History of Felin Crewi

Felin Crewi started life in the 15th century as a water-powered mill for fulling cloth.

What is 'fulling' you ask? Are you sure you want to know? Well, in the olden days when folk made woollen cloth, it was quite harsh, and before it could be considered wearable, it needed first to be treated with a sort of fabric conditioner. There was only one available at the time. Stale urine, which men and women employed as 'fullers' stamped into the woollen fibres. Hmm. Even in the 15th century, being a fuller was not a popular job, so they replaced the urine with a mineral compound 'fuller's earth' and mechanised the process, using a water wheel to operate a wooden beating contraption. If you know anyone called Fuller, you will know what their family business used to be. But don't tell them.

The quiet history of watermills

No one is quite sure how old watermills are but certainly the ancient Egyptians were using water power to grind corn. And so were the Greeks. The Romans brought the idea to Britain and by the 11th century, so the Domesday Book tells us, there were more than 6,000 watermills in the land.

Interestingly, in the middle ages the most accomplished millers were the Cistercian monks. They used water power for numerous purposes, such as sawing wood and preparing woollen cloth. But predominantly to grind the corn.

The Cistercian Monks

Millponds are traditionally associated with tranquillity. ‘Calm as a millpond’ is a commonly heard simile. It is perhaps not surprising therefore to learn that a religious order who spend their days in silence should accompany their devotions with the gentle background plash of a waterwheel. It’s a match made in Heaven.

Wheels within wheels

The technology was simple. A mill pond drew water from a river and directed it via a channel to the wheel. The buckets around the edge of the wheel filled and gravity lent a hand. The wheel gently turned. The wheel’s axle led into the interior of the mill where the power was transferred by an arrangement of wooden gears and cogs to drive an upright shaft which in turn turned the millstones. There were two. The one below was stationary and the upper one rotated. The grain was sandwiched between the two.

Let them eat cake

For most of history the corn was ground to create a dark wholemeal flour. But the in the middles ages the aristocracy discovered a taste for cakes. Bakers learned to sift the flour through cloths to remove the bran and the husk to create white flour.

This was a time-consuming process and only the wealthy could afford the status symbol of white flour. Cakes also required a commodity that in medieval Britain only the well-to-do could afford: sugar.

So the ordinary folk continued to make do with wholemeal bread.

It is one of the ironies of history that this meant the poorer folk enjoyed better nutrition because most of the nutritional value - Iron, vitamin E, almost all of the B vitamins, including folic acid – was contained in the germ.

From mill to factory

Towards the end of the 19th century millstones were replaced with metal rollers which could mass-produce white flour and so it became available to the masses for the first time. The result was an upsurge in the incidence of diseases associated with poor nutrition, such as pellagra and beriberi. Nowadays bakers are required by statute to fortify flour with Iron, Niacin, Thiamine and Riboflavin, thus putting back what has been removed.

The Sound of Silence

The method of milling flour using water power has, of course, long since disappeared from the world. But the waterwheels such as the one at Felin Crewi remain along with the attendant atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.

Visitors who seek to escape the noise and bustle of the modern world will find that a few days at Felin Crewi offers the perfect balm for soothing tired nerves. As well as the slower pace of life, and the beauty of the landscape, they will also enjoy an experience that is increasingly rare in the modern world. A thing called silence.