A COUPLE of miles inland from Carrick Bay in Rushen – widely known as Gansey Bay – nestled beside the Poyll Breinn river is an ancient mill with a recorded history dating back to 1506, but thought to be several centuries older.
On Saturday and Sunday, former rector of Bride Canon John Sheen and his wife Elizabeth will open the doors of this hidden treasure to the public.
What is notable about Kentraugh Mill (pronounced ‘ken-traw’) is that despite half a millennium, the basic structure is intact and, perhaps more astonishing, with a little elbow grease and the flick of an electric switch (the water wheel itself is non-operational) several gears, pulleys and belts whir into action, turning the great French burr millstone just as they have done for centuries.
This is mainly thanks to the engineering skill and perserverance of Mr R. M. Nuttall, Elizabeth’s father, who in 1969 took it upon himself to restore the ancient site to near original condition.
But this was achieved not without the help of various benefactors in the Isle of Man who have donated items of mill equipment to help make the restoration of the Kentraugh Mill site as authentic as possible.
Ancient records reveal that the first known owner of the mill was a Robert Qualtrough and its establishment was to ‘feed a tithe pig each year for the Lord on Man’, which meant that anyone who produced grain in the southern areas of the island was required, by law, to have it turned into flour at these premises and in doing so would have to present about 10 per cent of their ground corn, oats or barley to the Lord of Man.
Although the terms of service may have changed, the mill remained in active service right up until 1943, at which point the ground floor and the top floor were mothballed and the room at street level turned into garaging.
When Mr Nuttall bought the property he had little idea of the unique feature he had acquired, thinking it was just for his car.
Stepping through the freshly-painted doors today is like stepping into a museum piece, except perhaps not, because a museum piece would be contrived and this building is perfect in its imperfections.
Things such as a build up of chaff next to millstone, in which the visible husks of corn from decades ago are encased in grease.
The wooden bannister that tracks the narrow stairs to the top floor worn, by generations of millers, as smooth as the finest ebony or centuries-old drawings of a great steam and sailing ship on the walls – idle daydreams of foreign travel by an artistic miller of yesteryear perhaps?
Inside the atmosphere is appropriately dry and the lighting from the dotted incandescent bulbs casts a warm and comforting glow on the mechanics, which to the inexperienced eye appear like a Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg-type apparatus. Somehow, a little bit like a church, it feels appropriate to lower one’s voice.
‘The oats, before being ground, were dried on metal sheets over a coke furnace in the drying tower,’ says Elizabeth Sheen.
There is anecdotal evidence from the local community to suggest that the mill had a reputation for its delicious nutty-flavoured oats, however this ‘was probably down to the oats being slightly burned in the drying process,’ explains Elizabeth.
Next is John’s party trick. With a twinkle in his eye he asks if we would like to see the mill in action?
So he moves to a central belt and starts to manually draw it, gradually increasing the pace and effort before hitting the power switch and within three seconds the whole building heaves and begins to vibrate and rattle into life once again.
From the silence that preceded, the building speed of the belts and giant cogs feels un-nerving before John shouts above the loud roaring ‘when it was powered by water it would have been somewhat faster’.
Seeing the whole operation come to life and work together so perfectly, as it has for centuries, is a genuine treat and not to be missed.
For a small donation this weekend the Sheens will show you around their marvellous mill.
It opens tomorrow (Saturday) from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Admission is free but a donation to charity is requested .