Tilting At Windmills by Dave Kitson

Probus Club of Basingstoke member
Dave Kitson

The classic book by Cevantes about the Spanish romantic, Don Quixote, who, thinking they were giants, futilely attacked the sails of windmills, has some similarities with the experience of Probus member, Dave Kitson, who these days lives in Sherborne St John.

Some years ago, Dave and his school teacher wife, Jennifer, bought a house in Kent, moving from Teignmouth in Devon. Dave explains why:
“We had bought a motorhome while on a visit to America and had it shipped back to the UK. Being left hand drive it was ideal for touring around Europe so we thought we should make our lives simpler by living closer to the channel ports.”

However, the house, which is in sight of the Channel Tunnel, had an interesting extension – or perhaps it might be described as the house was an extension to a windmill. Known as Stanford Mill it had been built in 1857 as a corn mill.  It was a tower construction of five storeys with four sails that drove a cast iron windshaft and had four pairs of millstones, two steel mills and two roller mills.

Stanford Mill

The sails were replaced in 1925, 1930 and 1936 and worked by wind until 1946 when the shutters were removed from the sails. Supplementary power had been provided between the wars with a single cylinder oil engine that was changed in 1936 with a Ruston & Hornsby diesel engine.

The sails and roof cap were removed in 1961 and a corrugated asbestos roof built on the cap frame. Milling continued by engine until 1969 when the diesel engine was replaced by an electric motor although that is the year that saw milling discontinue.

Naturally, there has always been interest in windmills and the people of Kent, having lost many over the years, took a particular interest in Stanford Mill and made it Grade 11 listed. And that is where Dave Kitson ran into a spot of bother. Like many people owning Grade 11 listed property they cannot do whatever they want by way of improvement.

The house in Kent with an adjacent windmill bought by Dave & Jennifer Kitson

Dave continued;
“One of the reasons we bought the house was that it had this tower windmill in the grounds. And I thought that with a bit of additional funding I might at least make it look presentable and usable. But it was not meant to be. Having said that we got a little financial help because the High Speed Rail passed half a mile away which I spent on checking on the history of the mill and suggestions, photographs and detailed drawings from a local millwright.”

Plan drawing of Stanford Mill as originally constructed in 1857

“Kent County Council were not very cooperative. They sent their conservation architect, and his first observation was where are you going to put the disabled toilets? He said that the windmill could not be used as a separate dwelling but could be used as an annexe to the house.”

There was a lot of original machinery in the mill, which also had protected status, but some of the floorboards and ladders were rotten or missing. These should have lasted the 160 years the mill had been standing but there was an inherent problem of severe damp in the mill. Old photographs show that the mill had been coated with bitumen trying to prevent the ingress of water.

Work in progress

One day when at the top of the mill Dave heard someone coming up one of the aluminium ladders he had propped up to replace one of the rotting fixed wooden ones, but there was nobody there. Spooky. Aluminium ladders make a distinctive squeaking noise, so he was beginning to think, ghost? A haunted mill? Surely not. After some time, still mystified, he descended via the same squeaky ladder to the outside. And then heard the same noise. It came from a man on an aluminium ladder painting the outside of a house but some 70 metres away and yet in the mill it sounded almost behind him.

Standing so long and so visible there were many occasions when the mill came under some form of attack. The solid construction of the mill stood it in good stead in the first World war when a passing Zeppelin dropped a bomb, presumably aiming at the nearby railway, instead landing nearby and caused a split in the brickwork on the ground floor.

Windmills were always getting struck by lightning and Stanford Mill was no different. When Dave and Jennifer were abroad in their motorhome a lightning strike did no discernable damage to the mill but the electric cables between the house and the mill blew out many of the power sockets in the house. This caused a small fire on the carpet in the lounge, which fortunately, extinguished itself.

Another time there was a local earthquake which left the sturdy mill undamaged but separated some of the partition walls from the outer brick skin of the house.

Windy Miller (a character from BBC Children’s TV Trumpton) bought by Dave’s sister as a commemorative gift when Dave & Jennifer bought the property

Enough was enough for Dave and Jennifer and when their daughter announced that she was pregnant they decided to move to Basingstoke to be near to her. But selling the house, complete with a potentially problem windmill, did not present any difficulties with the buyer wanting to take possession as quickly as possible. Perhaps he had deep pockets if the mill was to be brought back to some usable condition. Windmills may stand proudly on the landscape but, as Dave Kitson can attest, could require bottomless pits of money needed for their upkeep.