Yorkshire’s Green And Pleasant Land (9)
By Amy Dixon
IS THIS THE NOISIEST
Centuries of milling at Stillington
For a long time after the end of the war bombers from the aerodrome behind Stillington continued to climb over the village, a wing span over the house tops, or to swoop down the street into the wind at the end of a journey. You had to shout if you wanted to be heard above the noise of aircraft.
On the day I was in Stillington I longed for a more peaceful place, and soon turned my back on the village, choosing a lane of promising quiet.
At the end of that lane I came upon the old world, but was it quiet? Not a bit! It was almost as noisy, if less irritating, than the village street. A swift stream tumbled from the hills, snatching loose pebbles in its track, and at the bottom it turned the water wheel of one of the oldest mills in the county.
I had always wanted to see inside one of the tall flat-faced water mills that are now becoming extinct. Hurried glimpses through open doors of a misty white world, peopled by hoary looking figures, used to titillate curiosity. In later years these places, having become silent, seemed even more mysterious.
A blanched world
Here, however was a mill, a one-man mill, with its wheel still turning noisily, regularly; here was the soft sound of ground corn slithering into sacks; here was a miller like a little lean snow man; here was air like an enlarged sunbeam; and here were thousands of white cobwebs festooning ceiling and walls.
“Ay, we’ve always been millers in my family,” said Ned Gibson, and I was startled to see that the only bit of colour in that kind of dry fog were his eyes, as blue as cornflowers. His clothes were white, his hair, his hat, his eyebrows and lashes, and looking down I found that I, too was taking on a shrouded look.
“My fayther, his fayther before him, and his fayther before him, and right back in history, the Gibsons have been millers here,” he said. “See that door.”
He swung wider the open mill door, heavy and thick, solid oak, whitened though it was, and newer looking than anything in the place.
“That door is the only modern bit of work in t’mill. Yet, look at this” With a hand as pale as a water lily he brushed the flour from the door face, revealing carvings in the wood of water mills, windmills and initials – N.G. 1805, N.G. 1807, NG 1811.
“The Ned Gibson of that day could write, you see, and look here,” and over by the shute down which the flour sped the miller swept a hand across the wall and there suddenly stood out, as by a miracle, miniature carvings of the old post or rotary windmills.
“The hand that drew these post mills must have seen them working,” said Ned,” And post mills were the first mills in England. They began life in the 12th Century, the whole tower rotating on a base to bring the sails to face the wind. See these carvings show how they worked.”
It seemed incredible that Ned Gibson’s mill should be so old that one of his ancestors could carve so accurately the first mills ever used, even though the post mills survived a century or two. I began to think that the cobwebs were, in reality, what they looked like – sleeping bats, frosted with age.
The miller's cough
Farmers for miles around bring their corn to Stillington mill. All day long the great wheel is “beaten up” by the channelled water, and the miller’s blue eyes look through the open door and out over the green Plain of York. Sometimes he coughs: he must be as white inside as out.
“The flour gets on your chest,” he said. “But we keep the old mill going. All the Gibson millers died in harness, but there’s no one to follow me. My little lad died when he was seven. I’m the last of the male Gibsons.”
It is rare for Ned Gibson to have a visitor. Working and living away from the village he sees few people. He cannot get about much, for he must ever be feeding corn to the shallow vat that spins in the room above.
Still in search of quietness, I left Ned to his wheel and walked towards the church. On my way some children came dancing and skipping, their bare feet kicking up the dust. Their shoes hung round their necks by the laces. They were going for a paddle in the icy coldness of the mill stream.
Suddenly, one leaped on an old millstone, half hidden in the grass verge. How much did these children know of the past of their village?
“What is that stone?” I asked. “Dunno.” said one boy. “Isn’t it very old?”
“Dunno.” said the second boy.
“I know,” said the girl who danced, in small shy voice. “It’s over 100 years old and it’s a millstone.” She paused for a breath, and taking courage, went on: “There were three mills here once and stones like this were used to grind the corn.” The boys, abashed at so much learning, left her and the child walked back with me.
“I like books,” she said “but grownups say reading is a waste of time. Only teacher says reading is useful”
Her voice, hardly more than a whisper, became shrill as a bomber circled low. She ran off, and I went on to the top end of the village. There, the caw of rooks in the trees round the churchyard was clamorous. I sat down on the high grassy slope bordering the street, among the daffodils, and contemplated this really noise-ridden village, which incidentally has an hourly bus service into York – just one more noise in the general din.
A village story
Beyond the church the village rises higher to the duck pond. Opposite me was the road to York that divides the village. To the left stretches the grassy street slopes, the cobbled paths, the houses each with a character of its own. There was one with such tiny bedroom casements that it reminded me of the rabbit’s house in Wonderland through the upstairs window of which Alice could just get her hand. It seemed impossible that anyone could lean out of one of the windows.
