Replacing Bembridge Windmill's sweeps

Crane and cherry picker placing new stocks and sweeps on Bembridge Windmill

Standing high above rolling fields is the last remaining windmill on the Isle of Wight. Whilst others have crumbled away, Bembridge Windmill has remained a traditional sight in the landscape. It was even painted by JMW Turner in 1795. Now, after two years, new sails have been restored to the Grade I listed building thanks to local fundraising support, and a lifeline grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Early in March 2021, father and son millwrights Geoff and John Wallis from Dorothea Restorations used a crane and cherry picker to lift the heavy timber sails (known as sweeps) and their new supporting 11m beams (known as stocks) almost 50ft in the air, and then bolted them into position. Each pair of sweeps and stocks weighs around 600kg, and the complex and highly skilled job took several days.

The last set of sweeps were removed by the same millwrights at the end of 2018 because they had begun to rot, after 30 years’ service. The new ones were built in Dorothea Restorations’ Bristol-based workshops.

" There are a few millwrights still about, but it takes a lifetime to learn the skills. I’ve been in the business for 45 years and my mission is to pass my skills on to future generations; I’m still learning though. Each mill is different – different ages, different construction, materials, technologies – it’s wonderful to see how they were put together and to study the skills of former millwrights. "
- Geoff, Millwright

Watch new sails being put on Bembridge Windmill

Find out how father and son millwrights Geoff and John Wallis reinstated huge timber sails to 300 year old Bembridge Windmill. The painstaking work took several days, and the mill is now restored to its former glory. This much-loved building and its beautiful landscape have changed little since it was captured in watercolour by JMW Turner in 1795.

Side view of Bembridge Windmill, Isle of Wight

What are the sweeps?

The sweeps are a wooden lattice that attach to large beams known as stocks. In a complete sail, the sailcloth would have been stretched over the sweeps so that they could catch the wind and turn the machinery, which would grind the grains. As the sweeps are made from wood, over a number of years they can start to rot and so we have to replace them every so often. We turn the sails manually to try and prevent weathering on one particular side.

A crane removing the sweeps from Bembridge Windmill

Work begins

At the beginning of December 2018, we removed the sweeps from the Grade I listed building. Although the windmill is 300 years old, the sweeps have been replaced before, most recently in 1990. The first stage of the process was to place the sails in ‘distress’ mode (vertical rather than diagonal cross), before the millwright, who ensured the historic machinery was protected, loosened the bolts and the team removed the sweeps.

Local support

The total cost of removing, building, and installing the new sweeps and stocks has been £38,000. Part of this was met by local fundraising support. This included the Isle of Wight Association, as well as the Bembridge branches of the WI and Men in Sheds. The project also received a grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Thank you

We couldn’t have done it without you

Thanks to everyone who raised funds for the sweeps. It's only because of your support that we have been able to return Bembridge Windmill to its former glory.

A lost craft

This kind of work is rare to witness these days; there are only between 40 to 50 complete windmills left in the country and just a handful of practising UK millwrights. Millwrighting is on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts.

" Bembridge Windmill is a terrific example of this. Being a small country mill it was probably never prosperous enough to be updated with modern machinery so much of its original construction is still intact. It’s basically an authentic 18th-century mill. You can see all the little changes that have taken place over time though, and these things tell the mill’s story. For a millwright like me it’s absolutely fascinating, and a great privilege."
- Geoff, Millwright

Built in the early 1700s, Bembridge Windmill is a treasured and much-loved local feature and an important part of the Island’s industrial past. For over 200 years, this little industrial gem has served its community. Poignantly, milling stopped and never resumed when the men left to fight in World War One. In more recent years, the mill has been a wartime shelter, a Home Guard HQ, and has faced dereliction. It was rescued by the National Trust in 1961 and this year celebrates its 60th anniversary in our care.

Nestled in the quiet corner of a field, Bembridge Windmill is perched high enough for its sails to be seen across the surrounding countryside – a view that remains almost unchanged since it was immortalised in watercolour by JMW Turner in 1795.

When to visit

We’re hoping to reopen Bembridge Windmill in late spring to pre-booked visits three days a week. Visitors will once again be able to discover the mill’s stories, and explore its18th-century machinery as they clamber to the top, taking in glorious views half-way up across rolling fields and out to the sea. We also care for the idyllic landscape in which the mill resides. The wildlife-rich fields, copse, and hedgerows are home to dormice and red squirrels, amongst other flora and fauna.

" People on the Island will be thrilled to see the mill reunited with its sails; it’s looked so forlorn without them. "
- Kathryn, Visitor Operations and Experience Manager