Flour power! Mill reopens after a difficult year
By Steve Keenan
It will be all hands to the grindstone this weekend when Sturminster Newton Mill stages its first public milling demonstration of the season. The Mill made national headlines last year when shortages of flour in the early stages of the pandemic saw commercial operations resume for the first time since 1970.
“None of the local shops had any flour but we had supplies of grain which we could put to use,” says supervisor Peter Loosmore. “We got through five years’ worth of stock in just four weeks. It went absolutely crazy.” Dikes in Stalbridge and Oxford’s Bakery in Sturminster were among the grateful customers, although they have now reverted to their normal suppliers. But the flour produced this weekend will still benefit the mill’s coffers as it goes on sale to visitors – and demand is expected to surge following the publicity, which saw the Mill feature on the BBC, in newspapers and even an Australian radio station.
“We certainly expect to sell more this year,” said Peter. “We only re-opened on May 29 so have lost part of our season to lockdown. It depends largely on how the easing of restrictions goes.” In a normal six-month summer season, a ton of wheat is used in milling. About 90% of the flour produced is sold through the shop, with 500gm bags of flour for £1, or 1.5kg for £3. “It’s quite a fine flour, good for bread making, scones, pastries and crumble,” says Peter. “During the pandemic, we experimented and made a slightly coarser flour, with more air in it to make it rise.” How do you make the flour coarser? By adjusting the two mill stones so they are not quite as close, explains Peter, the headmaster of Sturminster Mill knowledge. He was a teacher and took early retirement in 1991, just as the town’s Museum Society got permission from the Pitt Rivers estate to take over the derelict mill and restore it to a working mill. “In 1994, there was an advert for a supervisor to open the mill and show people around. I thought that sounds interesting,” recalls Peter.
“My grandfather had worked at the mill all his life, and I used to play here as a child. In my interview with the society, I mentioned him but I didn’t say I knew anything about milling. “They assumed I did because I got the job.” It’s fair to say that he has since learned a great deal – and he is happy to share. The Skyfall wheat “comes straight from the combine harvester” at Luccombe Farm in Milton Abbas, he explains, and is first tipped into a winnower “to take the rubbish out – stones, feathers, straw and undersized grains.”
His style is relaxed and entertaining but informative: I didn’t know that while most flour is sold on site, one customer is a firm in Swanage that makes gourmet dog biscuits. Peter explains that the mill regularly floods in winter, when furniture and stock is all moved upstairs. He points to a high water mark carved in the stone at eye level, dated 1756. Not that long ago, Peter and his team also re-wrote the history of the existing building. They were rubbing down a large stone in a wall and found an inscribed date of 1566: the mill was thought to have dated to c:1650, although there a mill on the site back in 1016. There are no set times for tours of the building, more a constant rotation of the mill so visitors can join and leave at any stage. Just don’t forget to buy the flour on the way out.
Slice of covid funding helped
Last year, the sale of flour earned the mill £2,758, up from £1,058 the previous year and partially helped offset the complete loss of entrance fees as the mill closed to visitors. Richard Brown, treasurer of the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, wrote in his annual report for 2020: “My reports every year can be a bit boring as each year they are similar apart from the figures. This year, however, things have changed with vast reductions in income but with similar outgoings. “We received a £10,000 coronavirus grant from Dorset Council which, had we not received this, we would be in a sorry state. It kept the mill and Last year, the sale of flour earned the mill £2,758, up from £1,058 the previous year and partially helped offset the complete loss of entrance fees as the mill closed to visitors. Richard Brown, treasurer of the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, wrote in his annual report for 2020: “My reports every year can be a bit boring as each year they are similar apart from the figures. This year, however, things have changed with vast reductions in income but with similar outgoings. “We received a £10,000 coronavirus grant from Dorset Council which, had we not received this, we would be in a sorry state.
The Mill is now run by the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, a registered charity which also operates the town’s museum. The Mill is open on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Thursday, 11am-5pm, until the end of September. Milling weekends are on the second weekend of each month, although the machinery runs every day the Mill is open. Admission: £4. More info: sturminsternewton-museum.co.uk/mill