On the other side of the road was an example of the delightful way in which a village shop can be converted into a modern cottage. Painted white and guarded by a finely-wrought iron gate, with a mail-studded door, and rare pieces of pottery on the long window sill of the sitting-room, formerly the shop, it looked very effective. I smiled again over the story of a village character of nearly 90 who, soon after the new occupiers had settled in, opened the door without knocking, walked into the former shop, picked up this piece of china, that article of copper, and said at last, “Very nice antiques you have; very nice indeed. How’s trade?”
A few elderly women, armed with buckets, were scattering a white powder over the cobbles fronting their dwellings.
“What is it?” I called.
“Salt,” they said.
“Keep the weeds down. Some pays the village lads to weed – look yon! But we find common salt cheaper.”
Sure enough half-a-dozen youngsters were rooting up weeds with old kitchen knives on certain of the cobbled fronts.
“Getting ready for the Whitsun Feast,” I was told. “There’s never been a weed on the cobbles at Feast time, and there won’t be this time. That goes without saying.”
“Come and sit in my garden.” said a hospitable villager. “It’s quiet there.”
Ah, there was some quiet, then, in Stillington.
I tripped over the uneven flooring in her little passage.
“Vibration of bombers,” she said. “All our floors are sinking in places and ceilings coming down.” She pointed upwards where gaps in the plaster showed the damage caused by bomber vibration. “Hardly a house in the village but is the same.” She said.
The little garden looked over to Brandsby and Crayke. Here was peace - but not for long. Even as my hostess smiled at my content a neighbour let down, with a clang and a clatter, a bucket into her well. She turned the wretched handle, and with sundry squeaks up came the dripping bucket. So used had my hostess become to the noise of water-drawing that she was quite unconscious of it.
“Does everybody get their water that way?” I asked.
“Oh, no, only about six villagers. Everybody else has tap water, and most garden wells are now boarded up.”
“Any water closets?” I asked wearily, getting rather tired of the subject.
“No,” was the answer, “unless there be one up at the doctor’s and the vicar’s. We have ash-pits. There’s mine.” (I declined to view it) “Mebbe they’ll put water lavatories in the new council houses they talk of building”
“For whom?” I said, wincing again at the screech of the winch.
“Farm labourers. A lot of ‘em are in lodgings round here. Housing is wicked. How can labourers work when they haven’t a proper home to rest in?”
Only another noise
The noonday hour being past, children ran back to school, and soon, close by, there was a hammering and a tapping, and a medley of men’s voices.
“What on earth?” I said, having developed a headache.
“Only the builders converting an old house for the district nurse, dearie. We’re all that glad she’s going to have a house of her own, and a telephone, mark you!”
“Anybody go to church?” I asked, expecting the worst but hoping for the best.
The winch’s screech had stopped. The sun was hotter. Was it worth while pursuing the subject?
“I don’t know. Parson’s a rare good preacher.”
She went on to talk of other villages, and thought perhaps some parsons did not take a real interest in their country flocks as they used to do.
“I know several village parsons,” she said, ”for my folk are scattered about Yorkshire, but few village parsons visit their parishioners, be they sick or well.”
She went on to say a good word for what she called “The Brothers” in Stillington, the Roman Catholic Alexian Order that has a Nursing Home at the Hall at the bottom of the village, for cripples and incurables, “of all denominations.”
A universal view
“The Brothers are that kind and good,” she said. “The minute anyone is ill, or has an accident down one of them comes with offers of delicacies, night nursing, messages and so on.
Not a villager but had a good word for these men.
“Not that I hold with Catholics,” said one villager (for everyone spoke of “The Brothers”).
“but they’re so thoughtful; nothing is too much trouble to them. They’re of more use to the village up at the Hall than any squire could be.”
“And it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Anglican, or Methody or heathen – it’s all one to them. They don’t talk. They act.”
“When the worst of the batches of slum evacuees reached the village from Hull and Middlesbrough during the war the Brothers took them into their Nursing Home and cured them of skin diseases, hair diseases, bad stomachs and vile habits. They’re fine at treating things like that. And they didn’t make a song and dance about it either.”
Villagers are encouraged to take any kind of trouble to the Alexians. They are never turned away. The Brothers have associated themselves very strongly with the life of the village, though there is but a handful of Catholics in the place.
I asked another villager what he thought, knowing already that he knew a good deal of the inside of each of the five pubs in the place, and had never been inside either the Church or the Methodist Chapel.
“I think nowt to Catholics,” he said bluntly “but them ‘Brothers’ is different.”