Lurking round the corner from a gigantic Tesco in Bow, East London is what is thought to be the world’s largest remaining tidal mill and thanks to the failure of the aforementioned Tesco to turn it into a car park, the building still stands and is open for guided tours.

To be fair to Tesco, they weren’t the first people to try and demolish the site – although it seems (evil) Tesco getting involved was enough to galvanize a heritage group to step in and the buildings are now listed and cannot be touched.

The site is a series of buildings, although the heritage site is limited to just the remaining tidal mill building, as the rest of the site was sold a few years ago to a TV studio firm. The House Mill is built on a bridge over the River Lee and sitting below the building is a series of water wheels. As the tide comes in the wheels are dormant, but at the moment the tide starts to go back out again, flood gates are closed trapping the water above the mill. Once the downriver side is drained, the gates are opened and the pressure then drives the water wheels – and thence the mills in the building.

Bridge over troubled water

There has been “something” on the site since at least the Doomsday book and wheat was milled right up to Elizabethan times. For reasons which are not clearly understood, they switched to trying to mill for linseed oil for a few decades before switching back to wheat for bread and cakes – and later barley for alcohol distillation.

The ownership of the mill often changed hands and it seems that in the 17th-18th centuries, any one who acquired the mills would spend a fortune on upgrading them and then promptly drop dead the following year, leaving the site to be picked up on the cheap by someone else. The guides didn’t infer anything from that, but I think a modern day detective might be suspicious.

While the House Mill stands, it is not the absolute original building as that burnt down in 1802 (sparking a scare that the accident was a deliberate act of political sabotage), and being an industrial building was much modified over the years. A building next to it which was the private home of the owner is also no longer there, thanks to a German bomber flying overhead during WW2. That building has been replaced with a sympathetic modern structure which acts as a visitor center.

A windmill which had stood on the spot is no longer there, which is a pity as I quite like them. As an aside, the Upminster Windmill still has original wooden machinery inside and is well worth a visit. In fact, I live on top of what was a windmill, as I live in a block of flats built directly on top of the original “mill wall” which ran along the Isle of Dogs riverside and protected the isle from flooding as well as providing a site for windmills.

The House Mill building is fairly empty now as it was taken out of commission in the1940s and left to ruin – but restoration work is under way and there is enough left to make a visit quite interesting – including some of the original 19th century milling stones.

Original stone mills

The House Mill is open on Sundays from 1pm to 4pm during the Summer, although on the first Sunday of the month, it opens at 11am. Turning up at 11am seems to be wise as I almost thought I was going to get a solo tour, but waited for a few more people to arrive to make up a small group. As I left about an hour/half later, the next group going round looked about double the size.

There is also the usual guide book available, although this one focuses largely on the life-stories of the people who lived and worked in the area, and a brief scan looks interesting.

Remnants

The charity which runs the venue is trying to fund-raise to complete the restoration – and do something rather interesting with the water wheels. They naturally want to restore the tidal mill to working order, and one of the water wheels would be used for demonstrations of how everything worked. However, the plan is to use the remaining wheels to generate hydroelectricity and sell it to the national-grid. The income would then secure the mills future.

I think Tesco should look at that, as their building is right next door (on the site of a former beer brewery) and it would burnish their green-credentials no end to fund the development and then buy the “green electricity”.

The remains of a much older tidal mill was recently uncovered in Greenwich which has excited the archaeologists no end judging by the write up in the Museum of London friends newsletter and Greenwich Phantom commentary.

There is also a memorial nearby to four men who died when trying to dig a well and were poisoned by marsh gas. Caroline’s Miscellany has a report on that as there is a second memorial in the Postman’s Park.

I took some photos. As it is quite dark inside, I played a bit with handheld HDR so some of them are slightly artificial looking – but it does show up the details better than normal photos. HDR works better with a tripod and more time, but the photos I ended up with are (I think) tollerable for tourist snaps.

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