The tangled thickets of nettle, blackberry and trumpet-shaped flowers sprawling across the site only heightened a sense of absence. From this vegetal maze, I could discern but a few cryptic clues to what went before: two fluorescent kitesurfing sails billowing above a bank of shingle hinted at an ocean beyond; three arches and a sluice gate, encased in a stone causeway yellow with age and sprouting grass, pointed to a forgotten industrial process. Originally a dam, the causeway still dissected the dried out remains of a mill pond and tidal creek; where once the tide surged to power three waterwheels, wading birds now ambled and pecked their way across mudflats.
Our missing tide mill was perhaps the country’s largest at its peak, with sixteen pairs of millstones grinding 190 tonnes (1500 sacks) of flour weekly for use across Southern England. It all started in 1761 when the Duke of Newcastle granted permission to three corn merchants to build a mill and dam on a tidal creek within his Sussex domains. This former course of the River Ouse offered a winning formula: free energy and access to river and sea trading routes. Barges and ships arrived at the mill’s wharf with grain and departed with flour for the markets at Lewes or London. The engineering behind this cereal transformation was simple but effective: the incoming tide passed through a sluice gate into the mill pond and when the tide turned water flowed from the pond driving three waterwheels housed within the arches, and, in turn, the millstone mechanism.
Mill master William Catt looms large over the history of this place. During a half-century of ownership from 1801, he boosted the mill’s capacity and output by tripling the millstones from five to sixteen pairs, adding another mill pond, and building a granary topped with a smock windmill to power the winches that loaded sacks on and off barges. Even more impressively, he built an entire village around the mill to house workers and their families, forming a self-contained complex encircled by a brick wall.
The place name was not the most imaginative, but the village did what it said on the tin: Tidemills. The village’s 70 or so residents had access to stores, a blacksmith’s forge, a carpenter’s shop, a school and communal laundry facilities – a self-sufficient community where work and life were not so much balanced as totally integrated. A zero commute and public services on tap might appeal to today’s worker, but perhaps less so the regimented life under Catt’s strict rules. For instance, one night Catt lay in wait to catch workers arriving late for his 10.10 pm curfew and punished them by withdrawing beer rations and forbidding them from leaving the village for a month.
Then as now, living by the sea brought its own benefits; one ex-resident, a Mrs Baker, said: “We could hear a lovely soothing sound – the sea over the pebbles and you would lay in bed at night… and there was something ever so soothing about it, you know”. Sometimes, the sea’s gifts were less predictable. In 1785, high waves swept a smugglers’ boat packed with spirits into the mill pond much to the delight of mill workers; other wrecks provided timber for building, coal for fires, and even candles. In April 1795, the location proved less desirable. A mutinous militia, stationed nearby to guard against a French invasion and aggrieved at inadequate food supplies, looted flour and rum from the mill. The ringleaders surely regretted it after their arrest and before their public hanging at nearby Hove.
150 years later, I tried in vain to imagine a thriving village as I stood on a ruined cottage floor under a pounding sun, knee-deep in purple wildflowers and flanked by ragged walls of vegetation and flint: neat lines of stone interrupted by gaping holes and blackberry bushes, their unripe fruit raised high like flags of conquest. Instead, I turned the matter on its head, passing the buck backwards in time: could the family living in this cottage 150 years ago possibly have imagined such a scene of wild abandon, devoid of descendants’ voices or family heirlooms, and with scarcely any notion of dwelling remaining?
Just as nature and human ingenuity combined to supply Southern England with flour for over a 100 years, so too did they collude in Tidemill’s decline: in 1864 the extension of the railway to Seaford made it cheaper for local farmers to send grain away for milling and then, in 1875, a terrible storm forced shingle into the mill pond and seriously damaged the mill buildings. The mill machinery was sold off shortly after and residents sought employment elsewhere. The village limped on for a while with land put to other uses, including a WWI seaplane station to combat German submarines, a racing stables and a hospital for sick boys.
The end when it finally came was inglorious and hardly befitting of such a rich 200-year history full of commercial endeavour, feats of engineering, mutineers, smugglers, and families living, loving, toiling and perishing in the shadow of an industrial colossus. In 1937, some cottages were condemned by the Council as unfit for human habitation while the Daily Mail described Tidemills as a “hamlet of horrors” without even a glimmer of light or a drain, for which the sea was its sewer and the beach its rubbish dump. The few remaining residents were evacuated in 1940 for fear of a German invasion. Humankind never returned to Tidemills, save for interlopers like myself, and nature has reigned supreme ever since.
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