Trouble at mill

Lets Talk Magazine, Post on 4th February, 2013

Until recently it was one of the region’s last commercial working mills. What does the future hold for Denver Windmill? Neil Haverson reports.  

 It was in 2008 that the Abel family signed a five-year lease with the Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust (NHBT) to run Denver Mill, near Downham Market. The mill had been re-opened in 2000 following a £1 million refurbishment funded by public grants. It was the last working windmill in Norfolk but the project to run it as a going concern was failing and the Abels, Mark, Lindsay and Sally together with Sally’s partner Duncan MacGregor, believed they had the skills to turn things round.

They offered wood and engineering skills; timber and brick construction; experience in community project working and millwrighting. This all appeared to dovetail in with the needs of the project.

They signed a five-year rolling lease with the NHBT and set about following their dream. In 2007 the mill had been achieving an annual flour production of little more than a ton. By the harvest of 2011, that had increased to over 30 tons

The mill was providing flour for the bakery, there was the shop and tea room. Regular events and bakery courses were taking place. But in September 2008, relations with the landlord began to sour.

Old buildings and machinery require regular attention and a clause in the lease said the landlords in conjunction with the tenants should provide an annual schedule of maintenance. The NHBT refused and so followed what the family describe as “four years of acrimony”.

From left, Lyndsey Abel, Sally Abel, Duncan MacGregor and Mark Abel at Denver Mill. Picture; Matthew Usher.

The Abels considered the future of the mill and put forward a proposal for the Denver Mill company to buy the site. At first the NHBT expressed a willingness to sell. Says Lindsay Abel: “They valued the property at £420,000 plus VAT. We had our own valuation done of the sire, it was £150,000, and that was mainly the three holiday cottages – the mill wasn’t worth anything as it is a listed building. If the cottages were done up they would be worth £250,000; the company offered £300,000 but the Trust has now withdrawn the offer, to sell and says it will run the mill.

“Naively we didn’t realise there are ways of ending a lease. And I don’t think they realise we’ve put £100,000 of our own money – and many of us work unpaid.”

 Two years ago Denver Mill’s name was submitted to the BBC as a potential case for The Fixer, the programme presented by Alex Polizzi which looks at ways to help family businesses.

Says Lindsay Abel: “We don’t know who suggested us but they rang up and said they’d like to do a programme.” That was in May 2011, on October 4th, just before filming was due to start, tragedy struck. The sails and stocks fell off the mill.

“I rang the BBC and said I don’t suppose you want to come now but they were even more keen! We were still in shock when they arrived. I was very emotional; after all, when the sails came off people could have been killed.”

Alex Polizzi’s take on the business was that the company had lost their way. The shop and café were profitable areas so she got the family to concentrate on these areas, taking them to hamper producers Forman and Field to learn how to package and sell their produce properly.

“We didn’t agree with everything she said,” says Lindsay. “She said forget the mill, not to get emotionally involved with it. She said it didn’t matter where the flour came from but we believe it means much more if it comes from your own mill. But she did help us disassociate ourselves from the mill.

What happens next?

With the NHBT having withdrawn its offer to sell, the future of the mill as far as the Abels are concerned is in doubt.

Says Lindsay Abel: “We believe the mill should be in public ownership. Our plan was to raise the money by setting up a trust and selling shares at £10 each. With the coverage from The Fixer we hoped people from all over the country would want to own a bit of a mill.”

The Fixer has returned to Denver Mill to film a “revisit” and this was to launch the share scheme. As the BBC is not allowed to promote commercial enterprises, Lindsay got in touch with Let’s Talk and invited me along to help spread the word through the magazine.

But with the NHBT’s withdrawal of the offer to sell, what are the options? “As it is a rolling lease, we believe we can go to court and could get another five years. But after all the problems, do we really want that? Or we can look for alternative premises and continue our business elsewhere – the shop, tearoom and the baking school. We would still get the flour milled locally; there is a mill inWoodbridgewhich is a possibility.

“We have looked at some premises inKing’s Lynnbuilt in the 1500s. It’s being restored to its original condition and would fit this business model. And we own the Denver Mills name so we would take that with us.”

It’s a difficult decision. Go to court and possibly carry on at the mill as tenants of a landlord with whom they have not enjoyed the best of relations, or start afresh and relaunch the business at a new location.

  • You can find out what happens by tuning in to The Fixer’s revisit scheduled to be broadcast on BBC2 in February. Check schedules for details. 

    Denver mill, pictured in 1954. Picture: Library c3761

Denver Mill was built in 1835. It replaced a postmill that had been on the same site. John Porter was the first miller. He was succeeded by James Gleaves who operated the mill until it was sold to Tom Harris in 1896.

Tom died in 1925 but his son, also Tom, took over the business. In 1935 its importance was recognised when Tom Harris was awarded a certificate by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

In 1941 the mill was struck by lightning but Tom Harris had it repaired and maintained with a view to its long term preservation. When Tom died in 1969 his sister, Edith Staines, gifted the mill to theCountyofNorfolkin memory of her father and brother.

Gales in January 1976 lifted the cap and damaged the kerb. The impact shattered the reinforced concrete kerb and cracked the brickwork below. The mill was bought by the NHBT in 1995. In October 2011 the sails and stock fell off. It was 2pm in the afternoon and a party of school children were visiting. The debris landed just feet from where a group of them were eating their packed lunches.

For the first time in almost 180 years the mill stood without sails or stocks. How long will it be before the sails on Denver Mill are turning once more?

 Douglas Munro of the NHBT agrees it has been an “acrimonious” relationship.

“It’s been a trying time, costly and caused grief to lots of people. We have determined that the lease will not be renewed. We have local partners who want to help us when the Abels go. They, like us, want the mill to thrive – and we’re all looking forward to making a start.

“The sails came down because of a stress fracture of a steel stock, and that’s going to take £100,000 to repair. We are already raising money for this. So far we have £27,000 and have commissioned work from the Norfolk Windmill Alliance for £25,000-worth of repairs. We have applied for grants for the rest and are talking to people like English Heritage.  We’ll have the sails up as soon as we can afford it.”

On the issue of the scheduled maintenanceDouglassays neither party had a Schedule of Condition for the site when the Abels signed the lease back in 2008 – this had been promised by a Technical Adviser, but had not been produced.

“This got us off to a bad start,”Douglascontinued. “But the fact is that the Trust has spent about £100,000 on maintenance and repair work during the Abels’ tenancy. So it is quite untrue to say that the Trust has not maintained and repaired the Mill.”


Lets Talk Magazine (writer)

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