The dappled light through the poplar trees plays on the rippling water, as the bright turquoise flash of a kingfisher startles a heron who lifts himself gracefully into the air and glides off along the river with long beats of his elegant wings…
Yes, it is that peaceful most of the time but sometimes being the owner of an old water mill is not very glamourous, as Colin and I have been finding out.
The first problem was unblocking the tunnel under the mill, where a winter’s worth of river debris had piled into the waterwheel and was effectively damming the flow of water. But when the leat is full of water it is impossible to get into the tunnel, and there is no sluice gate to stop the water flow into our leat from the main river.
If you have read about the floods and damage we suffered last November, you will know that we have been waiting to repair the main sluice gate under the mill for some months now.
Every three years the local river authority have a period of écourues in the spring when they drain the rivers to carry out maintenance work. This requires massive coordination with all stakeholders along the river, conservationists and permission from the local préfecture. We decided that this would probably be the best time to try and clear the debris and assess the damage. Once the river level had dropped enough to get into the tunnel we spent several days wading backwards and forwards through the tunnel and hauling tree trunks, branches and assorted rubbish back out into the leat and then hoisting them on ropes up the 4metre-high leat wall. It was cold, wet, mucky and back-breaking work. In fact we had to do it repeatedly as every time the tunnel was clear we got another a storm and another mass of rubbish from up river.
Once the rubbish was out we could see the extent of the damage. The vanne, large sluice gate had been bashed out of its runners, twisting the iron bars and racks that attached it to the rack and pinion lifting mechanism inside the house. In order to remove it, Colin had to saw through the ancient oak boards whereupon the two enormous racks fell to the bottom of the tunnel and had to be dragged out by hand, across the leat and out onto the bank on the other side. They were far too heavy to lift up over the wall.
Once we had the racks out we had templates and could start to try and find someone to make replacements. After a lot of false starts a local metal working company responded quickly to my enquiries and came out to quote for the job. We also asked them to quote for a steel trash grill to go on the entrance to the tunnel to stop the same thing happening again. As the only access to the sluice gate and the wheel is via the tunnel I asked them to design it with a gate that could be opened (outwards) and stipulated the spacing between the bars to make sure that it wouldn’t get blocked by masses of fallen leaves and small branches, which we can let pass through the wheel without worrying, as well as the force of water and debris it would need to withstand in the winter. All this certainly tested my French and I was mightily relieved when the proposed design came back and ticked all the boxes. (Not so delighted with the eye-watering bottom line but beggars can’t be choosers) We commissioned the work and waited.
Meanwhile the écourues had finished and the river was allowed to rise again. The effect of us having unblocked our tunnel was that our arm of the river was now free to flow straight through and out. Normally our sluice would be there to stop it running away too fast in the summer, controlling the level of water upstream. Colin had blocked the entrance to the leat earlier in spring with a couple of oak boards but they were not able to withstand the added force once the ecourues had finished and the river levels rose. They gave way and the river was free to flow downhill again.
By now we were several months into a prolonged drought. The neighbouring farmer arrived to say that he and other farmers upstream didn’t have enough water for their fields and his cows were escaping across the river. The mayor came round to look at the problem. Colin and I had already decided that we would need to dam up the other end of the water course into our leat to dry it out and ensure that the installation of the new sluice gate could be carried out safely. Farmer-neighbour and mayor were happy that we were doing our best and said that they would leave it to us and see what happened.
Now let me just explain that the river flows into our leat through a large 2 metre high culvert, which passes under the main road from the village. The other end is pretty much inaccessible as the only way to get to it, other than through the culvert itself, is down a very steep (almost vertical ) bank about 8 metres high. This would take some ingenuity.
So off we trotted to the local DIY store and bought a load of floor joists which we constructed into a double thickness set of interlocking building blocks which could be floated through the culvert and put across the mouth of the culvert at the other end, to form a dam. The bottom of the culvert pipe also sits about 50cm above the river bed on the other end so the dam had stay in place without being fixed at the bottom and without the wood floating away! We couldn’t fix it in place, or we wouldn’t be able to remove it afterwards, so it had to hold in place with the force of the water behind it. The prefabricated concrete culvert pipe had a lip around it, so with a bit of careful measuring the floor joist building-blocks were tailored to lodge just inside this. We also had to bear in mind how we were going to remove it again later, once the river had risen behind it.
And it worked! Happy farmer, mayor and us.
The draining of the leat had revealed a large solidified island of silt and debris in the middle of the leat which had been accumulating for at least 25 years since the mill was last used for milling. This needed to be removed to ensure the millstream flowed smoothly.
The banks around the leat are too narrow to allow any big excavating machinery access and a mini digger just wouldn’t have the reach to get over the wall and down into the bottom of the leat. So I decided it would need digging out by hand. Colin thought I was mad!
So while we waited for the sluice gate and grill to be made I spent many a muddy hour digging out and filling bucket after bucket with slimey, oily (from decaying leaves) mud, hauling it out to the bank and gradually building up a narrow part of the bank with it. The mud had to be placed and tamped to consolidate it, one handful at a time, so this was not a quick job. Colin helped when he could but the new school term had just started and he had to do ‘proper’ work for clients.
But this week it all came together.
The new sluice gate and grill arrived and were fitted over 3 days. Each part had to be manhandled down into the leat, across the muddy drained mill pond, through the tunnel and assembled in situ with the new oak boards being slid into place down the runners and bolted onto the steel straps and new racks one piece at a time.
The new bank is seeded and starting to look good and …
And I never thought I’d ever hear myself say the words, but ” I just love our new sluice gate and trash grill!”