Miller Michelle Thurlow stands flour-smeared among bags of grain and flour in Norfolk’s only surviving working watermill. She has been up since 4am. These are long days with many hours put in using traditional mill-stone milling methods - driven solely by water - to meet the demand for flour both nationwide and abroad. Demand has surged during the ‘Covid lockdown’ of 2020 as home-baking became more popular - and flour in shops more scarce.
The mill is on the River Glaven at Letheringsett near Holt and just four miles from Blakeney. Its working and continuing restoration is a labour of love for 34-year-old Michelle who is set on making her late-father’s dream come true.
The watermill was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. Some 580 watermills were recorded in Norfolk at that time, but strangely no windmills, as today’s iconic symbol of Norfolk is a Broads windmill.
By the 19th century the number of Norfolk watermills had dropped to about 80. Letheringsett today remains the sole surviving working watermill.
Michelle Thurlow, is continuing her father’s efforts to restore Letheringsett Mill to its full working glory - despite her own allergy to flour.
The first miller in Letheringsett was Thomas de Saxlingham in 1383. The mill’s fortunes ebbed and flowed until the current four-storey red brick mill was built in 1802 after the previous mill had been destroyed by fire. Later, it became a mill for producing animal feed and was converted to diesel power in 1941 before being switched back to water in 1984.
Three years later, former Royal Navy radar operator Mike Thurlow and his wife Marion fulfilled their dream of leasing the mill with a plan to fully restore it into a working mill. They fell in love with the building when Mr Thurlow first saw it when, working as a lorry driver, he made a delivery to the mill. He had travelled the world seeing heritage buildings being restored - yet in the UK he saw many neglected and pulled down.
At the time, the Letheringsett Estate was looking for someone to run the mill so he took on the lease. But neither Mike or Marion Thurlow had any milling experience or knowledge beyond their dream of seeing the mill building fully restored and working. That spurred them on. They learned the business by studying books and visiting other working watermills around Britain. Mr Thurlow, used his lump-sum payment when invalided out of the Navy to achieve his dream.
But within months that dream could have gone disastrously wrong when the Great Storm of October 1987 ripped through England tearing out so many of our oldest and largest trees and forests. East Anglia was among the hardest hit areas struck by the hurricane. Gorleston in Norfolk recorded the highest winds in the UK, hitting 122mph.
But the Great Storm which had ravaged the countryside, turned provider with 200 fallen English oaks used to renew 10,500 feet of the mill’s flooring, new massive structural beams and a new roof.
One major contract during restoration was the realignment of the water wheel and rebuilding its buckets. The water wheel is unusual because it was built with a dual irrigation system and was designed to run as breastshot but could be changed to undershot if water levels on the River Glaven dropped during dry weather. This means that the water can either hit the centre of the wheel or the bottom of the wheel to turn it.
Three years later and after spending £12,500 improving the mill to save it from closure, the mill opened to the public in 1990 having been largely restored. Mike Thurlow’s work as a miller over the following years won him a Local Food Hero award run by the UKTV Food television channel in 2006. Part of his prize was £40,000 to be spent on continuing the renovation of his beloved mill.
That work took place in 2007 and saw the grain floor and the bin floor opened to the public. These floors were converted to exhibition and education areas.
Mike Thurlow died in 2013 and his wife died two years later with their project almost complete. Their daughter Michelle has carried on that dream and achieved new goals as the entire mill throbs with the activity of grinding tonnes of flour every week to meet demand.
Michelle, who has a four-year-old son, has set new targets and these include opening a village shop within the mill. The mill already has an online site for orders and an Instagram account. Hard work doesn’t phase Michelle. She works with her team of six, milling, doing the accounts, marketing, social media, sorting online orders and deliveries.
Michelle wants to complete the family dream which includes buying the mill. She is milling every day producing three to four tonnes of stoneground flour a week plus speciality flours such as spelt, dark rye and mixing her own-recipe muesli. During the Covid-19 lockdown she and her team worked 12 hours days producing up to seven tonnes of flour a week selling to trade, farm shops, delicatessens and locked-down home bakers.
Letheringsett Mill is recognised as one of the great Norfolk mills and has also been an award-winning tourist attraction but there is little time at present for demonstrations and guided tours as the mill is working all hours to meet the needs of its new customers. Mill customers have included luxury store Harrods, French chef Pierre Koffmann, Michelin starred chefs and the British Embassy in Moscow.
The mill has been saved and restored to much of its former glory but the project is not complete. Flour is ground using two huge Derbyshire grit mill stones but Michele hopes that one day she can complete the project and fund two more mill stones (at around £40,000 each) so Letheringsett can potentially double its output and fulfil the dream of a complete restoration.