Skidby Mill: Still turning after all these years

Lincolnshire has 6, Cambridgeshire has 4, Buckinghamshire has 11, but until the renovation of York’s Holgate Mill, Skidby was Yorkshire’s only working windmill.

Sitting on the brow of a hill on the south side of the East Yorkshire village of Skidby stands a Mill. It’s a tall, black, white and handsome building and when the wind blows hard enough in the right direction it’s four 12-metre long wooden sails turn lazily round, painting for all who see it a picture of what life must have been like before industrialisation, intensive farming or even electricity.

The Wolds offer the perfect conditions for growing wheat and over 200 mills used to serve the area, which was consequently known as the ‘bread basket’ of Yorkshire. Following the importation of cheap American crops into the UK market a huge amount of mills closed in the 1870’s; demolition, disrepair and conversion followed for all the others but, apart form a recent 30-year break, Skidby Mill has been turning local crops into flour since 1821. After being closed in the 1960’s and sold to the local council for £1 it lay dormant until a heritage lottery grant funded a complete renovation and now council staff and a group of volunteers man the mill and attached museum of rural life, keeping it running up to five days a week – depending on the season.

If you’re visiting, the Mill can be found on the A164 between the Humber Bridge and Beverley, just look for the sails by the side of the road. When you arrive the first thing you notice is the calm. The approach – along the side of wheat fields, aptly – offers no sign of modern life and standing in the courtyard immediately below the turning sails you hear every gentle creak they make and the faint sound of the revolving millstones inside. This, and the impressive sight of the huge shadows the mill casts, transports you back to another age, when it took this much effort and invention just to make flour.

At one edge of the courtyard are converted barns containing farming equipment and a blacksmith’s forge. The rural life museum is housed in the bottom two floors of the mill and adjoining buildings and has very well thought through, providing informative, interactive fun for the kids. There are levers to pull, buttons to press, antique farming equipment and scenes recreating farmers at work – a realistic picture of a rapidly disappearing past is clearly laid out. Even adults will enjoy glimpses of items that may well have been still in use in their childhood such as mangles and dolly tubs.

The real attraction, though, is the windmill itself which has being lovingly restored and the two floors accessible to the public truly allow you to step back in time. The bottom floor is the bagging room, where the freshly-milled flour drops into bags and sacks, it’s full of chutes and regulators and demonstrates the ingenuity involved in mill design. Then it’s up a steep wooden staircase to the milling room. It’s here that the process really comes to life. The two huge millstones slowly revolving a couple of feet in front of you have been turning in this mill for well over 100 years (more than twice their expected lifespan) and seeing them speed up and slow down at the same pace as the sails brings home how much the country relied on the elements for their daily bread.

The miller, Neil Jonson, is on hand to explain the entire process and answer questions. He reveals that the flour you are watching being made will be in sale in the area’s delis and used in the better local restaurants within a few days. Indeed, the Michelin-starred Pipe and Glass gastropub in nearby South Dalton take a regular supply which they use to create their sticky toffee pudding – apparently the grain mixture and coarseness of the flour Skidby produces gives it extra absorbency, making it ideal for airy, moist puddings mixtures. Seeing grains drop into the top of the stones and flour seep out of the sides is surprisingly thrilling, so rarely do you see exactly how your food is actually made.

Back downstairs and outside, there’s a fantastic café (selling, amongst other things, cakes made with the flour from the mill), a picnic area and a children’s playground. The views are beautiful in every direction and the calming influence of the idly-turning windmill lends the whole place an air of dignity to go along with the one history, industry and heritage. You leave feeling you know your ancestors a little better and, bag of Skidby flour in hand, keen to try out a few recipes. Skidby Mill is a picture perfect, flour-dusted time capsule and as pleasant a day out as East Yorkshire has to offer.

Fact file

There has been a mill on record in Skidby from as far back as 1316.

The present mill was built in 1821 and extended by 2 more floors in c.1870.

During WW2 the top floor of the mill acted as a fire watch tower.

The current millstone was imported from France and, at over 100 years old, has lasted twice as long as expected.

Dave Lee

Pics are here: http://bit.ly/wfVZ1w Please credit Dave Lee

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