Juju tells about her home, Keswick Mill near Norwich, its history, surroundings and what it’s like to live in a mill.
First view of the mill
I live here in Keswick Mill with my husband David Vail and my two adult children. I’m Canadian, but have lived in the UK for over 30 years, all that time in London. Three years ago we decided that it would be a good idea to leave London, get rid of our mortgage and live somewhere more rural. But w had to live in a place where my husband could find work, and my two children, who don’t drive, could commute by bicycle.
The first property we saw online was Keswick Mill. I convinced my husband that we would look at the mill as it looked a fascinating building. He had a million ideas of why it would be a terrible idea to buy Keswick Mill, what it would it cost to heat and how to manage it. But I convinced him to just come up and look at it. We came up on an Indian summer day in October three years ago, and it was very warm and really sunny. And the owner Martin showed us around.
Keswick Mill has an amazing long, thin island that is populated with poplar trees which make an amazing avenue. I was told that they were planted for match making and a tree survey we have had tells us they are only about 50 years old. Some of them are five and six and seven feet wide, the biggest poplars that the tree surveyor had ever seen. Unfortunately we are going to have to have them down as they have reached the lifespan of poplars and will start to deteriorate from the inside and are a danger.
Martin walked us back down to Keswick to cross to the other side of the property He took us over the iron bridge, on the south side of the mill, and where we walked up the other side along the river, saw the summer house, saw the beautiful gardens, saw the water field. We were awestruck to see this incredible, beautiful piece of land. A bit is formally gardened but a lot of it is quite wild. Further up the river they hadn’t really planted anything but there were lots of wild flowers, and trees all over the property. Then he brought us inside the mill and showed us around the four floors. It reminded me very much of properties in Canada where grew up partly in a wooden farmhouse, on a lake, and this being a wooden building over the top of the river, it even smelled familiar to me. I fell deeply in love with it immediately.
We decided to try and sell our house in London and buy the mill mortgage-free and have a little bit of money left over to do some work around it. We knew that there would be some significant upkeep costs that we didn’t have in London. A year and a half followed of us trying to sell our home in London in a difficult economic climate. We finally moved here on the last day of May in 2018.
Living and working spaces
I had thought that it would be nice to live in a place where I could hold craft classes in my home, and I could see doing that here.
The ground floor is an open plan, rough area, where I can paint and my husband do woodwork and projects. And there’s a lot of area down there for his bicycles and for fixing up bicycles, so that was very appealing.
Our bedrooms are on the first floor and there’s a large communal living space with windows on all sides. The views are incredible. Looking south, you see the Yare coming towards the mill, and then to the north you see what I call the millpond front of the Dannatts’ house, and their dovecote. You see swans and ducks and moorhen and egrets and herons, and wagtails on that side. And lots of birds and wildlife to the south.
The previous owners were Dutch and in their 60s and 70 decided that they wanted to live more time in the Netherlands. Martin retains a small parcel of land next to the mill in the marshes where he’s planted probably about 30 cricket-bat willows. They have five or seven years of growth before they will be ready to cut down and be used as cricket bats. He’s very keen on getting his Keswick cricket bat!
The mill since decommissioning
Martin and Eva have passed on to us a large folder of the history of the mill. There were two owners living here after it was decommissioned as a mill. So, we know the history of who lived here before us.
The mill was decommissioned in 1976. The last miller was Mr John Brock. He and his wife Pat are buried in the cemetery of Keswick Church, which is on the hill above the mill. Their son John remembers working here as a teenager and younger man, and has told us how the mill looked before it was converted into housing. I believe from 1976 until about 1986 it fell into quite bad repair.
In the late 1980s the next owner re-clad the entire outside and made it a liveable building, including putting in a lot of skylights on the south side, dividing up the space differently and moving where the staircase was. However, it is still relatively easy to walk around the mill and understand how it might’ve worked, especially having visited Letheringsett Mill and seen a very similar sort of system there. There’s no millstone, but there’s still a large cog room on the ground floor, and a lot of what would appear to be spinning-type wheels.
Upstairs as well as chutes for the grain and a hoist, there’s the trap-door in the locum, which runs over the north-facing bridge, where the grain would’ve come up to the top floor and been moved down the various chutes to where the millstone would’ve ground it and then shot it out on the ground floor.
