Holgate Windmill: A New Spin On an Old Industry

A centuries-old mill gets back to work at last.

When you’re on an urban hike around your own neighborhood, you don’t expect to find a windmill being built in the middle of the road. Holgate Windmill was here before this area of York (England) was smothered in housing. Long before. This humble brick tower is older than the United States of America, and it milled grain into flour for a century and a half before a storm damaged its sails beyond repair and it was shut down for public safety.

Modern housing developers crept into the area, but by joining the ranks of Britain’s Grade II Listed buildings, Holgate Windmill successfully fought them off, forcing the builders to divert around it. Scarred and crumbling, it has stood derelict for 70 years as sign of a technological age we’ll never see again.

The windmill is not only a beautiful piece of historical architecture, it’s also a highly unusual one.

It had five sails, a design by John Smeaton of Eddystone Lighthouse fame. It’s the best choice for maximum efficiency of converting wind power to mechanical energy, yet rarely used because one broken sail could have shut the whole mill down. (Windmills need balanced sails: if the same happened to a four-sail windmill, it could be stripped down to two sails and still keep working). Coupled with the fan projecting backwards off the roof that kept it pointing into the wind at all times, you have a unique piece of engineering.

Because of recent efforts by The Holgate Windmill Preservation Society, this mill is being restored to working order. The walls have been repaired and rendered, the stone floor relaid, the ground floor machinery (above left) cleaned, repaired and reassembled, and locally-sourced materials have been used to replace perished materials including the millstones (below) and the windmill’s colossal upright shaft (above right).

By 2008 the Society had secured £250,000 in grants, prizes and donations – and in winning the People’s Millions award in November 2010, they finally have the money to rebuild the sails.

After decades of neglect, this mill will mill. Using locally produced grain, the Society will provide bakers with specialty flours milled in the traditional way, allowing them to make specialty breads with a 250-year-old heritage. Any profits will be reinvested in the mill so it pays for its upkeep by doing what it does best.

Factor in the educational value of a fully-functioning windmill (the last of York’s 20+ working grain mills), and the tourist-wowing sight of its white sails turning gorgeously against the skyline, and you have something very special indeed.

Images: Mike Sowden; Holgate Windmill Preservation Society

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Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.