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Newsletter 134 Autumn 2021  © Hampshire Mills Group



Heron Corn Mill



Ruth Andrews

Photos by Keith Andrews

This is an outstanding example of a preserved Cumbrian manorial corn mill situated at Beetham on the River Bela, a tributary of the River Kent which flows into Morecambe Bay.  It is a grade 2* listed stone-built 3-storey mill, and its internal machinery was restored to full working order in 2008-9 by Martin Watts, with additional Heritage Lottery Funding in 2012. 




The present mill and an adjacent barn (above) was built on an older site in 1740.  It is one of two water mills at Beetham, one on each side of the river with shared water rights where there was a natural weir.  By 1788 the second mill (left) had become a paper mill, which it still is today, although it has greatly expanded. 


By 1927 Heron Mill was grinding only animal feed and it closed in 1958, to become an agricultural store and henhouse.  It was subsequently purchased by Henry Cooke Ltd, owners of the paper mill, and later a trust was set up to begin its restoration.

In 2009-10 a 100kW Kaplan turbine was installed in a separate turbine house.  Surplus electricity is sold to the paper mill opposite.  This is not the first time that electricity was generated here;  in the early 20th century a small external waterwheel connected to a generator powered lighting at the mill right up to 1974. 

Keith and I were extremely fortunate to attract the attention of Iain McNicol who was unloading sacks despite the mill being closed to the public.  He enthusiastically stopped working to show us round:  so this is what we saw.



Heron Corn Mill is a lowder mill;  this refers to the large free-standing oak frame in the centre of the milling floor that supports the 4 pairs of stones and their stones furniture, and acts as a gear room for the great spur wheel and stone nuts.  This arrangement used to be more common locally, but it is the first time that we have encountered it.  It certainly makes photography much easier, but causes problems when the millstones need to be lifted for dressing – there is no safety net for the millwright when he falls off the lowder.



The 14ft breastshot waterwheel is situated inside the bottom floor of the mill and water enters from a wooden launder.  The pit wheel engages with the wallower on a magnificently stout green-painted upright shaft, but there is also a belt drive to the stones floor.  The great spur wheel under the lowder meshes with up to 4 cast-iron stone nuts with wooden cogs, on spindles which are supported by bridge trees for tentering the runner stones. 



Iain demonstrated the very unusual and perilous method of raising the stone nuts into mesh.  It involves two pieces of wood:  a long forked lever that has to be balanced on  a Y-shaped piece with reinforced tips which rest in 2 holes in the lowder frame. We would not have worked out how these were used on our own. 



The millstones currently in use are 2 sets of Derbyshire grit stones, one set of French burrs, and one set of worn French burrs which have been given a new lease of life with a layer of carborundum;  they are the only ones like it in Cumbria. 

The lowder frame also supports jiggers (like small plansifters) and a precarious ladder to the bin floor.  Of course, there are also wooden elevators and chutes. 



When grain arrived at the mill it frequently had to be dried in a kiln.  At Heron this is situated in a separate room on the ground floor with the drying room above.  When dry, the grain was swept into a hopper and poured into sacks, which were taken up to the bin floor and put into a hopper over one of the millstones.  This is used to shell the oats before the outer husks and groats are separated in the winnower on the ground floor.  They then travel back up a bucket elevator to the top of the mill before being tipped into a second set of stones which grind them into oatmeal or flour.  

At the end of our visit we also met Stuart Hobbs, the resident miller, who supervises the operation of the milling machinery and is responsible for all the necessary checks and maintenance, as well as monitoring the turbine output and taking visitors on tours of the mill.  We would like to thank Iain and Stuart for allowing us to look round the mill on a day when it was not officially open, and for giving us lots of interesting ‘insider’ information.  It is an outstanding site which is enthusiastically presented.  For more information see www.heronmill.org .



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