Living in Great Yarmouth, and making frequent journeys by bus along the Acle New Road (A47), I am rather blasé about our windmills, so many of which can be seen from that road. Yet, apart from one visit to Berney Arms Windmill—in a snow blizzard—until recently I’d seen none up close. Even the Stracey Arms Windmill, which sits right beside the road, I’d only seen through the screening murk of a bus window. I decided to remedy that lack.
The bulk of the windmills in this area sit in the parish of Halvergate, immediately west of Great Yarmouth. Of the original 14, some 8 survive is various states of decay, renovation, restoration. The small village of Tunstall, with its two mills, occupies the northwest sector.
A Brief History of Halvergate, Village and Marshes
Surprisingly for a parish which consists largely of grazing marshes, Halvergate has a long history. Neolithic and Bronze Age remains have been found on the ‘higher’ ground—which at Halvergate reaches a mighty 15 metres above sea-level! Don’t laugh. When all around lies at sea-level 15 metres constitutes high land.
That higher land excepted, the parish once was beneath water; part of the Great Estuary (see Broadly). Which explains why during the Roman occupation and Early Saxon period Halvergate served as a port. But by 1086, and the Domesday Survey, the once mudflats had grown to be salt-marshes with tidal creeks, grazed by sheep . . . 960 sheep in fact. Dotted around its perimeter were numerous salt-works.
What with sheep and salt, the landholder would have been a very wealthy man. That, pre-1066, was the Anglo-Breton, Ralf de Staller (father of the rebellious Ralf de Gaël, exiled in 1075). His own father was a thegn in the court of Queen Emma, coming to England at the marriage of Emma of Normandy to King Æthelstan II. Ralf de Staller subsequently served as steward to Edward the Confessor. At the Norman Conquest, William raised him to Earl of East Anglia. But he died soon after, in 1069. Possibly the younger Ralf was expecting to inherit everything of his father’s. But King William allowed him only part of his father’s titles and lands; he was made Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, not of ‘East Anglia’. That was probably contributory to his later rebellion.
With the exile of Ralf de Gaël, the land reverted to Crown, to be later awarded to Hugh Bigod when he was created 1st Earl of Norfolk by King Stephen in December 1140/January 1141. It then stayed with the Earls of Norfolk and through to the Dukes.
For the marshy land east of Halvergate to be used, even for summer grazing, it had first to be drained. One look at the map shows how it was done! The entire area is crisscrossed by channels. It wasn’t until the post-medieval period that the windmill finally arrived here to help pump the water off the land.
There are two basic types of windmill: horizontal, and vertical.
With the horizontal windmill, invented in eastern Persia in the 9th century, the sails rotate in a horizontal plane around a vertical axis. It doesn’t take much technical know-how to figure out how this design works. But, easy though the design, it didn’t really catch on in Europe.
The vertical windmill is more complicated. The sails rotate in a vertical plane thus requiring cogs (and other technical stuff) to drive the vertical shaft. This more complex machine was favoured in Western Europe, where it appeared in Northern France, Flanders and Eastern England by the late 12th century. These, however, were intended primarily as grist-grinders.
In Mediterranean countries, where this design was first developed, the winds are less erratic, more predictable. Catching that wind wasn’t the problem that it was further north. Here the wind can veer from north to east to south to west, and all points in between, in less than a half day. And its strength can change from a breeze to a gust to a gale. It would not do to have the sails set to catch wind from only the one direction.
Enter the post mill. Here, the entire upper structure could be turned to catch the wind, rotating around its ‘post’. That post was driven hard and secure into its purpose-built mound. With a few amendments, this became the most common design until 19th century when the development of the tower and smock mills replaced them.
Introduced as early as the 13th century, the solidly brick-built tower mill was topped by a rotating cap. Such convenience! For now only the cap need be turned to best set the sails to catch the wind. Moreover, the mill could be built taller, to catch more wind. However, the design required more of an investment, and so at first was reserved for more ‘profitable’ industrial uses.
A further development of the tower mill was the fantail: like a mini windmill set high on the mill’s cap, which acts rather as a wind-vane to automatically turn cap to the right direction.
By the 18th century, these tower windmills had been brought into use as drainage mills. The wind turned the sails, the sails turned the shaft, the shaft turned either an Archimedes screw or a scoop wheel. Lo, water is lifted and moved from here to there.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Having built bigger and sturdier windmills, the trend now was to miniaturisation.
The smock mill replaced the hefty, pricey masonry tower with a light and cheap to make wooden frame—the smock. This was usually octagonal and covered in various lightweight yet waterproof materials, e.g. slate, sheet metal, tarred paper, or boards. This made these mills ideal for use where subsoil was less than stable. i.e. as drainage mills. Being light and affordable, they also appealed to the corn-miller.
