Get to grips with grain
Wimbledon Windmill Museum, Wimbledon Common
One of the many informative notices at this museum explains that you never build a windmill when you can build a watermill. Rivers rarely change direction and water power is easier to harness. Yet in 1816 Charles March applied for permission to put up a windmill on Wimbledon Common – though the River Wandle flows a couple of miles to the east and its banks were lined with watermills in those days. It seems that Wimbledon folk wanted to be able to grind their own grain locally rather than buying someone else’s flour. March was granted a 99-year lease on a small plot of common land “upon this special condition that he shall erect and keep up a public Corn Mill for the advantage and convenience of the neighbourhood.”
Charles March was not a millwright but a carpenter, which may explain why he constructed such a large and elaborate windmill almost entirely out of wood. Originally only the ground floor was brick but the second storey was rebuilt in brick after the mill ceased to be used for its primary purpose in 1864. Fireplaces and chimneys were added and the mill was converted into living accommodation for six families.
In 1975 the windmill’s first floor became a museum. Thanks to a grant from the hallowed Heritage Lottery Fund, the sails were restored to working order in 1999 and the museum was extended to the ground floor, where the exhibits relate mainly to the development and construction of windmills. There’s a collection of millwright’s tools and more than a dozen model mills, all made by the curator.
While the ground floor is conventionally museumish, the collection is more distinctive upstairs, where you can find out how Wimbledon windmill worked, see how grain was milled to produce flour and climb a ladder up to the base of the tower. One Victorian parlour has been retained to give a flavour of residential life here in 1870.
The volunteer staff are welcoming and well informed. The shop is stocked with all things Wimbledon and windmills, and if you’re short on time you can visit it without paying the museum admission charge – which is anyway extremely affordable. You could come here for a month of Saturdays and Sundays for the price of one ascent of the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Several exhibits are especially appealing to kids, notably the participative ones like the hand quern. While visiting the museum for Hidden London, I observed one small child make the transition from believing that wheat had one sole purpose – “making Weetabix” – to understanding the whole ‘grain chain’ and having fun while he was learning. As the family prepared to leave he protested, “I want to stay here longer!”