As promised, I decided to stay on the trail of Ferguson’s Gang and make sure that my review of Shalford Mill in Surrey sat alongside the Newtown Old Town Hall entry. Shalford Mill was actually the first property saved for the National Trust by Ferguson’s Gang and was also the place where they held their regular meetings, sitting around a millstone hatching plans to raise money and picking places to save, before tucking in to the food and fine wine delivered by van from Fortnum & Mason. The main mill shaft was also part of the Gang’s rituals as they would recite their motto while touching the solid pine tree trunk, which stretches 20 feet through three floors of the Mill.
All visitors to Shalford Mill are guided around the property by an on-site volunteer and Ferguson’s Gang is undoubtedly an important part of the tour, while further information is displayed on the first floor where their meeting room can usually be seen (it was closed while we were there as it is on the private residential side of the mill and the family were hosting a gathering this Sunday). However, our guide adjusted her tour very well after hearing that I had read the book about the Gang so I didn’t have to go over old ground.
The pretty tile-clad building we see today dates back to around 1740, although there were likely to have been earlier mills on the same site, perhaps even as long ago as the 11th century. John Mildred, an entrepreneur from Guildford, paid for construction of the building we see today, which originally housed two mills side by side. Although the mill was leased to many different millers over the years, it actually stayed in the ownership of just two families until it came into the hands of the Trust in 1932: first the Mildreds and then from 1794 the Austen – later Godwin-Austen – family.
Shalford Mill ceased operation in 1914 as country mills faced growing competition from dockside operations and more industrial locations, and the building fell into serious disrepair. It was during the Trust’s initial renovations to the mill that one side was converted into living accommodation and this was occupied by John MacGregor, the conservation architect responsible for the works – known affectionately to Ferguson’s Gang as ‘The Artichoke’. It seems fitting that future generations of Artichokes still live in the residential half of the property today and continue to support the Trust’s work in showing the mill to the public.
I have said before in this blog that I already feel a little over-milled and that the number of mills that still await me on travels is a little disheartening. It was with this less-than-enthusiastic mindset that I forced myself out to Shalford on a hot Sunday afternoon when I’d much rather have curled up in the cool with a good book. But as I have also said before, every property has something to recommend it, some story to tell or some snippet of information to impart, and in fact so far I think Shalford has an edge on all the other mills I have previously visited.
This is largely due to the guided tour. It is one thing to read an information board about the various processes that take place in a mill, but it is quite another to have an enthusiastic lady explaining what does what and what happens where. For example, I have seen millstones before but it was interesting to discover that French burr stones are used to grind finer flours, while the Derbyshire peak stones have a coarser grind for animal feed. And although the mill no longer functions there are still hands-on opportunities to see exactly how various ropes and belts once worked. I probably learnt more about milling at Shalford than I have at any of the previous mills I have visited. Plus, it is also one of the largest I have seen so far, with more original machinery on display. It may not be operational but Shalford Mill is certainly educational.
Another thing that made my visit to Shalford a little more interesting was the fact that many moons ago (sometime in the 1990s) I once visited the mill for dinner! At that time, it was not open fully to the public and a small apartment at the top of the mill was occupied by tenants who were available to show interested parties around on request. I worked with one of these former tenants and I visited her and her partner one evening in a social capacity. I remember it being a very unusual route to one’s house, climbing several rickety wooden ladders in the dark with the rushing sound of the Tillingbourne stream below, and it was certainly nostalgic retracing those steps on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
NB: this was my last outstanding Surrey property so that’s another county ticked off.
Highlights: Milling insights
Purchase(s): Guidebook, postcard
Companion(s): Mum and Dad
NT Connections: Newtown Old Town Hall, also acquired for the Trust by Ferguson’s Gang