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Monday, 24 November 2014

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Millers gave name to village

THE village of Riding Mill would have been simply called Riding or Ryddyng – a clearing “ridded” of trees – if it was not for the big water mill at its heart.

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Daily grind: Mill Cottage, Riding Mill, where generations of millers lived and worked.

The Rising Water Corn Mill was where ye olde villagers of Riding Mill took their grain to be made into flour from time immemorial. The mill we see today mostly dates from the days of Elizabeth I, though there were mills on the same site going back another half millennium.

Not long after Charles II was crowned, the millers of Riding Mill decided they hadn’t got room to swing the wife and kids so they added Mill Cottage next door, which is at present for sale.

For most of their history, Mill Cottage and the Mill have shared a landlord.

From about 1660, Thomas Errington was master of the estate which included Riding Mill. So Errington would have been the earliest owner of the Mill Cottage, and may indeed have been its builder as it dates from about 1663.

Errington seems to have used Riding Mill as his bolt hole when the political climate of Newcastle, where he was Postmaster General, became too hot for him. As a renowned local Parliamentarian, he must have kept his head down when Charles II, son of the Royal Martyr Charles I, came to the throne.

Errington also built Riding House opposite Mill Cottage, which later became the Wellington Inn. But long before the venue became famed for fine dining, it had a reputation of a less enviable kind.

Riding House was notorious for its coven of witches, and the miller Robert Johnson – who most likely lived in Mill Cottage – was right at the heart of the pagan infestation.

Johnson apparently belonged to one of five Riding Mill covens – he probably supported the handy Riding House branch, where they danced with the devil, saddled up and rode their neighbours, turned into cats, hares, greyhounds and bees, rode on wooden dishes and spoons, and danced with a man they called “god” while swinging on a rope from the ceiling.

To keep up the energy for all this enchantment, the coven feasted on boiled capon, cheeses, butter, beef, plum broth, bottles of wine and “humming ale”.

These intimate details of witchy life emerged when one of the coven turned her coat and shopped the rest at the Morpeth Assizes of 1673.

Anne Armstrong from Stocksfield was the reformed witch, who had a day job as a Riding House maid. And, soon after Anne’s sisters-and-brothers-in-magic were found not guilty by a cynical Morpeth magistrate, poor Anne went swinging again on a rope from the ceiling at Riding House, but this time the rope was round her neck.

Anne’s cringing little ghost was said for many years to haunt the scullery where her body was found.

A family of inventors were next into The Mill from about 1722, and presumably they lived in Mill Cottage. These creative millers were the Boltflour/Boultflower/Beauflower family, who got their name from their invention to improve sieving or “bolting” flour to make finer bread.

At the Wellington Inn you can still see the initials “T B” carved above the door. They used to read “T E” for Thomas Errington, but when the Boltflours moved in they felt entitled – as famous inventors – to leave their own mark.

They were an up and coming family – William “Boultflower” was sheriff of Newcastle in 1701. In 1775 Dorothy “Beauflower”, the noted heiress and beauty, inherited The Mill. Sadly, sweet Dorothy Beauflower was cut down in her prime, just two weeks after turning 21.

In 1806, we were still mourning Lord Nelson when Mr Bemiett took over ownership of the Mill and made William Richardson its miller.

The Richardsons all proved to have safe pairs of hands, and they ground the wheat of Riding Mill for almost 100 years and through several ownerships, until 1902.

By 1910 there was no more grist for The Mill – local people could get their flour from corner shops by then – but the technology of the building didn’t go to waste.

The Mill was re-invented in 1910, first as a water-powered sawmill, and later as a dynamo to supply electricity to surrounding houses.

Coincidentally this clean, green energy option, in action in Riding Mill during the first half of the 20th century, has been hailed as a possible energy saviour in the 21st century.

An Environment Agency study announced this month that the nation’s waterways are a vast untapped resource which could generate enough power for hundreds of thousands of homes, via up to 26,000 turbines – aka watermills.

Sites along the Tyne and its tributaries – at Hexham, Prudhoe, Haydon Bridge and Bellingham – have been earmarked for this revolution in sustainable energy production. But it’s old news indeed to residents of Mill Cottage at Riding Mill.

l The Mill Cottage at Riding Mill is for sale via Northumbria and Cumbria Estates of Fore Street, Hexham.

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