Wight Life

The Tides Are Free

By John D Whitehead

THE RISE AND FALL of tides is a gift of nature. Our forebears used them to great effect and at an absolute minimum of cost, but we are so satiated with the complexities of man-made science that we can no longer appreciate the simplicity of the natural things that the Almighty created to supply our needs.

We remember windmills and watermills as a picturesque part of a past civilisation — of a period when living had a slower, perhaps happier momentum. We can still see a few examples of them, most in a state of dereliction, but occasionally preserved as museum pieces to remind us of that half forgotten way of life. Tide mills, on the other hand, seem to have been forgotten altogether.

I suppose this is not to be wondered at. They were, after all, far less numerous than wind or water mills for they had to be built on the sea's edge and needed, moreover, a location where there was a considerable drop between high and low water. But they were efficient and never, ever suffered a lack of motive power. Where windmills might be powerless on a calm day and watermills might stagnate in a season of drought, the tides went on providing their impetus day in and day out for ever and always.

So what was their secret? Well, they were exactly like the ordinary watermill beside a stream or river except for the fact that their essential motive power — their mill pond — was not supplied by water running between banks on its way to the sea, but by the sea itself. Rising tides filled the mill pond and, as the tide ran out, so did the water from the mill pond, via the mill wheel.

The north coast of the Isle of Wight was an ideal area for this purpose and there were more tide mills per mile on the Solent shores of the Island than anywhere else in Britain. Their heyday was the latter half of the eighteenth century when generous markets were offered by the naval vessels continually revictualling at Spithead and the constant flow of transports in Cowes Roads. Those were, of course, the days of private enterprise, before Mother had anything to be proud about. At that time the Island could boast tide mills at Freshwater, Yarmouth, West Medina, East Medina, Wootton Bridge, St Helens and Brading.

Freshwater and St Helens were both entirely dependant upon tides to fill their ponds. The others had the best of both worlds in that they also had streams to augment their head of water and so could work even longer hours which would, no doubt, have presented grounds for bitter dispute had there been union representation in those days.

East Medina Tide Mill

Probably East Medina was the biggest and busiest of them all. It was built by a Newport baker, William Porter, in 1790 and did a valuable trade supplying ships biscuits to the transports and convict ships which moored in the Medina. By 1799 Mr Porter had made his moderate pile and sold out to James Roach whose family continued to work the mill right up to 1939 — nearly 150 years of continuous operation without the expenditure of one single penny for motive power! Of course, one must appreciate that, in these enlightened days, you must pay for such a commodity — it would hardly be progress otherwise. But it does make one think!

So why is East Medina not running now? No doubt, the war presented insurmountable labour problems and, when peace eventually arrived, a new era had also come — an era of mammoth combines which put the Roach family out of business. Today, all that remains as a memorial to William Porter are a few pieces of twisted, rusting ironwork embedded in the sea wall, whilst one of his old tide ponds provides docking space for the Medway Queen.

West Medina Tide Mill

Another of William Porter's enterprises was West Medina Tide Mill. He started it the year after his East Medina project commenced work, using the site of an ancient, medieval mill. But he ran into trouble. In 1793 a financial crisis brought his efforts to a halt with the buildings completed but the millwrighting work still to be finished. Despite his already obvious success with East Medina his bank was unable to offer further backing. One can imagine Mr Porter's fuming frustration, but he never did get West Medina operative and, on his retirement in 1799, the buildings were taken over as a medical unit and barracks in connection with the Parkhurst military base. Then, in 1840, a Mr Charles Francis took over the buildings and began the production of `Medina Cement'. So West Medina did eventually reach full production even though the product was somewhat less edible than flour. For thirty years Mr Francis continued to make his own type of cement but, by then, the Portland product had proved its superiority and he changed his process and, in 1900, he amalgamated with the Associated Portland Cement Company.

Wootton Bridge Tide Mill

Drawing of Wootton tide Mill

Wootton tide mill prior to demolition in 1962. The mill was housed in the low section behind the part with gables.

Of the other tide mills around the Island probably Wootton Bridge is the most interesting. The buildings were ruthlessly demolished in 1962, but they had formed without doubt the oldest of our tide mills since, reputedly, they were built for the monks of Quarr not long after the foundation of the Abbey in 1131. All that now remains are a few relics of machinery preserved by the National Trust in Bembridge windmill. The present road from Newport to Ryde crosses Wootton Creek by a causeway which once formed the dam for the tide pond. This pond was filled, not only by the waters of the creek, but also by Blackbridge Brook.

Freshwater Tide Mill

Very little is known of Freshwater tide mill, either regarding its construction or its demolition. Maps up to 1820 show `Freshwater Mill', but the first edition of the six inch Ordnance Survey map marks it as a ruin. It was situated on or close beside the causeway carrying the road linking Freshwater and Afton and, without doubt, this causeway was originally the mill dam. One can assume that the pond was filled by high tides coming up the Yar as it still exists, but there is an interesting theory that it was also fed from water coming in from the south and that it was only the silting up of this entry, to form the present Freshwater Bay esplanade, that put the mill out of action.

Yarmouth Tide Mill

Drawing of Yarmouth Tide Mill

Yarmouth tide mill as it is now. The mill pond stretched out behind the building and the tide flaps can still be seen.

The buildings of Yarmouth tide mill still exist having been converted into living accommodation. They were built in 1793 — a bleak looking structure of brick with a slate roof, obviously more with utility than beauty in mind. The northern half, beside which Thorley Brook still trickles sluggishly through the tide flaps in the dam wall, was the 'works', whilst the southern half was the miller's house. The embankment for the railway to Freshwater, which was opened in 1888 and closed in 1935, cuts right across the middle of the tide pond and must, surely, have been the cause of the failure of the mill. Perhaps, at that time, the owner of the mill anticipated conversion to steam power for the stump of a chimney which still stands among the foundations of a ruined extension at the north-east corner of the building proves the existence of an engine. Probably the cost of this kind of motive power killed the project even in those days. It certainly would have if the mill had remained operative into our times.

St. Helens Tide Mill

St Helens tide mill was built about 1780 and seems to have provided its owners, Edward Way and Sons, with a highly lucrative trade. St Helens Roads was a busy anchorage and, though Edward would have a job to recognise his buildings now, the extensive tide pond still indicates the size of his business.

Brading Tide Mill

Brading tide mill has, sadly, disappeared without trace. Its position can only be assumed as due west of Brading railway station at the point where so many of the footpaths and rights-of-way across the reclaimed land converge and where curious deviations in the bed of the Yar may well indicate the pond which once fed the mill. Adjacent fields are known as `Mill Fields'. But the Only certain reference to it has been left by Sir John Oglander who records that a barn, dwelling house and water mill were erected by Sir Hugh Myddleton when he made the first reclamation attempt in 1622. It seems likely that the mill was built onto the embankment wall erected for this reclamation and was, therefore, destroyed in 1629 when the whole project collapsed and the reclaimed land was again, flooded until the second, successful, attempt in 1882.

So much for history. Can it not teach us anything? The Americans use water power to generate huge quantities of electricity. In the Isle of Wight, admittedly, our streams and brooks are hoplessly inadequate for such a task, but tides still rise and fall. The tides ran Wootton mill in the twelfth century and they still rise and fall eight hundred years later. They will rise and fall just the same when coal and oil have run out.