The Howsham Mill Project – a singular act of lunacy
Mo MacLeod, Chair of the Renewable Heritage Trust, who is undertook the restoration of Howsham Mill (with Eco Arc Architects), writes about the project:
â€œYou have clearly lost your minds!â€ – my mother’s summary of our decision to begin an epic journey into building restoration.
Two people with no job, no house, two small children and a small redundancy package under their belts fell in love with a derelict 18th century watermill on an island in the middle of the River Derwent, near Malton in North Yorkshire and decided it needed rescuing. Having researched far enough to discover that it was an early example of John Carr of York’s Gothic Revival style, built as a garden folly for the estate’s deer park (landscaped in 1755), we proceeded to knock on the door of the owner and ask to buy it. We perhaps should have been forewarned of our own folly in so doing by the surprise expressed by the then-owner, but in the way of all enthusiastic voyagers with their destination set, we carried on regardless and bought beautiful Howsham Mill in 2004.
The ink was barely dry on the completion papers before we began to realise that the Grade II-listing was just the tip of the iceberg of designations surrounding this building and its setting – add into the mix Site of Special Scientific Interest, European Special Area of Conservation, Local Conservation Area, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Historic Parkland and flood plain – and you start to get the measure of just what we had taken on.
For about ten minutes, we had thought that we would renovate the building to live in, but the local Council’s Planning Officer very rapidly put paid to that idea on the basis of all of the above. Undeterred, we regrouped and decided to pitch the idea of restoring the building (on the local Buildings at Risk register for over a decade) for some other community use. Everyone unanimously said â€œNoâ€. The local Council muttered about ‘managed ruin’; the Environment Agency cited protection of lampreys; English Heritage said ‘not important enough’ and local people’s responses initially varied from â€œWhat mill?â€ to â€œWe’ve heard you’re setting up a caravan parkâ€. Not the most auspicious of departures.
Thank goodness, then, for the Architectural Heritage Fund and in particular the magnificent Maria Perks, who actively encouraged our endeavours, provided us with our first grant for a Feasibility Study, and gave us a germ of hope that we might just pull off this project. Eight years later with an enormous amount of local voluntary help and support, a vast patchwork of funding and the wind (largely) in the right direction, people have been persuaded that it is a good idea after all. Having negotiated some pretty stormy seas along the way (apologies – on a roll with the metaphor), our sails now filled with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Country Houses Foundation, we are due to complete the restoration of Howsham Mill as an Education and Community Centre, (producing renewable electricity from its reinstated waterwheel and a state-of-the-art Archimedean screw), by Spring 2013.
Every great journey begins with but a single step – however lunatic that step may appear to be.
The Howsham Mill Project Today
On a tiny island in the River Derwent at Howsham, North Yorkshire, stands a Georgian watermill. Howsham Mill dates back to c.1755 and is attributed to John Carr of York, more famous for designing Fairfax House in York, and an extension to Castle Howard stables. In 1965, a Royal Commission for Historic Monuments inspector, James Williams, described the Mill as “…a building of the maximum historical interest as a very early example of gothic Revival styleâ€¦” and “…of great architectural interest as it is a very rare example of the gothic Revival style as applied to a functional building. (I cannot find reference to a similar example, eg watermill)â€¦”.
By 2003 sadly, despite its Grade II listing, years of vandalism and neglect had taken their toll and the Howsham Mill Project stepped in with the aim to rescue the building before it became irreparable.
The project is threefold:
- Restoration of the Mill building as far as possible back to its original state externally, for use as an environmental study centre promoting renewable energy and local history and wildlife. It is available for use as a community venue for local people.
- The reinstatement of the waterwheel to harness the power of the river, but rather than driving millstones, this time it generates renewable electricity and a steady income stream. The Trust’s has archived its aim to make the building totally self-sustaining for the 21st century using revenue from power sales to fund future restoration and conservation work at the site.
- Preservation of the existing natural environment including protection of peripheral cover for otters. Development of a management plan which allows increased public access to, and ensure the future maintenance of this un-spoilt area of woodland.
All of this was achieved with the absolute minimum visual and physical impact on the existing environment.
The project provides improved access and facilities for local people whilst making a small contribution towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, using technology from the past to create ‘cleaner’ energy for the future. Within the Mill’s walls, a permanent exhibition is housed about renewable energy and its importance for the twenty-first century alongside conservation information relating to the Site of Special Scientific Interest in which the Mill stands.
The location of the Mill also lends itself perfectly to being a wild-life hide. Local people are also encouraged to use the space as a Community Centre for meetings and functions.
The Howsham Mill Project: Hydro
The aims of the Renewable Heritage Trust are to restore old buildings of architectural interest for the purpose of generating renewable electricity and to demonstrate sustainable technologies suitable for the 21st century. Both the waterwheel and Archimedes Screw generate electricity from the fall of water over the weir. Maximum output is about 30 kW. Revenue from selling surplus electricity will fund future restoration work and the running costs the project.
In 2003 Howsham Mill was a ruin hidden in the trees on a small island in the River Derwent, five miles downstream from Malton. The vision of the newly-formed Renewable Heritage Trust was to restore the building back to its Georgian Gothic glory with a new use as an environmental education centre, generating hydro-electricity via the waterwheel and the first Archimedes screw turbine installed in the UK. In 2006 the mill was the northern region finalist on the BBC Restoration Village programme. A Rural Enterprise Scheme grant funded the rebuilding in 2007 of the granary to become the kitchen and house electrical equipment.
Early in 2007 the complicated process of installing the 9.5 tonne Archimedes screw started. Electricity is generated from the screw and wheel and when connected to the grid, the surplus sold. RHT was awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund with match funding from the Country Houses Foundation. In June 2012 Stephen Pickering Ltd started work on restoring the main part of the building. It is now back to its former glory as it was when abandoned in 1947. Many hundreds of volunteer hours have gone into the restoration process.
The Howsham Mill Project: Environment
The Mill stands on small wooded island, with ash, sycamore, oak, wych elm and hawthorn trees. The river runs on one side and the disused navigation channel, once used by boats to get around the weir, on the other. It is part of the River Derwent Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated for is rich diversity of plant and animal life. Above and below the weir are beds of water crowfoot, teeming with invertebrates eaten by fish and birds. Otters were re-introduced to the river in the mid-1980s and can occasionally be spotted from the island. Look carefully and you may glimpse the blue flash of a kingfisher as it flies along the river; grey wagtail is another water bird that is often seen.
Text: Eco Arc & Mo MacLeod Photos: Martin Philips & Eco Arc