Mill around in history

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Anne Shade sees a mill and a dovecot which help you travel back in time. Preston Mill is a relic of an era when people lived in much smaller, interdependent communities. Not for them the luxury of nipping along to the supermarket for a loaf of sliced white bread, a packet of cereal and two litres of milk in a plastic carton.

The changes have been very rapid. In the course of just two or three generations, we have become so far removed from the source of our food that few people would consider baking their own bread, let alone lugging sacks of oats or wheat down to the mill, and returning with meal to make oatcakes and porridge. Food processing and factory farming, on the scale we see nowadays, didn't exist 50 or 60 years ago. And you can be sure that no one would have thought of making a song and dance about "organic" produce, "stone-ground" flour or "free-range" eggs as all farming was organic out of necessity - not choice.

Records show there has been a mill on this site since the 1590s, but the cluster of red pan-tiled buildings mainly date from the 17th and 18th century. At one time every estate had its own watermill but they became uneconomic as modern milling methods developed, and most are now ruined.

Preston Mill continued to operate on a small scale, despite deteriorating machinery, until the 1950s, when it was given to the National Trust for Scotland and "adopted" by a milling giant, Rank Hovis McDougall, which financed a great deal of restoration work.

The mill pond is filled with water diverted from a weir on the nearby river Tyne and is home to a number of Muscovy ducks and their ducklings - which thrive on the packed lunches fed to them by visiting children. Feathered distractions aside, children enjoy watching the mill pond filling up prior to the opening of the draw gate, and the torrent of water which pours through is generally described as "really cool" - which is praise indeed from 10 and 11 year olds.

The power generated by the water wheel is harnessed by a system of gears, shafts and pulleys connected to the machinery in the mill. Children can see how the cockler removed corn cockle seeds and dirt before the grain was transported along conveyers and an Archimedes screw to the shelling and milling stones.

Sadly, no meal is actually ground here now, but there is an exhibition area where children can operate a number of models which demonstrate aspects of milling and gearing. Before the grain could be milled it had to be dried in the kiln. This has an odd, lopsided roof which gives the mill buildings a slightly comical, fairy-tale air. It's an ideal subject for a sketching project - as is the nearby Phantassie doocot.

With a doocot on his estate, the local laird was guaranteed fresh meat right through the winter - at the expense of his tenant farmers whose crops were frequently ravaged by the foraging pigeons. A key is available at Preston Mill if you want to see the 500 nesting boxes inside, but watch out for the fleas which live in the pigeon litter - they have a voracious appetite for ankles and the itching persists for days.

By the 18th century, farmers, particularly in East Lothian, were enthusiastically introducing all sorts of changes to traditional farming practices. Runrigs were ousted in favour of bigger fields and turnips were introduced as a crop to feed the cattle in winter - thus adding a bit of variety to an unrelenting diet of pigeon pie.

The agricultural revolution also led to the development of labour-saving equipment. James Meikle of Phantassie developed a way to polish pot barley after spying on the processes used by Dutch millers -industrial espionage is nothing new. And his son, Andrew Meikle, who is buried in the churchyard in East Linton, is credited with inventing the threshing machine.

Another local lad, James Rennie, was born at Phantassie Farm. His achievements as a civil engineer include the building of London Bridge and Waterloo Bridge.

Contact: East Linton, East Lothian EH40 3DS. Tel: 01620 860426. Open: MaySeptember, MonSat 11am1pm, 2pm5.30pm, Sun 1.30pm5.30pm, weekends in October 1.30pm4pm; special arrangements for school parties. Cost: Pounds 1.60, family ticket Pounds 4.20, children and school parties Pounds 1, teachers free. Allow at least an hour to look around, plus extra time for a picnic or snack. Education pack, handling box available.

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