What is it that’s so evocative about windmills? Is it their natural grace and elegance, their sense of yesterday, or that feeling of childhood memories and nostalgia? Whatever it is, it’s a cold heart indeed that doesn’t feel a warm sense of pride when you stumble across one of these great symbols of Sussex’s past.
According to Martin Brunnarius (author of The Windmills of Sussex published in 1979), Sussex boasted some of the earliest windmills in the country with perhaps the first reference to one at Iford near Lewes in 1155. There were at one time probably hundreds of windmills dotted across our Sussex landscape which included the post-mill, the smock-mill, and the tower-mill. In 1979, Brunnarius describes 28 “mills of today” covering the breadth of the county and not including “notable remains and bygone mills”. So we thought it would be interesting, over 40 years later, to retrace his footsteps and see what has become of those windmills that were still standing back then. Of course, Sussex is a big county (1,461 square miles / 3,873 square kilometers) and due to this, and Covid restrictions, we’ve decided to approach this challenge in bite-sized chunks, by visiting three windmills at a time.
Shipley, near Horsham
Also known as King’s Mill or Vincent’s Mill, if you stumble across this windmill unawares, it comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s tucked at the back of the village in a place Hilaire Belloc once called home (he lived in the house called Kingsland and owned the windmill). The Shipley windmill is, or was, a white smock-mill with a fantail and was built in 1879. That means she has a wooden tower, with eight sides built on a block base. It’s called a smock as it looks like an old-fashioned farmer’s smock. It is believed that some of this mill’s components came from a disused mill at nearby Coldwaltham.
At the turn of the last century, Shipley mill was still kept in reasonable condition (much thanks to Mr Belloc) and at the time Brunnarius visited in the 1970s, he describes a mill that remains in good working condition and recommends a visit when it’s open and when the sweeps are turning. The Shipley windmill has had mixed fortunes since then. Following Belloc’s death in 1953, the windmill (owned by Belloc’s family) was in need of some love, and a local initiative along with West Sussex County Council, ensured repairs and maintenance were done, with the help of the admission charges paid by visitors. As a result, from 1958 to 1986, the windmill was regularly open to the public and kept in operation by the Friends of Shipley Windmill. Sadly by the 1980s, much further work was needed again. Shipley Windmill Charitable Trust was formed in 1987, to ensure it was maintained and the mill was re-opened once again (although with only a single pair of sweeps) in July 1990 by the Lord Lieutenant of West Sussex. Further work saw the restoration of the second pair of sweeps in 1991, and in the late 1990s, the mill was the setting of the home of fictional TV character Jonathon Creek (played by Alan Davies). By 2001, all seemed optimistic, and a new visitor centre was opened but sadly, in 2008/9, the owner of the mill decided to close the mill to the public once and for all.
If you visit now, you’ll see that the mill is slowly sliding into a sorry state of disrepair. The shutters have been removed from the sails and the fantail has broken, and it sits unkempt in a plot of land. We can only hope that fortune will shine on the Shipley windmill again some time soon, and she’ll escape doom and destruction again.
Jack and Jill, at Clayton near Brighton
Perhaps the county’s most famous windmills, this black and white pair stand proud today on Duncton Down. Jill, a white post-mill, is the elder and was brought to the current site from Belmont railway tunnel near Dyke Road where she was called Lashmar’s New Mill. It’s believed she dates back to 1821 and she was transported to her current position by horse and oxen, probably between 1850 and 1853. She appears to have been still working in 1905 but she had stopped by 1907 and was badly damaged in 1908. By 1979, both mills were surrounded by hedges with a private house in between but Jill was in the care of the Council with plans to have Jill in full working within the next five years.
Jack, who sits just behind as you approach is a black tower-mill with a white cap and is believed to have been built in 1866 to replace a former mill on the site. It was built to a height of “five floors”. It was damaged in 1909 by when the mill had ceased working. The Anson family moved in 1911 and converted the granary into a residence. Well-known writer and golfing-correspondent Henry Longhurst lived here until 1978 and replaced the existing residence, and in 1973 a film company enabled Jack to be fitted with a new set of sweeps for a production.
The Jack and Jill Windmills Society (and their army of volunteers) have worked tirelessly since 1979 and Jill is now fully restored and has been functioning since 2009. She’s open to the public between May and September and it’s a worth a visit as it’s hard to get a good close up look over the now substantial hedge that surrounds her. Jack remains in private ownership and although it’s now a home, it is occasionally available for holiday lets, awaydays, and film locations. Longhurst’s 1963 home, was completely reconfigured and rebuilt by award winning architects Featherstone Young in 2016. It sleeps 17, looks temptingly glamorous and sophisticated from over the wall, and has won awards. Jack, however, looks a little forlorn.
Kingston Down, near Lewes
Also know as Ashcombe mill, this white six sweep post-mill was no more by 1979 when Brunnarius published. In fact, all that remained was some brick. It’s believed the original mill dated back to 1832 with its heyday in the 1870s. The Sussex Archaelogical Society took on the mill in 1912 but it was blown down in March 1916 although she is believed to already have been very neglected by then. The photograph shown was provided by an Edward Reeves of Lewes whose grandfather that taken it and you can see she was very similar to Jill.
In the early part of this century, a number of broken shutter cranks and other cast iron parts were found in the surrounding fields and in 2007 planning permission was granted to Sussex Mills Group to reconstruct a copy of the original mill as residential accommodation on the same site on condition that the new building would be environmentally friendly. By 2015, the mill’s sweeps were turning again, and the windmill is now used to generate electricity. You cannot get up close but you do get an excellent view from a distance and it’s a pretty impressive replica.
It’s clear from the army of volunteers and societies that keep our mills going, that there is still much love and respect in the county for our beautiful windmills, and we can’t wait to rediscover a few more.