Mill’s past to be made available for the future

TUCKED away in the corner of a field on the edge of Askrigg, the long-disused West Mill attracts little attention from day-trippers and tourists.

As they pass the superficially grim stone building on their way to the nearby Mill Gill waterfall, walkers may have little idea either of the part the building played in the life of the village for nearly 500 years as a corn and wood-working mill, or of the attraction it held for poets and artists.

Now, after a detailed survey commissioned by the current owner, David Blake, a retired professor of music, all that is about to change.

The archaeological and architectural survey, funded by Natural England, will ensure not only that a full record of the mill’s history is available for future generations, but that current visitors to the area may gain an insight into its past.

“Part of the condition of funding the survey was that we would be able to take small groups of visitors a number of times each year. We hope it will give people a good understanding of just how significant the place has been and what a fascinating building it still is,” said Prof Blake, who with his wife, Rita, took possession of the mill and the adjoining house in 1984.

Documents show that there was a corn mill on the site in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the existing watermill was referred to by William Wordsworth when he visited in 1799.

“After walking through two fields we came to a mill which we pass’d and in a moment a sweet little valley opened before us,” wrote the poet.

Meanwhile, a rare and unfinished sketch by JMW Turner, precisely dated Friday, July 26, 1816, is one of the gems unearthed by Prof Blake during his own research and now included in the three-volume survey.

Machinery used for making thousands of hay-rakes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is still in place, some of it designed and purpose-built by the Burton family, who owned the site at the time. Significantly, the Burtons also started to generate electricity upstream in Mill Gill, which provided lighting for the mill itself as well as for the villages of Askrigg and Bainbridge, one of the earliest schemes of its kind in the country.

Privileged to take the first tour of the mill, which the Blakes have painstakingly renovated and improved over the years, were volunteers from the neighbouring 18th century Gayle Mill, near Hawes, a relative newcomer by comparison.

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