Mills in the Lake District

The Romans introduced water-mills to Britain, although their wheels were set horizontally, not upright as you see them today. Water-powered mills were once ubiquitous in the Lake District. A wool industry in Cumbria dates back to the Middle Ages, when monasteries and lords of the manor built mills to process raw wool, called fulling mills. Examples are known at Easedale, Grasmere and Elterwater. The field behind the mill cottage is called Tenter Garth on old maps, showing that wool was hung out to dry there when Eskdale Mill was used for fulling centuries ago. Many parts of the Lake District had watercourses suitable for turning waterwheels, and water-powered corn milling became common practice in the medieval period.

Every parish came to have one, although mills tended to be built by the lords of the manor or by the monasteries because of the high costs of construction. Investment was also needed to maintain millstones and waterpower. Early mills were found locally at Muncaster, at Linbeck on the River Esk, and Nether Wasdale. Building a mill allowed the feudal lords of the manor to control an essential activity by establishing a monopoly. The medieval community would have been forced to grind their grain at the mill that belonged to the lord of the manor. The miller would take a fraction of each farmer’s grain as payment, commonly a tenth or twelfth. Forcing their tenants to grind corn in the manorial mill generated income – huge sums it has been claimed.

People began to combine water-powered corn mills with corn-drying kilns during the 18th and 19th centuries. These kilns were needed to dry out the damp grains, particularly oats, in the colder and wetter areas of Britain, including the Lake District. They could then be ground effectively by the millstones. At Eskdale Mill a permanent, purpose-built kiln was added between 1795 and 1819, using locally-cut peat for fuel. Since at least the 1500s Eskdale people had enjoyed the right to cut turves of peat from the common land. Peat was cut from the moorland above the mill. Today visitors can still see the stone-built peat storage huts on the fellsides where the turves were dried after cutting further up the slopes. The miller kept his own store of peat fuel for drying grain beneath Eskdale Mill.

At Eskdale Mill the layout reflects common practice. It uses the slope of an existing bank to provide access to the furnace below and to the drying floor above. Heat from the peat fire was directed through a platform of perforated tiles, later iron plates, resting on iron joists. In the early 1900s tracks were even lifted from the old rail lines to the mines around Nab Gill for re-use as joists.

Like Eskdale Mill, most early mills in the Lake District were probably added to and rebuilt over time. Many struggled to survive industrialisation and the effect of grain imports from the New World, and so were demolished or converted to other uses. The National Trust property at Acorn Bank near Appleby-in-Westmorland includes another good example of a watermill rebuilt on a medieval site. In the 20th century a resurgence of interest in industrial heritage has led to several sites being conserved for the future, including local mills at Heron Corn Mill, Little Salkeld Mill and Gleaston Water Mill.