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‘Windy Miller never behaved properly’

This Sunday, windmills across the region will fling wide their doors for an Open Day – including the almost-restored smock mill at Impington. Its owner tells EMMA HIGGINBOTHAM why it’s still a work in progress, 12 years after he began.

Everybody loves a windmill, especially children – but when I was little they gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I blame Windy Miller from TV classic Camberwick Green. Whenever he stepped out of his mill, and the gigantic sails swooshed past the door, I was convinced they’d lop his head off.

Now I’m nearly 41, I find the magnificent structures less traumatic – which is just as well, as I’m visiting Steve Temple in his newly restored smock mill in Impington.

It’s a breathtaking sight, and thankfully Steve’s sails are nowhere near the ground, having been raised by a brick tower some 130 years ago: “You get more wind the higher you go,” he explains. “The sails on the earlier mill would have come right down to the ground, and knocked your head off as they were coming round, but now they clear the ground by about 20 feet.”

A-ha! So Windy Miller could have been decapitated? Steve laughs. “Traditionally you would have had two doors, on opposite sides. So if the sails were going past one of those doors, you’d go out the back door.

“Windy Miller never behaved properly.”

Steve, who’s 65, first set eyes on the mill when he and his wife Pippa moved to Girton in 1972: “We could see it from our back windows,” he says. “Over the years it deteriorated, and I muttered several times that someone ought to take it in hand and do something about it.”

In 1999, a friend told them it was for sale. But, as Steve’s elderly parents were still living in Girton, they had no plans to move.

“She eventually persuaded my wife to come and have a look at it – I was away on business – and she fell in love with it, really because of the garden. The house was nice, but an acre-and-a-half, two miles from the centre of Cambridge, was just too good an opportunity.

“So she was terribly excited, and said to me ‘You really ought to go and have a look, I think you’d be quite interested’.” He was. “I spent a quarter of an hour going round the house, and three quarters of an hour going up the mill!

“We sat down in our garden and said ‘Are we completely bananas for doing this?’, drank a glass of wine, and decided we were. So we put in a bid – and we got it.”

The windmill was in a sorry state. Listed as ‘at risk’, the cap was leaking, the woodwork was rotting, and the overgrown trees in its jungle of a garden meant there was no room for sails.

“The garden was a disaster when we came. In fact I was more daunted by the garden than the mill,” says Steve. But after inviting friends to numerous ‘slash and burn’ parties, they cleared it all, and have since planted more than 28,000 bulbs as well as 28 trees (albeit smaller and more ornamental). It’s now a fairytale-like space, and much loved by the couple’s two grandchildren. “Probably more hours, and nearly more money, has gone on the garden than on the mill,” he confides.

Although an inventor and engineer by trade, Steve admits to being a mill ignoramus when he began the restoration back in 2000: “I know a great deal about machinery and mechanisms, but I didn’t know anything at all about mills. I had to learn it all.” Was it as interesting as he thought it would be? “Oh yeah, every bit! More so.”

He’s done most of the work himself, with the help of several mill fans: every weekend, five or six volunteers – ranging from local teenagers to an enthusiast who comes specially from Ipswich – get stuck in: “and I’ve got three female volunteers who are all very willing to climb up and do the work.”

That’s no mean feat, as the mill is no place for vertigo sufferers: in order to clean, paint and repair, Steve regularly hangs off ropes and even abseils with stilts on to get at the right angle. Fortunately he loves heights: his hobby is flying a paramotor (“a parachute with an engine strapped on your back” he explains).

Happily, money to fund the project hasn’t been an issue. In 1990, Steve was a co-founder of Xaar, who make ink-jet print-heads: “It’s now worth somewhere in the region of £180 million, and it’s got a turnover of £60 million a year,” he says. “I left about four years ago, because there were other things I wanted to do. I’ve done some of them, but not quite all – I’ve spent more time on the mill than either I perhaps intended or should have…”

Mind you, he adds, it hasn’t been as expensive as you might expect: “After 12 years, it’s up to about £50,000, so £4,000 a year. People spend a lot more than that on hobbies – you’d spend that much golfing.” So it’s a hobby, then? “It’s a mission,” he grins.

Another mission for Steve is The East Anglian Mill Society (TEAMS), which he and other local millers began five years ago to share inspiration, ideas and practical help. They’re keen to preserve the few mills that remain in the countryside too: “We’re just losing this landscape and history,” he says.

“In the middle of the 19th century there were about 1,000 mills in Cambridgeshire: two in Impington, two in Histon, four in Cottenham, two in Oakington, one in Chesterton, one in Milton… that’s the sort of density, but most of those have gone without trace. So we need a small number of working mills, and a small number of preserved sites.”

There’s obviously a thirst for it: at the National Mills Open Day in May, around 200 people came for a nose around Steve’s mill: “and that’s fairly typical for all of the mills in TEAMS.”

So why does everyone love a windmill? “It’s got everything, hasn’t it? It’s a nice piece of architecture, fascinating engineering, history – and increasingly people are realising that stone-ground flour is much nicer than the stuff you buy in the supermarket.”

Steve isn’t making flour yet: he reckons restoring the grinding mechanism will take another couple of years, and confesses that side of it doesn’t particularly interest him: “I don’t have any desire to grind commercially, but when we come to sell it – when I’m too decrepit to climb it – we want to have the mill in working condition.” Wouldn’t it be nice to bake his own bread? “It would be fabulous! Trouble is, you’ve got to buy a tonne of wheat to do it, and you’ve then got to get rid of the other 999 kilos…”

Twelve years on, the mill looks immaculate. But there’s plenty still to do: “I don’t know how long it will take to finish, and I don’t care!” laughs Steve. “All the while I’m enjoying it, what does it matter?

“It’s a wonderful piece of structure, it’s great fun climbing up and down it, and it’s a great thing for an engineer to have in his garden.”

And is he a ‘mill bore’ at dinner parties? “Well you’d have to ask my friends, and I think they’d probably uniformly say yes! But quite a lot of my friends come and work on it anyway, so they’re fairly happy to be bored.”

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