Long and costly labour of love where one foot remains planted in the past
Bardwell, in Suffolk, has a windmill. Windmills always make me think of the silver-haired Monica Dance, 30 years of whose half-century of service at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings were spent as its secretary; she founded its Mills Section.
In her memory, I stopped the car outside the conical black tower of the Bardwell windmill, topped with a white headdress of cap and fantail (the fantail is a miniwindmill at right-angles to the sails, used to keep them in the wind). It was a pretty scene, with a charming hidden garden on one side and a brickand-flint cottage on the other.
I was just wondering whether I was intruding when out of the cottage came the mill’s owner, another silver-haired lady, Enid Wheeler. She has been patiently restoring the windmill since the 1987 hurricane tore off the wooden cap and sails, not long after she and her late husband, Geoffrey, had bought it. She unlocked the great wooden door and told me the mill’s story.
The Wheelers had moved from Penn, in Buckinghamshire, where development was impinging on their home. Unbeknown to me, Geoffrey had already entered my life. In the early 1960s, my eldest brother took The Eagle, and it was Geoffrey who drew the cutaway pictures of steam trains for that serious-minded comic.
Today, one wall of Enid’s living room is occupied by the nameplate of an engine – the Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A windmill suited Geoffrey’s passion for machinery. The Bardwell mill was built in 1823, the shutters of the sails being adjusted by a central mechanism that worked even as the sails turned.
Restoration has been a long and costly haul, but the sails, one of which is laid out beneath the leanto roof of a workshop, should be put back in place next spring. Then milling will resume, accompanied by the wooden creaks and knocks that are the satisfying sounds of a working windmill.
Not that it has entirely stopped: next to the mill stands Oliver, the Wheelers’ steam traction engine, which has been hooked up to the mill machinery on occasion. On August 19, there will be a steam-threshing day in the field opposite the windmill, showing how corn was collected before the age of the combine harvester.
Bardwell is a perfectly modern village – or perhaps that should be imperfectly, to judge from some of the more recent additions. But one foot seems to have become wedged in the past. A field at the entrance appears to have been planted with a bizarre selection of historic motor vehicles, among which pigs run.
You don’t have to be in the village very long before discovering that it was used as one of the locations for Dad’s Army. The village hall occupies an Elizabethan tithe barn. Suffolk was rich in the 15th and 16th centuries, and a large number of houses from the period survive, including one of three pubs, The Old Green Man Inn.
Thatch abounds, along with traditional Suffolk pantiles; most of the older houses are timberframed, often covered in plaster, with brick making an appearance in the 18th-century Mansard House and flint being revived in the Victorian period.
Outside the village lies Wyken Hall – Elizabethan home of former politician Sir Kenneth Carlisle and his wife, Carla – a farm that has been reinvented as an award-winning vineyard, restaurant and shop. Down the road is the Duke of Grafton’s Euston Hall.
Probably the best of Bardwell’s early houses, Croft House, on the village green, is being offered by Jackson-Stops & Staff of Bury St Edmunds (01284 700535) for £750,000. According to the walking guide, sponsored by the Six Bells and Dun Cow pubs, the hall once had a central hearth, from which smoke blackened the roof timbers.
Money goes further in north Suffolk than it might do nearer London. A pretty, two-bedroom thatched cottage is on the market with Richard Green, of Bury St Edmunds (01284 755552) for £189,000; Januarys Countrywide, of Bury St Edmunds (01284 767 812), has a two-bedroom, Victorian cottage on their books for £159,000.
On the edge of nearby Sapiston, Grove House, a rectory-sized house built for the Euston estate out of Suffolk white brick, would suit me, if I had £900,000. Apply to Savills, Bury St Edmunds (01284 731100). Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.