The highly-engineered floodbanks, dyke networks, mill and pump structures are an unsung testament to centuries of human effort to use this Great Estuary landscape for industry, commerce, agriculture and more recently for nature conservation.
The drainage mills of the Broads represent a unique survival. Collectively they are the largest concentration of wind powered pumps in the country and as a group are surpassed only by those of the Netherlands.
Wind powered drainage was not commonplace here until the eighteenth century, most documentary evidence points to the 1760’s as the decade when many private marshland owners, or groups of owners, established drainage agreements to set up mills and they became widespread across the Halvergate marshes and the main rivers.
These mills were primarily used during the winter months to drain excess water off the marshes. Extending the length of the grazing season and improving the quality of the grassland. Drained marshland was considered healthier and land values and rentals increased accordingly.
As a group, the mills demonstrate many stages in the development of wind pump technology and survive in a variety of forms – most often brick towers but timber smock mills, timber skeleton, tower mills and hollow post mills can also be found.
A few mills survive largely as built while others have been modernised, contain re-used material and show the work of a succession of different millwrights, each with their own distinct style and preferences for construction and repair.
The boat-shaped cap, which became the dominant design across Norfolk and Suffolk originated in the Broads and almost all mills that survive here were fitted with one.
What survives are a mixture of the automated mill with fantail and self-regulating ‘patent’ sails and a surprising number that last worked as the manual type, hauled into the wind by their large braced tailpoles and fitted with manually adjustable cloth covered ‘common’ sails.
The mills are an integral part of the vast Halvergate Marshes Conservation Area which includes 28 Listed Buildings and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The Conservation Area is included in Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, reflecting the declining condition of many of these unique and important mills and the risk to this special landscape.
Water, Mills and Marshes aims to improve the condition of these mills through teaching and transferring heritage skills to a new generation of crafts people.
Preventing the decline in heritage skills and restoring these iconic structures will ensure this unique landscape survives for future generations.