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Wheels of Power

PUBLISHED: 09:33 03 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013

Town Mill, Lyme Regis

Town Mill, Lyme Regis

Adrian Cooper tells us how some of Dorset's water mills are taking on a new lease of life by generating electricity<br/>'What do you do with a working water mill?' This is Paul Harris, standing above the millpond at Mangerton. The oak-iron wheel beats...

. Abundant rain has kept the flow steady through the River Manger this year, the water is murky with turning mud; branches and brittle leaves swirl in eddies. By his tone, I can tell Paul's asked himself this same question before.

Mangerton Mill has been in Paul's family for over 80 years, and it is from these buildings and this land that the Harris family still earn their livelihood. Paul's grandfather was the last person to work the Mill commercially, grinding barley, running saws to plank oak, elm and beech. Through the 1970s and early 1980s the mill was no longer being used, and the building and machinery fell into disrepair.

The Harris family started to restore Mangerton Mill in 1986, and got the old wheel turning again by 1988. Today, Mangerton Mill is open to the public as a museum, which also attracts people to the Harris tearoom and caravan site. But work maintaining the Mill is by no means over.

Paul walks me to a building which was once a small brewery. Here, below the stairs, he shows me the old turbine that was once central to his grandfather's timber business. 'The water source is still here,' he says, 'so it'd be nice to use of it again.'

The Harris family have been thinking about generating electricity at Mangerton Mill for a while. Paul could, in theory, repair and reinstate the old turbine. But he also knows that new micro-hydro equipment is now widely available in the UK thanks to the growing market for DIY power generation. But starting from scratch, there is also a lot to think about. Is the turbine best fitted near the existing wheel? Will it be more productive upstream, near the sluice gates? Is there enough flow in the River Manger or enough 'head' of water at the mill? Above all, the Harris family need to be certain that what they spend adapting the Mill will be cost-effective.

'It would be a lot of personal investment,' Paul says, 'but as energy prices go up and up, the prospect of getting a decent return is improving.'

Upwey Mill

Richard Willett is standing by the front gate of Upwey Mill watching an hydraulic crane lower bags of concrete and sand to the ground. His wife Susan is alongside him. Once the final pallet lands safely, she turns to me and speaks: 'We would've asked them to tip the concrete straight out,' she says, 'but we're trying to keep things more organised.' She gestures to the exposed pipework in the middle of the yard.

Earlier this year, Upwey Mill started generating electricity. Powered by the River Wey, a modern turbine has been fitted alongside the existing iron wheel. There are final adjustments, of course, but once these have been made the Willetts hope to generate 45,000 kilowatts of electricity every year. Three-quarters of this electricity will be sold directly to the National Grid, at 5p per kilowatt, and will go towards paying off the £50,000 cost of the works. The remaining electricity will feed directly into the Willetts' home.

After he's finished unloading, Richard walks me along the leat which runs behind the mill building, explaining how the project began. 'Electricity,' he says, 'was an aside. We moved to Upwey in 1998, and my first interest was grinding flour. If I'm honest, it was very much a big toy for a big boy!' What about now, I ask. Has your interest changed? 'We haven't done this for financial gain,' Richard replies, 'nor because we're particularly green.'

We stop for a while at the source of the River Wey. The spring rises a few hundred yards from the mill building, rushing into a series of interconnected pools below the leat. It is a beautiful sight. Richard has wanted to live in a mill for as long as he can remember. And standing here, I realise that Upwey Mill is driven as much by the Willetts' passion for the place, as it is the River Wey.

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