Restoration of Upminster Windmill edges closer to completion
- Credit: Archant
We might not be able to visit Upminster Windmill right now, but we can still admire the historic building from afar
It’s quite a surreal experience, looking out across London’s modern cityscape from the top of a 200-year-old windmill.
The view from the smock tower is impressive, but it’s the intricate craftmanship of the Grade II-listed mill that’s truly striking. “I find it so beautiful every time I come in here,” says Andrew Conway, a trustee of the Friends of Upminster Windmill group. “I could spend days telling you how each part functions, but you can see just how complex and amazing it is.” It has been more than four years since Andrew has taken anyone on a tour of Upminster Windmill since it closed to the public for restoration in 2016. Though the mill is still without its cap and sails, the project is edging ever closer to completion.
As it stands now, with its refurbished internal framework, pristine white weatherboarding and sturdy new gallery, it’s hard to believe it was close to collapsing just a few years ago. “When we started to peel back the layers and saw what poor condition it was in, we realised just how close we were to not having a windmill at all. The structure was never designed to stand for 200 years, so it’s a miracle that it’s still here really,” says Andrew.
Built in 1803 by farmer James Noakes and used to grind wheat into flour, the windmill and surrounding land was bought by Havering Council in the late 1950s and is now managed in partnership with the Friends of Upminster Windmill trust, which is made up entirely of volunteers. Though there have been several attempts to restore it over the last few decades, it wasn’t until the council and volunteer group were successful in securing funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Veolia Thames Trust in 2014 that plans for the project started to take hold.
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“It’s probably one of the biggest restorations of a smock mill there has ever been in the country,” Andrew tells me. “We’ve had to walk a delicate line between restoration, preservation and conservation. Of course, we wanted to protect as much of the original fabric of the building as possible, but we had to take a pragmatic approach and replace the parts that were beyond repair.”
What was originally meant to be a two-year project has now run into its fourth year. The reason for the delays, Andrew explains, was that the windmill was in a much worse state of disrepair than anticipated and that they wanted to do the job justice.
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“The problem was that the parts hadn’t been used for decades and were decaying. The cap had sagged, the smock tower had twisted slightly, the internal frame was in a poor condition and when we took the weatherboarding off it became even more unstable.
“It’s only going to get done once – in our lifetime at least – and we’re hoping it’s going to stand for another 200 years, so it was important to do it properly.”
To undertake such a large-scale project, they enlisted the help from an experienced Dutch millwright who has been repairing and rebuilding various parts of the windmill in the Netherlands for the last four years. The cap has already been restored and shipped back over, with the sails set to arrive and be re-assembled later in the year.
“The job is much more complicated than you think, but luckily we’ve got lots of clever people working on it,” says Andrew. “As well as our experienced millwrights, our local volunteers have been essential and have brought all sorts of skills to the table.”
Andrew is using his photography skills to document the restoration and plans to make a book and tour an exhibition locally in the future.
“I’ve loved getting under the skin of the project and having the kind of access that people wouldn’t normally have,” he says. “I wanted my photos to be a record of the progress, but I also wanted them to be beautiful – somewhere between art and a historical recording. And that’s the interesting thing about windmills – they’re generally very functional buildings but there’s also an incredible beauty to them.”
As well as being a fascinating example of historic English architecture, the windmill will serve as an educational tool. When complete, it’s set to be one of the best examples of a working smock mill in the country and visitors will be able to see the machinery grind wheat into flour again and learn about its history in the newly built education and training centre.
“It would be a tragedy to just bulldoze and bury the past because we can learn a lot about ourselves and how we live today by looking back. That’s why the restoration project has been so important,” says Andrew.
“It’s going to be something really quite special. And we’ve got it right here in Upminster. It’s amazing.”
You can read more about the restoration project at upminsterwindmill.org and follow them on Twitter @UpminsterMill