Time travelling

When we bought our mill I was hoping to receive a sizeable pile of old deeds which I could study when whiling away the grey winter hours by the log fire with a glass of wine. I was rather disappointed therefore when it appeared that the old documentation had somehow been ‘discarded’ during the most recent changes of ownership and all our deeds showed were the last two owners, dating back to around 1985.

Earning a living, renovating the mill, and settling into our new life in France (with all the admin that involved) having taken up most of our time over the last couple of years, I hadn’t really got down to  any serious research until this year’s Coronavirus lockdown gave me a fair bit of spare time.

But where to start? I’m no historian and although I’ve always been interested in the past, I haven’t a clue how to go about finding the information I’m looking for, especially in another country and and a different language. So it’s going to be a bit of trial and error. I’ll keep posting on here about what I have found and just as importantly, where/how I found it. You never know, it might help someone out there find the story of their home in France, too.

Looking at the information we had in our Acte de vente (Sale contract) and from talking to neighbours, we knew that our predecessor had bought the mill from the last miller in 2001. (Le Moulin de la Roche had until then been a working water mill, milling grain for animal feed). We had already been told that as part of the terms of the sale to our predecessors, all the mechanism had had to be removed and that it could never be used as a mill again. We had been told that the Robert family, who had been millers there since the 1920’s, still had members in the milling business and didn’t want anyone going into competition with them.

Monsieur, from whom we had bought the mill, had then spent the next 15 years gutting the place and creating his ideal, modern home, until he ran out of money. So there were no secrets waiting to be discovered when we moved in (apart from dodgy wiring and piles of beer bottle tops everywhere!)

The received wisdom when trying to date a property is that you start by looking at the building and hunting for clues given by style, materials, features like fireplaces etc but it’s not that easy with a building that has always been an ‘industrial’ property. From old postcards that I had found on internet auction sites like delcampe.net, it was clear that the mill had never been a chocolate-box type of water mill (certainly not in the last 100 years at least) and had over the years been knocked about, extended, modernised then parts demolished again.

This is the earliest picture I have found so far. You can see the buttresses along the base of the back wall that reinforced the building and provided a counterbalance against the rotational forces of the wheel.

circa 1913
circa 1950
with ‘modern’ extension
How it looked when we bought the mill in 2016

You can see the exit from the wheel tunnel under the mill on the left. (Water mills in this area commonly had the wheel in a tunnel inside or under the building) The large concrete extension on stilts on the right-hand end of the building (as shown above) has gone.

At the front of the mill and from the first postcard above, you can also see that there used to be a second tunnel under the mill at the other end of the building. This has since been blocked up but can still be seen from the leat at the front of the building. What we don’t know is which one came first and if they were both in operation together or the current one replaced the original.

Moulin de la Roche, front facade, showing two wheel tunnels from the leat.

The building that was left when we took over was formed of two distinct parts. In this photo of the front of the mill, you can see the stonework, which is now revealed since the cement render has been removed from the building.  The part on the right in the photo below has traces of older windows and door openings and an interesting course of white tuffeau stone. The brick window surrounds are more recent 19th century (?) additions and some are quite new, probably part of Monsieur’s conversion.  

Frustratingly, I haven’t been able to find any old pictures of this front façade to see what it might have originally looked like.

Another thing that is striking is the thickness of the stone walls. On the ground floor the walls are well over a metre thick. The first floor walls are about half that thickness and the few original wooden floor joists that remain are laid on the ridge that this change in thickness creates on the inside of the building. At some point both the first and attic floors were reinforced with steel beams, presumably to support the weight of the heavier mill machinery in more recent years.

The left-hand end of the roof (looking at the front of the mill) has been remodelled several times, with the different extensions to the building and the timbers are relatively new but the right-hand end still shows much older, rough-hewn timbers (maybe re-used from another building?) and a structure dating back perhaps a couple of hundred years.

So, in short, the building we see today is a bit of a mongrel and on first inspection looks to be perhaps mid to late 1800s vintage, but who knows? If any of you knowledgeable people out there can give me some ideas of things to look for, I’d love to hear them.

I have so many things I would like to find out…

  • How long has the mill been here?
  • Who has lived here before us?
  • What was life like for them?

In the meantime I’ll keep you posted on my search and let you know how I get on. I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into a bit of local history.

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