18th Jan, 2021

Sail of the century: Jeanette completes lockdown restoration of historic 200-year-old Berkswell Windmill using cherry picker

Catherine Vonledebur 6th Oct, 2020 Updated: 6th Oct, 2020

ONE of Britain’s last fully working windmills in a West Midlands village could soon be open again for visitors after a painstaking lockdown DIY renovation project.

Local government worker Jeanette McGarry, 58, bought the 70ft tall Grade II-listed building, which has been standing for nearly 200 years in the village of Balsall Common, in 2005.

She has spent £200,000 restoring the 19th century four-bladed tower mill to its former glory with the help of English Heritage after it fell into a state of disrepair.

And as part of the refurbishment of historic Berkswell Windmill, Jeanette used a cherry picker to paint the gigantic five tonne sails by hand which took three weeks.

The mill, built in 1826, is now fully operational and Jeanette hopes to welcome visitors back into the historic property once Covid-19 restrictions are eased. It attracts tourists from across the world from America to Taiwan and Spain.

Jeanette describes the project as “a real labour of love”.

The mother-of-three said: “I want to make sure that the windmill is preserved so it’s here for generations to come.

“It’s been an ongoing labour of love. Every morning when I wake up I feel blessed. I feel like the luckiest person on the planet because it’s just such a beautiful sight.

“I feel more like the guardian of the windmill rather than the owner of the windmill.

“If it is snowing, if it’s windy, if it’s sunny, the windmill never fails to bring a smile to my face. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s all the history that goes with it.

“I really marvel at the windmill, in terms of how they were built. To me, it’s like the British equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids.

“They didn’t have cranes back in the day. They didn’t have precision instruments. They did a lot of things by sight.

“The roof of the windmill is known as a Warwickshire Boat Cap, so each county has its own style of roof. It looks like an upside-down boat, like a rowing boat.

“The roof can be turned so it moves 360 degrees, all the way around. You pull a chain at the back and that means the sails can face the wind.

“It has all the original machinery, all of the original cogs and wheels, which very few windmills have.

“It’s like a time capsule.”

Together with Dutch millwright Johan Vanderste Jeanette worked tirelessly throughout September from 7.30am to 6pm to complete the complete much-needed renovation work.

It has involved continuous lime-washing of the interior, dressing of mill stones and painting the sails with the help of a cherry picker to reach the top.

The building has been described as among “the finest Georgian windmills in Britain” and one of the “most complete in the UK” with all its original working parts and machinery.

A windmill has been situated on the site dating back to the 10th century, built originally from wood and replaced with bricks in the Georgian period.

It was last used as a commercial mill in 1948 by John Hammond and after he died, it was bought by retired couple George and Betty Field in 1972 who carried out repairs. After they both died suddenly it was left derelict until Jeanette moved in to the neighbouring cottage 15 years ago.

She said: “On the day that I moved in with my ex-husband, lots of people were coming in through the gates asking to look at the mill.

“People say they remember coming here when they were children, just before or just after the Second World War.

“I contacted Historic England when and they agreed to help me to restore the windmill. They funded 70 per cent and I paid 30 per cent.

“I also had to contact the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which was originally set up by William Morris.

“They have a list of millwrights, the people that work on windmills and they are the expert builders if you like. There are only about 12 in the whole country.

“I’ve actually got records from the 1700s of the miller here. It’s quite incredible when you go inside the mill, it’s just as it was when it was last used in 1948.

“Like any building, any wooden structure, you need to paint the sails regularly so we try to do it at least every three years.

“We have to buy specialist paint from Scandinavia. It was pretty tricky during lockdown because it’s been hard to get hold of materials.

“I hired a cherry picker so that it would be safer to do the painting.”

The ultimate lockdown DY project it has needed 20 five litre tins of imported specialist Scandinavian paint for £2,600 and the hire of a cherry picker has cost £1,000 a day. The interior has been given a coat of limewash, which is in keeping with the heritage of the mill as it predates paint itself.

Jeannette said: “It needs a lot of ongoing work as it is completely operational.

“On the ground floor, you have the sacks where the flour comes out. The next floor up is the stone floor.

“There are two sets of massive stones, with four stones in total. Each stone takes at least five grown men to lift, they are really heavy.

“When you’re milling you have to lift the stones up partway through and chisel the pattern into the stone so that you’ve got some friction.

“It quickly gets clogged with flour so you have to lift those stones and re-chisel the pattern.

“The stones only come from two places in the whole world. The stones for fine flour come from France, the French Burr Stone.

“The stones for the coarse wholemeal flour come from Derbyshire, they are Peak District stones.

“Outside of Covid, we open once a month, with the help of volunteers, from Easter Monday through to October.

“We get people from across the globe coming. From America, Taiwan, Spain, all over the world. It’s a real joy.

“We really miss our visitors and can’t wait to have them back.”

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