When I ride out towards the Surrey Hills, I do so knowing that I will probably have one of the slowest average speeds of all the cyclists on the road that day. Indeed, the only performance data I have showing on my Garmin is heart-rate; and that’s only so I don’t go too far above the max recommended by my doctor.
Stopping at coffee shacks, I sometimes even admire the chatter of the carbonfibre-riding whippets, as they compare average wattage, peak output or how far into the red they went on the third climb of Box Hill. Slow riding brings pleasures, and dangers, of its own. One of these is pausing as the fancy takes one, to investigate some new discovery.
One Sunday in Spring 2019 I headed out into Surrey where, having ridden up Box Hill, at some point I became distracted by the River Mole. I decided to follow it, as far as possible, downstream. At the back of my mind was the knowledge that it drains into the Thames close to Hampton Court Station. My Freedom Pass would gain me a train ride home from there.
Mid-afternoon I reached Cobham, where I discovered a mill building wearing a banner that informed me it was open. The existence of a water mill on the Mole was no surprise. In his ‘Topographical History of Surrey’ (Volume 1) of 1841, Edward Wedlake Brayley tells us:
“The etymology of that name may be referred to the British word Melin, or Y-Melyn, the mill ; and thus indicate the Mill river;— an opinion which receives corroboration from the Domesday record, wherin nearly twenty places are mentioned as possessing mills, which, from their respective localities, must have been situated, either on this stream, or its immediate auxiliary branches.”
The above sentence of almost 60 words, reminds me of composition class at school. When the allotted time had expired, the teacher would issue an instruction to finish the sentence one was writing, but do no more. Creative use of conjunctions and subclauses would result in some mighty concluding sentences.
The section in the book about the River Mole, is accompanied by this woodcut illustration of “Wooden Bridge crossing the Mole, in Fridley Meadows”,
Even before reaching the mill building, I was already planning to stop as my attention had been taken by the millpond and leat, and structure of the weir and sluices. I remember as a pre school-age child, watching and being fascinated by water being released from Radipole Lake, through sluices, into Weymouth harbour. It’s a fascination that I’ve retained since although, for reasons explained in this blog, I also tend to evaluate the potential for that water to generate electricity.
Once inside the grounds of Cobham Mill, the water-flow over the weir could be seen more clearly. My mind was already straying into the realms of Archimedes screws. If I recall correctly, there are a couple of water driven generators further upstream.
Admittance to the mill was free, but there were some doughty looking ladies offering refreshments. In reality I needed little encouragement to purchase coffee and a homemade scone already sporting jam and clotted cream. The latter had been applied in that order – your call on whether that is the right or wrong way. Enjoying these gave a chance to stand and watch the water flow by. After several hours sat on a bicycle, this was most welcome.
The mill is managed by the Cobham Mill Preservation Trust with the assistance of a team of volunteers and fundraisers known as The Cobham Millers. At the time I’m writing this the mill is closed due to Covid 19 restrictions. Future opening dates are published on the Cobham Mill website as they are arranged.
The first thing that struck me about Cobham Mill was how small it was, especially given the head of water available. I would hesitate to apply the words ‘cute’ or ‘dinky’, to a working water mill, but if the ascribation fits…
A clue to the reason for this can be found by looking back up the tail-way of the mill. This reveals that there was once a pit for a another, wider, water wheel. Several postcards from the first half of the 20th Century show that it powered a second larger mill. Unfortunately, I cannot obtain any copyright free images of those cards. The sepia illustration below appears to have been taken from an old Hildesheimer post card and shows the mill as it would have been circa 1900.
There is a full history of the mill on the Cobham Mill website. That narrative shows that the larger mill, “…was badly damaged during the Second World War when a Canadian tank ran into it. In 1953 this part of the mill complex was demolished completely so that Mill Road could be widened.”
For those who like proper descriptions of buildings, Historic England has categorised the remaining mill as a ‘Grade II Listed Building’ describing it thus:
Early C19, altered in 1953. Red brick with plain tiled, half-hipped roof. Single storey with attic in gable end to left over basement. 2 casement windows to front, single storey weatherboard entrance passage projecting from left end to street. Board and plank door in end. Further board door to left hand return front. Central spindle of Mill Wheel protruding from basement to front right.
The present building was constructed between 1820-2 as an addition to the existing mill building. That had been built in 1799 after the one that preceded it was washed away by floods.
John (Jean) Rocque’s 1762 map of Surrey shows a mill at this location, whilst the Cobham Mill website states that the first known written reference to a mill on the site is from 1534. At that time it, and the accompanying manor, belonged to the Abbey of Chertsey. The illustration below shows it fell foul of Henry VIII, and is from an etching in the second volume of the ‘Topographical History of Surrey’ cited above.
A Working Mill
The whole purpose of a water mill is to capture energy from the water flow to power equipment used in a commercial process. In the case of Cobham Mill this was the grinding of grain to produce flour. The undershot wheel, including its 32 oak or elm paddles, is approximately 15 foot in diameter.
Inside was a wonderful collection of cast iron or wooden components that collectively form the mechanism that drives the single pair of millstones. The belt in the picture below is for the sack hoist that lifted grain to the attic, from where it was emptied into the feed hopper. Whilst I was there, the sluice was opened and the mill machinery went in to motion.
For me, the clunking of the machinery and vibration in the floor evoked a sense of both comfort and nostalgia. It took me back nearly 50 years to when I would take grain to a watermill to be rolled ready for use as animal feed. The video lower down this blog has that sound on it.
I was unable to get a clear picture of the inside of the mill as there were a number of other visitors whilst I was there. The one above fills the void and, some of the parts of the mill machinery in it can be identified from the diagram on the mill website.
Clicking on the picture below should play a short video (30 seconds) that I’ve made-up and will enable you the hear the sound of the mill for yourself.
Having done its job, the water leaves the mill via the tail-way and re-enters the River Mole at the point shown below.
As a postscript; I will just record that when I reached Hampton Court Station, trains were suspended due to weekend engineering work.
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