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Devon’s ancient art of milling at Otterton Mill

PUBLISHED: 14:32 07 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 April 2015

The mill relies heavily on a core team of loyal staff

The mill relies heavily on a core team of loyal staff

Matt Austin Images 2013

The ancient art of milling is alive and well in Devon…but only thanks to one couple’s perseverance, as ANDREA KUHN discovers

The mill, which sits by the River Otter, in East Budleigh is recorded in the Domesday Book and was once the largest of 70 mills in DevonThe mill, which sits by the River Otter, in East Budleigh is recorded in the Domesday Book and was once the largest of 70 mills in Devon

There is a low rumble beneath your feet, a slight tremor. When Otterton Mill is at full pelt it is transformed by the noise of the huge wheel, which slews the river water round and powers the enormous grinding stones. It is a process that has barely changed in almost 1,000 years.

The mill, which sits by the River Otter, in East Budleigh is recorded in the Domesday Book and was once the largest of 70 mills in Devon. Now it is the only water-powered working flour-mill left in the county.

It lay derelict for many years until it was restored, in the late 1970s, by Desna Greenhow, and is also run as a café and art gallery.

Seven years ago Caroline Spiller was working at the mill as a part-time administrator but when the chance to take over the lease arose she persuaded her husband, Simon, it was the opportunity they had been waiting for.

They couple had been high fliers in the corporate world but their plan had always been to return to Devon to raise their daughter. It seemed the perfect opportunity.

Looking back now, they agree the adventure has been the best and worst of times. Caroline, 49, admits they had no idea of the level of work they were taking on which, for several years, became a seven-day-a-week commitment.

“I probably was a bit blind to a few of the problems,” she says. “I think it was also that I just thought ‘If I don’t do something like this now, I’ll never do it’.”

They had only been in charge for six months when they received their first big shock. The mill, which had not seen flooding for over 40 years, was knee deep in river water, mud and debris. Subsequently the buildings have flooded a further four times.

Milling processes have hardly changed over the yearsMilling processes have hardly changed over the years

“The car park alone was flooded more than a dozen times last year,” recalls Simon. “It has been a real challenge for us.”

“The loss adjustor knows us very well,” adds Caroline with a wry smile. “But we’re both made of pretty tough stuff.

“We’re not the sort of people who give up. It’s not in our nature.” However they both admit there were times they questioned what they had done and as a result they have completely changed the way the run the business. Stock is allowed to run low during flooding months and all items are stacked above knee level.

“It has had a massive impact on us as a family which and it has been difficult at times,” says Caroline, “But running this sort of business does give us flexibility and freedom. It is great that if we have an idea we can run with it. And there’s a sense of achievement of real in pride in what we have done.”

They rely heavily on a core team of loyal staff but that also has been shaken by the death of two key members and four more have been battling serious illness, including Simon himself

“All of that has been really tough,” he says. “I have to admit that we have on several occasions thought about throwing in the towel.”

Yet despite huge adversity the couple have built the business so that turnover has increased tenfold under their stewardship.

They have expanded the gallery, which exhibits the work of more than 50 artists from the South West, and the gift shop sells locally made products. They have also built up a reputation as one of the premier small venues for folks, roots, blues and jazz.

Caroline Spiller - 'Were not the sort of people who give up. Its not in our nature'Caroline Spiller - 'Were not the sort of people who give up. Its not in our nature'

Milling takes place twice a month producing the mill’s own signature blend of flour using wheat from Dorchester and Sidmouth. It is used in the bread and cakes baked and served at the mill’s café, which recently won a Taste of the West Gold Award.

Caroline says they have been determined to continue a local sourcing policy and they support a wide range of suppliers from around the area:

“The ethos of the mill is very important to us. I think after years of working in the corporate world it is very nice to feel good about what we do.”

To find out more visit www.ottertonmill.com

Caroline Spiller's top five things she loves about Devon

• Walking my dogs Millie and Charlie on Woodbury Common.

•Burrator near Tavistock- I have lots of happy childhood memories of my family picnics there.

•Living in Devon means we are able to live close to family.

•Going body boarding with my husband Simon and my daughter Emily.

•Sailing on our boat around Dartmouth and Dittisham past Agatha Christie's beautiful house Greenway.

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