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Wind-wasted windmills

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Twenty-five years ago, on the night of 15 October 1987, southern England was hit by a storm more severe than any since the Great Storm of 1703. Winds felled 15 million trees, brought down power lines and damaged numerous buildings. Eighteen people were killed. Clean-up costs totalled some £2bn. 

Amid the general chaos, few people noted that the ravaged buildings included several historic windmills. But high winds have always been a problem for mills. The 1703 storm was so violent that an estimated 400 windmills were toppled or burnt down.

Windmills face a fire risk during high winds because friction can set the wooden windshaft alight if the sails (or “sweeps”) spin too fast. A wooden brake is used to stop the shaft spinning, but a strong wind can overcome it.

This is what happened in 1987 to one of a pair of windmills, known locally as Jack and Jill, on the South Downs. When sparks were seen flying from Jill at 5am, volunteers braved the storm and tried to increase the brake’s grip using ashes from a bucketful kept for just such an emergency. But they failed, and the mill began to burn. The volunteers then formed a human chain to carry buckets of water to douse the flames. They saved the mill from destruction, but it took two years to repair the damage.

Other historic windmills were not so lucky. The storm wrecked the early 18th century St Leonard’s Mill at Winchelsea in East Sussex — shortly after the completion of restoration work. And Syleham Mill in Suffolk, of similar age, was also destroyed.

In another Suffolk village, Bardwell, the wind lifted the cap and sails from a windmill’s brick tower and dashed them to the ground.  In this case, repairs were possible, but restoration was not completed until 2010.

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