A later resident, Mrs Pearson, ran needlework courses at the mill, and she, like us lived on the first floor. The Pearsons then rented out the second and third floors as student accommodation and had a lot of students up there.
Martin and Eva used it as a holiday home from 2001 until we bought it in 2018. The garden is mostly wild. Eva was a garden designer, so it’s really laid out very beautifully. When they first moved here the wetland marsh area had a barn and horses being kept on it. It is now as a wild meadow which gets mown once a year. There’s a lot of wildlife living in there.
When we came and visited the mill in October there was a duck sitting on a nest in a bonfire that was just about to be lit! When we mow the field muntjac and all sorts of creatures run out from cover. There are not many rabbits because both sides of the river are slightly island-shaped. The rabbits tend to be in everybody else’s gardens, but not in ours. We’ve seen a family of otters, water voles, wagtails, lots of mice and moles and shrews that our cats are very good at managing the population of. And all the birds that we see out in the millpond. Wagtails nest all summer long underneath the arches of the mill where the millwheels would have been. In the summer, you can just sit outside and watch the wagtails.
Activities around the mill
We use the river a lot in the summer and have guests over for swimming. We have a row boat and paddleboards, and it is fabulous go up river towards Waitrose, past the Scouts hall, then do a big loop around the island up there. That can take a little over an hour. This last summer there were quite a lot of people swimming in the river over on the Common, which is next to us. We’ve invited many people to come and swim on our side of the river because we’d cleared so many weeds so we know it’s a nice spot, and we like to see the river used that way.
This summer we started swimming in May, and we would always pull out the weeds as we went so that the river remained relatively weed-free. My husband swam every day, and we started to make paddleboard journeys up the river as far as Cringleford and Waitrose! John Brock, the miller’s son, told us that when he was a lad he would take a boat up the river to buy groceries, isn’t that fabulous! He hated it because he would have to go underneath the train tracks in his boat and lie down flat. I can imagine would’ve been really scary, especially if a train went over.
The bridge over the Yare on the north side is a public footpath, and is part of the Edith Cavell pathway.
This is a great walking path for people to walk past the mill, enjoy the view over the millpond, cross over the train tracks, and walk all around Marston Marsh or through the ‘Big Wood’ up to Keswick Church.. Lots of young and older people go on walking trips and if we see a group of scouts or younger children, we do invite them in to show them where the millwheel was and explain it to them.
When we bought the mill our understanding was that the Gurneys own the fishing rights to the Yare around here. However our neighbour is Philippa Dannatt née Gurney and she was unaware of this. There is a ‘no private fishing’ sign in the millpond, but that is really there mainly to prevent people loitering too long. Everybody around here is very happy for people to fish there, as long as they make themselves known.
Of course, eels are not to be fished anymore because they are protected, but we have learned that millers would earn a large portion of their income from catching eels. We have an eel net downstairs. Right up to the time of the last miller in the summer months they would put a net under the mill and catch a lot of eels. Now there is a mill race where water bypasses the mill and there is a mill ladder up at the sluice at the top of our property, so that the eels can climb up and carry on going up river. I haven’t seen any eels but we have seen a lot of fish. Shortly after we moved in, somebody was fishing on the other side of the mill, and they caught a fish that was about a foot and a half long. We also found a huge fish corpse out in the water meadow, with no head. Otters eat just the head and brains so there are obviously active otters around here, which is quite exciting.
Earlier history of the mill and what comes down the river
When you look it up, it says that there’s been a mill here since Domesday. From what I understand there’s been a mill here for a thousand years. It would have burnt down many times and be reconstructed, because fires happen to mills. So some parts are very ancient and some more recent. This current building is half-Georgian and half-Victorian, so I believe dating back to 1760s. The side from that period has wooden beams and the Victorian side has iron beams from something like 1860.
I understand it was bigger than it is now at one point. In one spot you can see where there was a wheel and there is now just an axel which the wheel turned on. My understanding is that there were two wheels earlier in the last century. When it was converted from a working mill to a residence, they cemented the bottom where the wheels were, so they brought the ground up. I imagine the wheel would’ve been very noisy. Our neighbour in the barn across the lane has a millstone outside of his place and it’s assumed that that would’ve been one of the millstones. We believe that there were five millstones at one point.
