A Very Different Houghton

A few years ago I posted about a visit to an annual fair in Houghton-le-Spring, a former mining town in the North East of England, so as I drove through the village of Houghton in Cambridgeshire I couldn’t help but contrast the two.  Strangely enough this village too has an annual “feast” though in the summer rather than the autumn, but there the similarities end.  The Houghton of my childhood, like much of the North East has seen a great deal of deprivation, whereas this was a chocolate box village of thatched and timber-framed cottages.  I didn’t photograph any of them.

This wasn’t from any sense of bitterness, merely a reflection of the fact that I was here only for a short lunch break on my way further south, and so I continued to my objective on the far side of the village, an objective that has historically caused problems for the villagers.  It is a water-mill.

There has been a mill here for over a thousand years and for much of that time it was owned by a monastery of Benedictines.  When the abbot sought to increase the power to the mill in 1500 he did so by diverting the river (The Great Ouse) which resulted in Houghton being flooded.  Naturally the villagers weren’t happy and some sort of riot/protest ensued.   They were certainly upset enough to be persistent because it was another 15 years before they were granted permission to channel the river themselves in case of any future emergency.

That building reverted to the Crown when Henry dissolved the monasteries (I sometimes feel I write that in every other post on here) and in the 17th century a new building was constructed; the one we see today, which continued to produce flour until the 1930’s when industrialisation finally took its toll.

That might have spelled the end for Houghton Mill, but the local residents were clearly better disposed to it by now. They bought the structure and maintained it in partnership with the National Trust, although for forty years or so it was run as a Youth Hostel, presumably to generate some income for its upkeep.

Now it is run purely as a visitor attraction and the Trust went so far as to install new millstones so that they could produce flour once again, though they are only allowed to do so once a week due to the impact they have on the river levels when they do so.  The Great Ouse is one of our longer waterways and many barges and longboats still navigate its waters.  All the same bags of flour are available for sale at the onsite shop.

As I ducked around looking for angles to view the machinery it occurred to me how many cobwebs and beetle holes pointed to other visitors beyond those encouraged by the Trust.  I suspect that flour might be fortified with additional protein.