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Sunday 13 Jul 2014

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Village SOS – Talgarth

The wheel on the water mill at Talgarth in Powys hadn't worked since 1946 when its then owner, incensed at paying prohibitive water taxes, smashed up all the milling machinery.

Now 65 years later, the wheel is once again turning, thanks to Village SOS and an ambitious plan to revitalise the crumbling building.

The idea of using the wheel to generate electricity had been kicking around in Talgarth for a while, and the scheme had even been given a small grant. But with £435,340 from the Big Lottery Fund in place, the whole idea as rethought, with new plans to restore the mill to working order, create an artisan bakery which could use flour ground on site, and an accompanying cafe.

Accomplishing all that in one year was a tremendous ask for the community, and for Anne Hillyer, who was chosen as the project's business expert. A former director of the London Comedy Festival, Anne had retrained as an agronomist, and had spent several years in Africa working in rural areas to increase yield of their crops.

She was taken with Talgarth from the off. "I thought it was a winner because it had a really strong community here, though it was obviously really run down," Anne says. "There used to be a big psychiatric hospital close by which was a social centre – they held a lot of events up there, May Days with a maypole – but also the economic centre because of what it brought to the village. It was big employer, but even those that didn't live here would still buy things in the shops, so the shops were active. That closed down around 10 years ago. And the other thing that happened was the road used to come straight through the centre. Big juggernauts used to regularly bang into the houses and it was hideous because it was unsafe and smoky, but then they built the by-pass which meant no-one came through and economically the town started to die and pride was plummeting."

Encouraging locals to be part of the Mill project was difficult at first – "So many people would say 'what mill?'" recalls Anne. "They'd walked past the building but didn't know there used to be a mill there."

But a core group of those who had put the initial bid in and others who could see the potential started to coalesce around the project, including stonemason Saul Nicholas, who, after surveying the river and building for the original hydro-electric scheme, was employed to build the leat (the channel supplying water to the wheel), and other stoneworks.

Clearing out and restoring the original leat was a tough job, since all the slabbed floor had gone and it was full of rubbish.

But Saul says the biggest challenge was the weather, particularly the harsh winter which threatened to stop building work altogether. "We were coming down here and having to smash through solid ice and mud because we needed to lay concrete. Lots of times we felt like giving up but there was always one or two of us who said let's carry on, there's got to be a way. I went and learned a bit about how the Russians do it because they work right through their winters – they put mats down on the floor with electric heating, but that was too expensive, so we set fire to the ground to thaw it out!", he says.

The building has now been completely remodelled, with a new cafe area giving on to a beautiful river walk, a meeting and exhibition area where the old loft used to be, and the installation of a wood fired oven which the artisan bakery will use.

"I was a complete sceptic about that," admits Fiona Gray, one of the women on the bakery group. "But we were surprised at how efficient it was," adds fellow baker Stephanie Durning. "You do hot things like pizza and pitta and then rake out the fire and the big loaves go in. And as it cools, you bake different things which need lower temperatures."

The bakery group has already had Sarah Beeny making Fougasse bread – the bread, the first product they tried out in the initial drive to enlist volunteers, and shaped like a mill wheel, went down a storm. And they have also been enlisted to help run the cafe, which they say makes sense since they will share so many facilities.

But the linchpin for the project has to be the mill itself – and as the workings are the first, Anne believes, to be installed since the Sixties, each element had to be painstakingly hand made, including the massive cutting stones, weighing around three quarters of a ton each.

Getting to grips with the business of grinding flour – the project already has a couple of local farmers growing bread wheat for them, which they hope will eventually be milled and the flour used for the bakery produce – is just one of the jobs of the project's chairman Bruce Gray.

For Bruce, a high court advocate who also has a consultancy assessing risks for companies whose staff work in hostile environments such as Iraq or Somalia, the idea of learning an ancient practice had its charms.

"These practical skills have appealed to me," he says. "We have six millers, and we've had to learn things like the difference between the grain for plain flour and self-raising."

Initially, the Talgarth millers feared it might take a while for them to finely balance the Mill to the specifications needed to produce quality flour.

The only way to judge if the flour is properly milled is to feel it – "it's surprisingly hot and wet," says Bruce – and if it doesn't work then it's back to adjusting the stones and trying again. "The mill wright who taught us says it took him a year before he could get flour that was ready for baking," Bruce adds, wryly.

However, though they were not originally sure how long it would take them to "tame" their mill and see it at long last being used for its original purpose, to their surprise they managed to produce bread-grade quality flour before the end of the first weekend of milling.

The one thing they were sure about is how the project has brought members of the community together. "We as a group have come together and every single one of us has been enlivened and empowered," Bruce says.

And the community has already gained in population – Anne has loved the experience and the area so much she's planning to stay. He daughter, who had grown up in Norwich, where Anne moved from, is in a Welsh school, and Anne says her confidence has grown enormously, her husband is looking to sell his IT business and move down full time and Anne herself is enjoying the beautiful walks with the family's newly acquired dog.

"One of my favourite programmes was always Grand Designs," says Anne. "Now, with Talgarth Mill, I've got my own!"

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