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Excitement as couple's windmill dream set to come true

Herbert and Julie Websdell. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography
Herbert and Julie Websdell. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography

A couple, who have devoted the last 15 years to caring for a south Norfolk landmark, could soon see their dreams come true.

Last month, a newly renovated white wooden cap was placed on to the top of Billingford Mill. The cap – or roof – had been removed in 2017 for restoration work.

Its return and resiting by crane marked another milestone in a £150,000 project to restore the Grade II-listed mill to full working order.

During the work, a little mystery was also uncovered.

“There is some ageing graffiti in the bin floor, and it’s very intriguing,” said windmill custodian Herbert Websdell.

“It related to the history of the mill and it’s surprising it’s lasted this long. We don’t want to say too much about it yet until we know exactly what it says, but it relates to a former miller.”

Herbert, 86, and Julie Websdell, 71, became custodians in 2004 after noticing the mill had been backwinded, which means the wind had blown from behind the sails, causing a risk of damage.

Its previous carer, who produced the “Billingford loaf”, was made to leave the mill following a long and public dispute after being asked to fully maintain it by owners Norfolk County Council.

The mill, originally built in 1859, was not used for years afterwards and deteriorated.

The cap has been replaced following restoration work
The cap has been replaced following restoration work

Norfolk Windmills Trust, on behalf of the county council, asked the Websdells to hold the keys. It has been a labour of love ever since.

“It’s become like a job, but we’ve loved every minute,” said Mr Websdell, a former agricultural parts manager.

Since 2007, the couple, who live in Harleston, have been showing groups, clubs, schoolchildren and visitors around on tours during the summer, as well as holding a series of events between April and September.

The mill – complete with its new cap – will be open for visitors this weekend (June 9) for tours, followed by monthly events, with the annual teddy parachute planned for August 18.

Since the couple took it over, the five-storey, red-brick building has always needed repairs. Funding has come from a mix of sources.

Its ageing sails had to be removed in 2010 after becoming rotten following decades of weathering by storms and strong gales.

A new set to sails and laminated wooden stocks – the timbers that hold them in place – are currently been made.

Billingford Windmill was built of red brick by W Skinner in 1859-60 at a cost of £1,300
Billingford Windmill was built of red brick by W Skinner in 1859-60 at a cost of £1,300

When they are complete, the couple hope that, sometime later this year, it will restore the mill to its full glory, with sails turning for the first time in a decade.

“To be in the mill, with the sales turning in the late afternoon, feeling the rhythm, is an amazing and very therapeutic,” said Mr Websdell.

“The mill has become so much a part of our lives, it’s like an addiction. This will be one of the few mills is the county in working order. Waiting for the stocks and sails is a matter of time.

“When they arrive, and are in place, it will then just be a matter of waiting for the wind. I’m hoping to be the first person to take the brake off.”

*The five-storey high Billingford Windmill was built of red brick by W Skinner in 1859-60 at a cost of £1,300 on the site of a postmill which was destroyed in a gale.

White’s directory of 1845 and 1864 lists Billingford as Pyreston.

The west door had white bricks either side of the door jambs, some five feet from the ground and were carved Mr G Goddard in March 1860.

The boat-shaped cap with a petticoat was tarred in the latter years of its working life, but was painted white during its restoration.

An unusual six-bladed fantail replaced one of a more traditional design in the 1930s. Drive from the fan spindle to the rack on the curb was via a spur pinion.

After restoration, the mill had four wide double shattered sails, each with eight bays and three shutters, that were operated by rack and pinion striking gear.

The wooden clasp-arm brake wheel has iron section teeth and bears an inscription, reading ‘W Skinner 1860’.

George Goddard, who had been working the postmill at the time of its destruction, became the first tenant miller in March 1860.

The last miller was Arthur Daines, who used wind power until 1956. By this time, the mill was down to two sails following wind damage.

He then reverted to auxiliary power before ceasing to work the mill in 1959.

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