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Gems of the Archive: The Mill that Moved

Since starting at the archive five weeks ago, I have gained a real appreciation for the complexity and skill required to run and maintain these fabulous mills and their machinery. One story I discovered this week demonstrates the time and effort that volunteers and millwrights have dedicated to keep these unique parts of our heritage standing.

Poster Image

Lowfield Heath Post mill, owned by James Constable, was built in the early 18th Century and first appeared on Rocques’ map of Surrey in 1762. The mill was in operation until the 1880s, after which it fell into a state of disrepair; but unlike so many of the mills which have been allowed to completely disintegrate, Lowfield Heath Mill’s story does not stop there.

In the 1960s, the local councils conducted emergency repair on the mill which stabilised it for a short time, but by the 1980s it was under significant threat once more from redevelopment works in the Lowfield Heath area. In response to the threat, the Lowfield Heath Windmill Trust (LHWT) was set up in 1986 by a group of enterprising individuals, with the aim of moving the mill out of harm’s way.

Moving mills had been done before: there are 18th Century stories of moving a mill with a team of oxen, and in the 1970s Lurgashall watermill was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt at the Weald and Downland Museum. It is undoubtedly a huge undertaking, however; and whereas the Lowfield Heath mill project started off as a race against time, it turned steadily into a five-year battle. A complication occurred early on when county boundaries were changed, meaning that even before they started, the mill originally from Surrey was now in Sussex. This forced LHWT to begin the process of planning applications all over again.

Once permission had finally been granted, the search for a suitable location was underway. This map shows the chosen location next to Gatwick Zoo near on the outskirts of the village of Charlwood, 2.5 miles away from its original location. A fundraising plan with a rough quote of £65,000 was created, and by 1987, £50,000 had been raised and the dismantling work began in July of that year. The process to dismantle the building and move the heavy machinery was a complex one, but with the help of numerous volunteers they swiftly made progress. The roundhouse beneath the main structure was taken apart brick by brick, with each of the 10,000 bricks requiring painstaking methodical cleaning!  The mill was reopened by Princess Alexandra in April 1990, but another few years of hard work was required until it was fully functioning.

In 1998, thirteen years after the project had started, Lowfield Heath mill was at last running again for the first time since the 19th Century. Conservation continues to this day: new sails were fitted in 2011, and the mill continues to thrive in its new location. This magnificent mill, which moved from Surrey to Sussex, Lowfield Heath to Charlwood, is a testimony to the fabulous people who work to preserve and protect these incredible buildings and the stories they hold.