Thursday, 3 October 2013

Pann Mill and a Local Loaf

Despite the fact that I now own slippers, drink bitter and watch the weather forecast with studied interest (even if I've got no plans to actually leave the house), I still like to convince myself I'm riding the first flush of youth, rather than bobbing along towards middle age. 

But finally, a few weeks ago, when the Ewing suggested visiting High Wycombe's Pann Mill for their Heritage Open Day and I actually felt excited about it, I had to finally face the truth; I am getting old (even if I hoped to restore my credibility slightly, by starting the day with hangover induced by the discovery of a bottle of homemade clementine vodka stashed at the the back of the freezer the night before).

Most people, even hardened Wycombites, will only ever see the edge of the waterwheel poking out from the trees as they drive along the A40; an inauspicious sight, and not one that seems worthy of much further investigation. But go through the gate and a whole secret world emerges, with its carefully tended lawns and flowerbeds, hidden steps, bridge over the river, and even a bench for reflecting and watching the wheel go round.

On their summer open days (usually held three times a year) the mill is also accessible, and, water levels permitting, you can climb the steep staircase to the first floor, to see the grinding stones in action. The recent wet weather turned out to be a bit of a bonus, and the River Wye was flowing faster than ever just in time for our visit. 

The history of Pann Mill is one of those stories that make you feel positive about the powers of preservation and community action. While first mentioned in the Doomsday book, in 1086, and rebuilt on at least three occasions until its most recent reincarnation, erected in 1759, it looked like the town planners of the 1960s were going to have their wicked way and direct a ring road right through the green space of Wycombe Rye, bulldozing the mill in their wake.

Fortunately a community action group clubbed together and, although the Mill and associated cottages were knocked down to facilitate a potential road widening scheme in the 1970s, a donation from Marks and Spencer in 1984, to commemorate their centenary, meant the High Wycombe Society could design and build a, much smaller, mill building. While originally this was just to house and preserve the original workings of the mill, there were soon plans to resurrect the water wheel and start milling flour on the River Wye again.

While it’s been a long and slow journey - funded almost entirely by donations and the work of volunteers - finally, in May 2000, the wheels were finally set in motion and Pann Mill began to grind its own flour once again. The mill now opens its doors three times a year, throughout the summer, for visitor open days where you can see the cast iron water wheel turning again, buy freshly milled flour, enjoy tea and cakes (or a good old chocolate crispy treat), and talk to some of the volunteers involved in the project.

As well as being a day for celebrating the resurrection of the mill there was also the bittersweet news that local volunteer, Margaret Simmonds, who had tended the gardens for so many years, was finally, at the age of 80 something, hanging up her trowel and moving closer to her family. Margaret has kept the garden looking picturesque for many years, and as a member of the Pann Mill Restoration project, The High Wycombe Society and the Friends of High Wycombe Library, her presence in the town will be keenly missed.

It’s only a tiny space, but the wait to ascend to the first floor to see the grinding stones in action proved to be worth it when the, rather dapper, miller was on hand to share his wisdom. On descending the stairs again you can see the freshly milled flour passing through the chute into a tray at the bottom. Not only is it rather exciting to have wheat freshly milled minutes from your doorstep, but the Gallant grain used comes from Hill Farm in Stokenchurch, less than 10 miles away. 

The wheat, still warm from its grinding, is then taken outside to be weighed and bagged for up for sale. At a pound per kilogram, the Ewing wasted no time in stocking up her reserves for her recently found love of making bread; this loaf below being baked by her very own hands using this Hobbs House recipe, with the addition of Pann Mill flour to the sourdough starter. 

Freshly baked bread made with Hill Farm wheat, grown locally in Stokenchurch and milled at Pann Mill in High Wycombe, spread with blackberry jam made from berries from my front garden. This is the very good life.

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