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Water mills: the forgotten force that powered the Industrial Revolution

Friday 06 April 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard wonders why our rivers have been forgotten as a source of electric power when millions are being spent, and thousands of acres of countryside ruined, on windfarms that few people want

THIS Easter weekend, thousands of walkers - perhaps even tens of thousands - will be out and about in the Yorkshire Dales and many of them will be following ancient footpaths that follow the banks of our many fast-flowing rivers.

Despite efforts by the national park and other bodies to attract more people from ethnic minorities, most of those will be white, middle aged and well-educated and they will have taken to the hills to escape for a few days two major worries of the British middle class: global warming and their ever soaring electricity bills.

Yore Mill
Ann Kiely at Yore Mill: Using the Ure to supply power
Photo: Tony Bartholomew

But despite being politically, economically and environmentally aware, few of them will realise that there is a partial answer to both problems lying at their very feet: the power that, for good or worse, drove the Industrial Revolution a century or more before the arrival of the steam engines which drove the so-called "dark satanic mills."

Rivers like the Wharfe, Aire, Ribble, Ure and others were once dotted with water-driven mills. As I reported last week, a tiny beck at Broughton, Skipton, was powering a corn grinding mill in the 12th Century. English art and literature are stuffed with paintings and novels about water mills, from Constable's most famous canvas to George Eliot's Mill on the Floss.

Recently, the French-owned utilities company EDF ran a series of ads boasting how its engineers had got an ancient mill back into production making electricity - in Somerset, where many rivers are as sluggish as a drunken worm. Yet here in the Dales, our fast-flowing rivers, which once boasted hundreds of family-owned mills grinding corn or spinning wool, cotton, flax and even silk, this potent source of "green" electricity is ignored.

Most of these disappeared with the arrival of steam and the huge red-brick mills we are now familiar with. But - surprise, surprise - the villages of Grassington and Threshfield received most of the electricity from a tiny mill on the Wharfe well into the 20th Century - the weir that created the power is still there, a hundred yards or so down-stream from Threshfield Bridge.

Some ten years ago, I interviewed an elderly Grassington engineer - sadly, now deceased - who was an expert on that "community" power station and was campaigning for a massive investment in new, small water-power generators which, he said, would be barely visible even in important landscapes like Wharfedale.

These, he said, would actually be underground in the river banks, driven by water culverted off the main flow. They would be almost silent and the electricity they produced in small amounts for the local community would be transmitted along underground power lines. They could even be used to regulate the flow of the river in times of flood or drought

The fact of the matter is that wind power is the most expensive way known of producing electricity

Nothing ever happened. Could that possible be because, at the time, wind power companies had developed a powerful lobbying machine at Westminster and the Government was paying out huge grants and long-term subsidies for wind farms despite the fact that they were being built in the face of massive protests from locals in towns like Hebden Bridge in the Pennines?

The fact of the matter is that wind power is the most expensive way known of producing electricity - far more expensive even than building new nuclear power stations. It is also the most unreliable, for winds come and go at nature's whim - as the last week in the Yorkshire Dales has amply demonstrated.

Water flow is much easier to predict and stand-by conventional power stations could get weeks of notice to power up as drought approaches, where as with wind they have to be on constant alert - an expensive and wasteful use of limited resources.

A few years ago, I would have bet there would MPs who understood enough history to remember that the British Empire was largely in place by the time the steam engine was invented, built on the horse, sail and water power.

Today, sadly, our masters are so obsessed with creating the nanny state that they are blind to the fact that the means to make a massive reduction in carbon emissions lie in almost every valley in this land. That might mean their getting out into the countryside, of course, and for most of them that would be more terrifying than a trip to the moon.

Your views:

  • Howsham Mill hopefully will be restored by the man who restored his own Mill building-and is assessing the viability of harnessing it. I would be most interested to know if the Sommerset Mill is viable-Do you have a name. Water logically is more realistic source than wind but maintainence expensive-Winter storms etc.

    Dr John Henderson - Harrogate, North Yorkshire

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