There’s a record from the mill dating back to the late 1800s, of a mill worker, a lad, being suffocated in one of the grain silos. I’ve also heard from Martin that one day a body came down the river Yare. In the summer we kept getting shoes coming down here, which my dog would play with. You get a lot of people coming down in kayaks and canoes. Most of them are friendly but we have had a few belligerent people and a couple that were drunk and would have gone underneath the mill which is very dangerous.
On our ground floor, we have the original toilet which is just a hole in a toilet seat over the river and we apparently still have the rights to use that for our sewage if we choose to. Of course, we don’t.
There’s also a trap door in the ground floor which you open and you see the river rushing very quickly underneath. When we were moving from London up to Keswick Mill someone told us they lived here when they were a student and the university, and used to open that trap door, jump in and ride the water into the millpond. It’s amazing how many people we’ve met since we move here who have lived there when they were a student.
Because mills did burn so often, in the north east corner of the building is a brick column with iron filing storage where they kept their records so that if the mill burnt down the paper records, and I presume money, would have been safe. It is still there as it was.
Managing water levels and possibilities for power generation
I was going to say is that I believe when the mill was converted to residential, the local authority took over the responsibility of managing the sluice here. And it is now on automatic systems so that when the water levels get high, the sluice raises automatically on our south-facing side. This means that the river from the south coming towards us is pretty much always the same level. The sluice opens when it starts to rise so that the water can run through into the millpond into the north of us, if it gets very wet then the fields to the north of us and presumably our own flood field will flood. The winter before we moved in, all the fields flooded and it appeared to be a lake from the Dannatts’ front windows all the way up to the train station.
The local authority get an automatic notification now if something is blocking the sluice and they come and dig out anything things that might be causing trouble. They have the rights and the responsibilities for it. There’s a possibility that we may be buying them back from them in order that we can put in a water source heat pump and generate our own electricity from the substantial current that goes underneath the mill. My husband is an electronics engineer, and previously worked in various kinds of sustainable power management. We have got a big bank of solar panels in our water field, but he practically cries thinking that all the power of the water that goes under the mill goes to waste. It’s enough power for nine houses that goes under the mill. We are considering harnessing enough of it to we provide most of the heat for our own use. Heating is expensive, and we’re using an oil tank which isn’t very environmentally friendly.
The building is clad in wood and we are over the river and in the valley slightly higher over the marshes. One of the first things we did when we moved in was give it a major power clean because it was slightly mouldy all around the outside, and we were told by the surveyor that it would need to be repainted every 10 to 12 years all over and that we’ve got to set money aside for that, that’s going to be substantial work.
Sharing the heritage of the mill
I believe it has been listed since it was turned from a working mill to a residential mill. We knew when we bought it that it was a listed building and wouldn’t want it to change the exterior: we really want to preserve the historical look. On the north side, from the all the public footpaths, it looks as it always would have looked. It doesn’t have any new windows or other obstructions. On the south-facing river side, which is all on our private land, there’s skylights in a lot of the roof because much of the upper part of the building would have been very dark if that had not been the case. Things like the grain chutes on the interior may be a bit awkward in terms of living space, but we would like to preserve as much as the working fabric of the building for future generations to enjoy. So, we certainly look at it as our responsibility not to change any of the historical features of the building, but to maintain them.
We like to open the mill to visitors at some stage. I’m a painter and I will be joining the Norfolk and Norwich Open Studios next year, so I may combine that with opening the garden at the same time and allow people to enjoy probably just the ground floor and the gardens. We would also like to join an annual open day where we give people guided tours of the mill and explain how it worked and hopefully build our own working models of how the mill would have worked. I know there are a lot of people interested in mills, and if we do get in our water source heat pump, we’d also like to open it up to environmental groups that are interested in looking at alternative forms of energy.
We have no qualms about moving here – we hope that we go out in a coffin from here! There’s no guarantees, but that is what we planned to do when we bought the mill; this was going to be our settling place for the last part of our lives. I had hoped one day to retire to Canada but I found in Keswick Mill a place that felt familiar and friendly and I fell in love with it and I feel immediately very welcomed by the community around here. I look forward to really meeting more people in the area and getting settled here.
My husband has also got immediately involved in local issues and boards and things like that. It is such a privilege to live in a rural area that is so close to a city that has everything you want. Instead of driving we just go out our door and we’re on a cycle path all the way into Norwich. You don’t have to ever get in a car or go off the cycle path, which is very suitable for our family.
Juju Vail (b. 1967) talking to WISEArchive at Keswick Mill, Norwich, on 14th November 2019.
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