Despite the past week I’d been checking on the Met Office’s site and every day the forecast for Tuesday 28th March had been the same—sun, low wind, warm—I woke on the day to thick fog. I checked with the Met Office. The fog was supposed to clear by 11 am. Okay, so I’d go later than usual. Give the sun a chance to burn off the fog.
The bus crawled along the Acle New Road, the fog tenacious, particularly around the Tunstall turning—not that I was taking that turning. I was to set out from Acle. A three mile walk across the marshes; plenty of time for the fog to clear before I reached the mills. I wasn’t long through Damgate when I stopped to chat to a local chappie who did his best to turn my spirits. “Nah, that fog won’t clear. Same as yesterday; it hung around here all day.” I wasn’t even aware we’d had fog yesterday, there’d been none in Yarmouth. I trudged on.
I had already decided I’d take no photos on the way there. High humidity, the camera doesn’t like it. So the camera stayed warm, dry and cosy in its its own little bag despite I kept seeing flowers and trees and . . . everything. But I mentally earmarked them for attention on the way back.
The number of times I had seen these two mills from the bus without realising they sat one either said of a drain. Actually, it’s not a drain as such. It’s the Tunstall Boat Dyke, a staithe, and probably predates any organised draining of the marshes. But I couldn’t miss it when I was drawing the accompanying map, using an Ordnance Survey map of 1881 for reference. I was amazed that a bridge is marked on the map where the Acle New Road crosses it. Though the road still crosses what seems now a reed-clogged silted ditch, there is no discernable bridge—at least, not one that’s visible from the road.
I spent a full day trying to find any reference to this bridge across the Tunstall Dyke on the internet. No doubt had I discovered it sooner I could have hit the library for back copies of the local newspapers. I found only one online reference on a site devoted to Norfolk Mills.
A report in the Norfolk Chronicle dated 23rd April 1831, the year they built the Acle New Road, not yet labelled ‘A47’, of a meeting at the Suspension Bridge (P.H.), on North Quay, Great Yarmouth, of the Acting Trustees of the new Acle and Yarmouth Turnpike:
“ It appears that the bridge over Tunstall Boat Dyke is complete; the arches and trunks over Land Spring Drains, the Mill Drains, and the entire line of road formed, and that to complete it, previously to its being opened to the public, the materials (which are broken stones and shingles) remain to be laid on, and these are actually prepared, and landed over the river wall, whence they will be conveyed in boats down the dykes to different parts of the roads.”
That ‘Acle and Yarmouth Turnpike’ was to cut three miles from the journey from Acle to Yarmouth. Previously traffic had had to make the circuitous route via Caister and the Trinity Broads. It was that older route which, until 1935, bore the A47 designation.
I wondered what happened to that bridge. The road has been resurfaced several times in the intervening 186 years, and the marshes undergone several drainage programmes. I can imagine that bridge has long since been replaced by a smaller, almost invisible, culvert. A shame if no drawings of it remain . . . though I shall continue to search.
I walked out to the more easterly mill first. Tunstall Dyke Smock Mill, the only surviving drainage smock mill in Norfolk. Built around 1900, it was restored in 1994.
As I walked along the bank of the old Boat Dyke, and cleared a young plantation, I was teased by the sight of Tunstall Dyke Tower Mill. I found a footpath that seemed to lead to it, only to be confronted by a wide tract of water. There was nothing for it but to continue out to the smock mill.
The fog was still laying thick across the marshes to the east. But at least now the sun was visible as a milky disk in the sky. It broke through just as I arrived in spitting distance of the mill!
I gorged my camera on the smock mill, then turned back and gorged it again on the tower mill that sat across the dyke from me.
It took a walk all the way back to the head of the boat dyke before I could venture out to that great black beastie. The walk took me through an enchanting tunnel of wild cherry blossoms. The trees were everywhere, dusted with their pure white flowers.
The second walk out was along the edge of an arable field, following in the tire-churned tracks of the farmer’s tractor. A tad muddy, but worth it—even if, again, I couldn’t venture near to the mill. It stands on a mound, apparently surrounded by water, though I’m guessing there is access via that plantation.
After a bout of feverish clicking, it was time to walk the 3 miles back, arriving at Damgate Carr on the edge of Acle where, in January, I had discovered some amazingly bright bracket fungi (see A Wet Woodland Walk). By then the sun was blazing and I’d had to strip down to t-shirt.
Despite that morning fog, it turned out to be, altogether, a very good day.