. For him, emptier grocery store shelves indicate a revival of home cooking traditions and quality family time, both something good to come out of the pandemic:

”Bored at home, now people are discovering old values that our ancestors used to have. I think it’s fantastic. It’s a great way to create a bond between you and your kids. You get a better, healthier product and it’s also a stress reliever.”

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.