Flour has been in high demand and short supply during the coronavirus pandemic. Imogen Bittner and Pete Loosmore knew they were in a unique position to help home bakers in southwest England by firing up a mill site that is more than 1,000 years old.
So the two millers, who help run the Sturminster Newton Mill and the adjacent museum, decided in early April that it was time to dust off their aprons and go back to the grind.
They cranked up the ancient machinery at the mill, which has been updated through the years but has been powered by a water turbine since 1904. In recent years, it has been used exclusively as a museum that churns out small ornamental bags of flour for visitors in the small town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset county.
“When COVID-19 struck, all of the local shops ran out of flour very quickly,” said Loosmore, 79, a retired art teacher who has worked at the mill for 25 years. “We had a stock of good-quality milling wheat and the means and skills to grind it into flour, so we thought we could help.”
In the past month, with the mill operating full-time in the agricultural town of 5,000 people, he estimates they have ground more than a ton of grain and bagged several hundred sacks of flour. The three-pound bags are sold at cost to a local grocer and baker, who then sell them, said Bittner, with all proceeds benefiting the mill’s upkeep.
“We’ve been inundated with requests to sell it online or in large quantities, but we are not a commercial business,” said Bittner, 63, an artist who began learning the art of milling 18 months ago and plans to take over as supervisor when Loosmore retires next year.
Bittner, who has traveled the world but now lives in the home in which she was born near the mill, said she has always been drawn to the historical structure along the River Stour.
“It’s been amazing to work alongside oak beams that have been inside the mill since the 14th century and which were probably [trees] growing locally in the 10th and 11th centuries,” she said. “Although there have been adaptations and changes, these gnarled old timbers still hold the roof in place.”
Loosmore was a boy when he first saw the inside workings of the ancient mill, where his grandfather, Harry Elkins, worked as a miller for more than 50 years.
“It’s been nice to see the place brought back to life,” he said.
Loosmore said the mill, which is managed by the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, is treasured by locals, who volunteer every year to bag flour for museum visitors and help with maintenance.
If not for the pandemic, he said, tourists and school groups would be stopping by every week to learn about the mill’s unique history and take home a bag or two of freshly ground flour.
The wooden water mill dates to 1016, he said, and is mentioned in agricultural records in the Domesday Book, a “survey” of England and Wales written in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror.
“It appears that the mill was updated during Elizabethan times in 1566, and the working machinery was updated in 1904,” Loosmore said.
When it closed in 1970 after milling pet food for a time, the mill was silent for decades, he said, until he and other volunteers decided to turn it into a working museum in 1994.
He and Bittner feel fortunate to spend their workdays in a building that has survived everything from war to the Black Death.
“It’s just a wonderful historical attraction — we have details from abbey documents dating back to the 13th century naming some of the millers and describing their roles, rents and obligations,” said Bittner, adding that one miller in 1230 paid part of his rent in eels.
Bittner said she often thinks about the early millers standing on the same elm floorboards that she now walks across daily.
“It’s like stepping back to an earlier way of life, where power was harnessed naturally and without pollution,” she said. “It’s good to see that the old mill can rise to the challenge.”