Swapping farm treadmill for a dream watermill

1 September 2000

Swapping farm treadmill for a dream watermill

Discovering your children dont want to

follow in your farming footsteps neednt

be distressing – it can mean a host of

new opportunities. Take John and

Judith Stephens, who saw it as the

spur to embark on an ambitious new

project. Tim Relf reports

SIDBURY Mill in Devon is unrecognisable now as the place it was five years ago. Theres a prestigious art and craft gallery in the hayloft, a bustling tearoom below and, last month, the waterwheel began turning again.

Five years ago, John and Judith were farming in Hampshire. But their sons Julian and Philip had decided not to pursue a career in agriculture, some of the farm kit needed updating so investment was needed and John was approaching 50. "We had come to a crossroads," he says.

"I could have turned the farm into a huge pot of money and sat on my bottom, but what was the good in that?"

So they set about considering the options. The one day the subject of watermills came up. "Ive always loved them," says John, whose family had owned the Domesday mill at Headley, Hants.

The couple wrote to land agents making inquiries within 100 miles of the farm. "All we got initially were houses with ponds outside."

The mills they looked at were ruled out due to potential legal problems with water rights. Then, on holiday in south Devon, they heard that one in the Saxon village of Sidbury was about to come on the market, so they went to look at it. The house had been extended, but the mill itself, the stable block and hayloft were derelict.

This wasnt a problem for the Stephens who had plenty of experience renovating property and buildings. "A lot of transferable skills," as John puts it.

&#42 Right potential

What was important was the places potential. The location was right and the basic infrastructure was all there. It was what they wanted. "We made an offer the next day."

They donned their wellies, rolled their sleeves up and set to work. For the best part of the next four years they juggled working on the mill with farming commitments on their 400- acre place at Alton.

This time marked, says John, a "withdrawal period" from farming which eased their exit from the industry. "Otherwise, we would have had to stop dead."

Their ideas evolved as they worked. But soon their minds were made up – this was the ideal spot for a gallery and tearoom.

&#42 Blessing in disguise

They cleared 15t of scrap metal and hundreds of milk crates; they reinstated the rivers infrastructure, the bypass ditches and hatches; they worked on the mills exterior and renewed the woodworm-riddled floors. The state of the place was, in some ways, a blessing in disguise. "It had probably frightened other prospective buyers off."

John wanted a place that needed restoration. "That is exactly what we got," he jokes nowadays.

Last autumn the farm was let, freeing the couple of the day-to-day running and allowing them to concentrate on the Devon project. The whole site has been landscaped and native trees planted. And visitors have been able to view the restoration work in the mill.

John then heard about a waterwheel for sale on a farm where it had been used for grinding animal feed. He hired a crane, winched it out and brought it home in sections and its now been installed. The buckets, which had rotted away, are soon to be re-built. His machinery experience from his farming days is proving invaluable. Compared to that, the mill kit is a "doddle".

Meanwhile, the reputation of the Kingfisher Gallery has spread. What was originally intended to be a display area for immediately local artists now caters for a range of pockets, from less than £100 to several thousand.

Judiths initial concern that they wouldnt be able to get the quality of artist has proved unfounded with a range of well-known people, including several Royal Academy artists, exhibiting there. Her philosophy is simple: "I only exhibit what I like."

Despite the hectic pace of life, Judith has been steadfastly hanging onto her small flock of award-winning Poll Dorset sheep. And, though the flock has been reduced, she hopes to begin showing them again when all the restoration work is complete. "Im not going to part with them all."

Now, the couples two sons have both been through university and are now working successfully outside agriculture. "Who can blame them with the problems we have all had as farmers over the past five years," says John.

As for John, hes left pondering another question – what to call himself. A miller? A property developer? A farmer?

There have, he admits, been times when he misses the farming, but not any more. "I dont miss farming now. I havent looked out at my neighbours combine with envy."

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