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Reminders of a Rural Idyll in Yorkshire

THE HISTORIC focal point of one of Yorkshire and Nidderdale’s best loved villages has sprung splendidly back to life thanks to a major restoration project.

The waterwheel at Darley Mill Centre, near Harrogate, has been lovingly restored after falling into disrepair.

Now, thanks to a year-long £100,000 restoration in 2009, the wheel on the side of the mill is turning once again, harking back to days of yore.

The sizeable investment and some 11 months of painstaking restoration work by Northern Millwrights has breathed life back into the majestic wheel.

Darley Mill is a unique 17th C corn mill on the banks of the River Nidd in Nidderdale, and a major retail centre.

Both the historic mill buildings and the waterwheel have been gloriously revamped while sympathetically maintaining their original historic appeal.

The restoration of the historic 27ft pitch breast shot wheel has been powered by a change of ownership of the site.

Ross Leventhal, managing director of the Harrogate-based Yorkshire Linen Co, acquired the Grade II listed building in January 2009.

Both Ross and his wife worked at one time for Ponden Mill, which originally launched the Darley Mill Centre in the mid 1980’s. Ross had two goals in mind – to re-establish the well-known Mill Centre as a premier retail outlet and to see the water wheel turn again.

He has spent more than £1.5 million since, upgrading and restoring the building which, two decades ago, pioneered factory outlet shopping in the county.

The painstaking work on the wheel included dredging more than 2000 tonnes of silt from the mill race, reinforcing the embankment, replacing 60 "buckets" on the wheel with English Elm, replacing worn bearings with new examples forged from phosphorus bronze and also replacing rotten transoms with sturdy English Oak.

A team of craftsmen and experts restored the much-loved waterwheel to its former glory with the key work being undertaken by Northern Millwrights, of Bentham.

A search by the renovation team failed to turn up the original drawings of the wheel, so the industrious group used a combination of traditional and modern methods to enable the wheel to retain much of its original look.

The mill was originally powered by a large locally manufactured iron waterwheel in 1874. The ten pairs of spokes radiating out from the cast iron hub are fashioned from English Oak sourced in the north of England and  are connected to the existing cast iron rim which still retains the name of J. Todd, of the Summerbridge Foundry from the 1800s.

Water power has been used successfully to provide mechanical power for many mills sites in the UK both before and during the industrial revolution. It was the key driver of probably the early agricultural-related revolutions in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Cistercian monasteries, in particular, made extensive use of water wheels to power watermills of many kinds.

Grist mills (for corn) were the most common, but there were also sawmills, fulling mills and mills to fulfil many other labour-intensive tasks.

The water wheel (generally speaking as a means of power) remained competitive with the steam engine well into the Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately, the demand for higher powers for greater production, the advent of steam power, central station electricity generation, the internal combustion engine and cheap fuels led to the demise of hundreds of watermills and waterpower within Europe and the UK around the time of the Second Industrial revolution in the UK.

Of the estimated 30,000 working mill sites in the early to mid 19th century, less than 1,000 now remain and less than 400 have been restored or maintained.

Darley Mill is one of these, and also one of eight manorial mills in Darley.

The wheel finally ceased to operate in the 1950s, though it continued to operate sporadically as a tourist attraction until the turn of the millennium.

In the early days, the waterwheel was totally covered by a single pitched roof; however once this was removed the wooden constructed buckets and spokes deteriorated.

In the 1980's after various periods of inaction the mill was purchased by Ponden Mill Limited. Darley Mill was then carefully restored (in 1985) into a retail outlet selling a variety of linens, crafts and clothing.

Previously the wheel had been renovated in 1922 by Charles Skaife who was the last serious miller to operate and own the mill.

The mill became the focal point of Darley long after the wake of the Black Death which brought misery and change to Darley. It took grain from the surrounding area for grinding into flour.

During the next few centuries, Darley became an area of arable farming like many of the villages within the Forest of Knaresborough.

However, by the early 16th Century Darley’s open fields were becoming enclosed, hastening the need for a water mill.

Thanks to the restoration of the wheel, it is hoped, as well as providing aesthetic appeal, the wheel could help provide electrical power to the mill.

Alison Cormack, from the Darley Mill Centre, said:

“”It’s an absolute delight to see the waterwheel working again as part of the general redevelopment of the Mill, and we’re sure many people in NIdderdale, Yorkshire and beyond will welcome its return.

“When the day of testing finally came it was a very tense moment for all concerned and to see the water run down and turn the wheel was a very poignant and exciting moment for the entire team. We are very grateful to all involved in helping us bring this important bit of Yorkshire history back to sparkling life.

“There is a long history of local people working at the Mill which provides 25 full and part-time jobs in the area and some of the existing employees come from families which have lived in Nidderdale for many generations.”

Further exciting developments for the complex are planned for the near future.


·         A vertically-mounted water wheel that is rotated by falling water striking buckets near the centre of the wheel's edge, or just above it, is said to be breastshot. Other examples are undershot, overshot and backshot.

·         The Darley Mill Centre, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010 is located near Menwith Hill, just off the A59 between Harrogate and Skipton.  It offers three retail floors displaying a range of home, garden and gift items, a 60 seater licensed restaurant and tea room serving locally sourced produce giving visitors a window into the industrial past.

·         Online users can see the new wheel in motion at http://www.darleymill.com/news-and-events.html