Tidal mills, creeks and curlews

Above – the remains of the dam and sluice at Froe Mill

The disarmingly named “Place” – perfect for Cressida and Tarquin’s wedding.

At breakfast today I caught sight of the label of the sliced loaf we’d bought in Truro – it read “Jacksons of Yorkshire – baker of champion bread”; so the full Yorkshire schtick, then. There was a long list of ingredients that lit the foodie lights like a pinball machine and included dried wheat sourdough and vinegar. All of the ingredients could be found, or produced locally – rather than trundling 389 miles by lorry from Hull.

So, unsurprisingly my mind soon drifted on to the subject of tidal mills because here on the Roseland peninsula are the remains of no less than three of them. They’re situated on three easily accessible creeks (one of them by a busy road so not one we’ve visited on foot) . All that remains of the mill at Froe are some heavily worked up cottages and the old retaining wall and sluice. There may be similar remains at Trethem which is now home to a large caravan site, and was in any case fed by a strong local stream and used an overshot wheel and of the others one, at Place, is still visible as the retaining wall of the lawn in front of Place House. The final tidal mill was at the head of Polingey Creek. All of them were functional in the Middle Ages. So my first point is simply that when we point to tidal power as a way forward in this energy hungry era, apart from the window – which is a technological latecomer and only works in the summer – the power of the tide to drive machinery has over 600 years of field testing in this country; probably much more. Think of it – the tides are utterly predictable; don’t suffer from droughts and being salt water driven don’t freeze up, although they might silt up in some places. The force of the tide is truly and strictly elemental and a potential source of awesome energy. Our problem is that we can’t accept that even if all the renewable energy sources reach maturity in the next decade we’re so addicted, we can’t contemplate using less of it.

Anyway, I cheerfully pick up my bread flour, milled from locally grown wheat less than 30 miles away in the same way that I’m content (not exactly happy) to pay over the odds to collect our local milk in a glass bottle from a machine in the market, when it’s working! We grow a proportion of our own vegetables on the allotment – so alone, we’re not self sufficient, but collectively we can make a difference to the earth, to the producers and for ourselves.

Enough, I know, we get the picture so let me add the clincher. Tidal mills on creeks are virtually silent apart from a bit of creaking and grinding – well they would be, wouldn’t they! The problem, as with so many areas of traditional craft skills, is that there are very few people around that could run such a mill. A skill that took centuries to develop can’t be taught on a City and Guilds short course. My old friend Dick England, now passed, learned to mill flour on the heavy machinery at Spillers in Avonmouth, before retreating up the Severn to Berkeley where he milled stone ground flour on a small scale, sang tenor like an angel and refused to mill new wheat berries until they’d matured a bit. As a business I suspect it was hard going, but as a culture it was a fine thing.

Of course I’m predisposed to love these remote and abandoned pre industrial and industrial ruins and traces. Anyone who’s read this blog for any time will know that I’m a sucker for an abandoned pithead or a slag heap – even one heavily polluted with lead and cadmium – because there are wonderful wild plants that risk everything to eke out a life on the bare stones. Of all the gifts of nature; resilience and adaptability strike me as being the key to our future.

But I blame Charles Dickens for my passion for open landscapes and muddy creeks. I can’t begin to describe what an impression Peggotty’s upturned boat/house on the beach at Great Yarmouth had on me as a child. I can see why David Copperfield – as he was being taken there for the first time – would remark that the landscape would be improved with a few hills, and I can see why – before long – he changed his mind. In a city everything is vertical, jagged, aggressive and overpowering. Estuaries, mud flats, creeks and seascapes are horizontal; they invite contemplation and ask you to take a break and sit down. The sound of the wind in trees is good in many ways, but the sound of the wind in grass and rushes and reeds is altogether more lovely. A low murmur in the background, barely perceptible, and then wind and waves dancing filigrees of sound above. The colours of the city and even of the inland counties can be bright and brassy, but the muted browns, greens and greys of a tidal estuary speak more with less effort. As an experiment you might take a pan of Paynes Grey watercolour and make a wash; then take a large brush and run a bold wash across damp paper. Lose yourself in the colour; dive into it.

And then the birds. When we walk down to Percuil there’s only ever one sound that we are hoping for – the Curlew. The bright clarity of her developing song is almost transcendental – a rising bubbling sound followed – though not always – by the full throated cry so poignant that it creates space in empty air. Even the Buzzards overhead defer to her and the Gulls pause their hollering like broken voiced boys. The Egrets; Crows; Jackdaws; Wrens; Robins and cormorants pause respectfully as she hymns the estuary in an ecstatic burst of praise that shatters the melancholy of grey skies.

These restless, liminal places seem empty to us, but to their residents their constant filling and emptying brings food and life. Every day is a harvest festival and the abundance of visible life is matched by an even greater abundance of food beneath the waves and in the mud. Perhaps the draw of creeks, tidal flats and big skies is precisely that they are reticent, withdrawn and quiet places that make space for both wonder and melancholy and provide such a perfect backdrop to the song of the Curlew; because song is – in the end – the perfect expression of life.

The remains of an abandoned barge used as a sea defence at Purton on the River Severn.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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