Volunteers rebuild Town Mill waterwheel

The volunteer team currently working on the refurbishment of the wooden water wheel at the Town Mill

A TEAM of volunteers is spending the whole of January rebuilding the waterwheel at the historic Town Mill in Lyme Regis.

The project involves replacing all the woodwork in the waterwheel, installed nearly 20 years ago in the restoration work that brought the historic Mill back to grinding corn after a 75-year silence.

The waterwheel, which turns the millstones is over 3.96meters (13 feet) in diameter, consists of two cast-iron rims or ‘shrouds’, originally cast for a mill in south Devon in the 1870s. These are kept in place by sets of eight thick oak spokes or ‘arms’, and hold the 40 broad wooden ‘buckets’ which fill with water to drive the wheel round.

In the two decades since last rebuilt, the buckets have started to leak and rot and a fundraising appeal was recently launched to cover the cost of the wheel’s refurbishment.

Gary Willis, chairman of the Town Mill Trustees, said: :This waterwheel is by no means the Town Mill’s first. We can trace the mill’s history back to 1340 when King Edward III gave the town permission to build a mill and take a water supply from up the river along a new mill leat.

“Originally there were two external waterwheels between the mill’s north wall and the footpath and then later, in the early 18th century, a larger 4.9m (16 feet) wheel superseded the smaller western one.

“Then, at the end of the century, the waterwheel was brought inside the mill to its present position. This was a wider, more powerful 2.44m (8 feet) wheel, last replaced by an all-iron version in 1888.

“But that and the mill ground to a halt in 1928. Eight years later scrap-metal dealers removed the old waterwheel to make way for an electricity turbine, used to augment the town’s electricity supply.

“The present waterwheel, built during the mill’s restoration in 2000, is the same diameter as the old internal wheel but is half the width and uses the cast-iron shrouds recovered from the mill in Devon.”

The volunteer team numbers 15 and includes engineers and skilled wood and metalworkers. The work involves removing all the old timber, cutting and fitting 16 oak arms and 120 new thick boards of larch to form the buckets, and building temporary dams to keep the wheel-pit dry, but allowing the modern hydro turbine to continue generating electricity to feed into the national grid.

Keeping the hydro-electricity turbine running is important because it also generates a modest but significant income to the Town Mill Trust’s finances.

The Town Mill is a charity set up to restore and maintain Lyme’s historic mill. If you would like to contribute to the costs of restoring the waterwheel, individuals/groups can ‘sponsor a bucket’ or ‘sponsor an arm’ via the Town Mill website www.townmill.org.uk or call 01297 444042.

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