MILLSTONE around the council’s neck, or community asset to cherish at all costs? That’s the dilemma facing heritage champions and Wyre Council officials.
At first sight Thornton’s Marsh Mill, which overlooks its namesake retail village, looks in remarkably good nick, considering it was built in 1794, by Ralph Slater for local Squire, Bold Fleetwood Hesketh.
It last worked in 1922, about the time it also operated as a tea room. It is also said to boast a couple of ghosts, and that’s not hard to believe when you step inside and hear the sails creak, and wind howl, and pigeons coo.
A closer look within reveals puddles on the ground floor, for the mill springs leaks in the rain, buckets in place to catch the rain drops, fortunately well clear of the space currently used by local artist Ann Charlesworth for her first solo exhibition – this weekend.
Look at the sails and you will see green algae. One platform outside, wood rotting, is now out of bounds. But generally it’s a marvellous example of a mill which, with investment and tender loving care, could be restored to working order.
It’s not just a Grade II-listed building, but Grade II*-listed, which makes it a shining example of its kind, which couldn’t be shut down, or knocked down, or converted to something very different, without an almighty fuss.
It is the only windmill in the region which still has its machinery in place.
And it would have been in worse shape had Thornton’s Urban District Council not stepped in years ago, with subsequent investment in infrastructure, and specialist sails, by Wyre Council who, until recently, employed their very own miller, Graham James, who retired, at 67, last month.
Graham says it was in a “bad way” until a major refit in 1989, when the sails finally turned for the first time in 60 years, but six years ago the sails had to be locked as they were deemed “too old to turn.”
The mill opens to the public, for a small charge, each weekend, thanks to the goodwill of volunteers, such as Margaret Croker, of the North West Mills Group, and tourism staff from Wyre Council.
This weekend marks the high point of the mill’s year, the heritage open days weekend, run by English Heritage, featuring some of our most distinguished and historic buildings across the Fylde, admission free.
Marsh Mill will open – along with Lytham Windmill, built in 1805 (and rebuilt in 1921), and Little Marton Mill, built in 1838. It coincides with the monthly farmers’ market, which should attract more visitors, too.
But the big push is to sustain that interest and recruit volunteers to keep the mill open when contracts for seasonal tourism workers end. Margaret fears that, without a fully sustainable squad of volunteers, the mill’s future could be bleak.
She sometimes holds the fort alone, and that includes being a dab hand with a mop and bucket for leaks. It also means shutting up shop for loo breaks, with the miller’s toilet facilities gone, and no public conveniences nearby.
Melrose Investments owns the building, but leased the mill back to the council to run for 20 years when they bought it seven years ago. Wyre Council now wants to surrender the lease early, in light of other priorities and cost cutting, and hand the mill back. “I don’t think either side really know what to do with it,” says Margaret. “Sell it or keep it?”
Simon Swindells, Wyre’s outdoor health and volunteer coordinator, a local lad, grew up in the shadow of the mill, and values it as an amenity and heritage piece. “If we’d wanted it shut it could have been shut long ago. We don’t. We don’t think it will shut. We’ve got volunteers coming through, we’re looking for more, we want a system that works for us, and the mill.
“If enough don’t come forward, it’s not a case of closing doors, we will use existing staff and resources to ensure it stays open.”
Wyre Council refuses to comment further. “Negotations are continuing and we are working to finalise them as soon as possible,” says a spokesperson.
“This is commercially sensitive. But we aim to ensure that public access to the mill is maintained during the handover of the lease to Melrose Investments. Our building and maintenance team have already taken over the caretaking duties.”
Meantime, Margaret muddles on, mops up, opens up, and would welcome more freedom to market the mill, issue leaflets, sell souvenirs, ensure every penny of donations goes to its upkeep and maintenance.
“If we open it I am sure visitors will come,” she adds. Her dream is for “sufficient number of locals to recognise the historical value of this structure and form either a Friends’ group or a charitable trust.” Over to you....
n MARSH Mill opens 10.30am-4.30pm Sat and Sun, this weekend admission is free. Call Margaret Croker on (01253) 777950 or Simon Swindells on (01253 863100)