Replacing Bembridge Windmill’s sweeps
Whilst other windmills around the Isle of Wight have crumbled away, Bembridge Windmill remains a traditional sight on the landscape to this day. Thanks to local fundraising support and a lifeline grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, new sails have been restored to the Grade I listed building. Find out how it all came together to restore the mill to its former glory.
Replacing the sails
Early in 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 the Bristol-based workshops of Dorothea Restorations.
‘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: ages, construction, materials, technologies. It’s wonderful to see how they were put together and to study the skills of former millwrights.’
- Geoff Wallis, Millwright, Dorothea Restorations
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.
The total cost of removing, building and installing the new sweeps and stocks was £38,000. Part of this was met by local fundraising support, including 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.
‘People on the island will be thrilled to see the mill reunited with its sails; it’s looked so forlorn without them.’
- Kathryn Wilson, Visitor Operations and Experience Manager, National Trust
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.
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.
Thanks to everyone who raised funds for the sweeps. We couldn’t have done it without your support.
Discover the story of Bembridge Windmill, from its 18th-century beginnings to inspiring Turner and being used as a shelter and lookout during the two World Wars.
Discover the highlights of Bembridge Windmill, the last surviving windmill on the Isle of Wight. Climb to the top, play in the Mud Bakery or make friends with a tree in the grounds.
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