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Donkin's World: The Black Windmill

Richard Donkin recounts a bloody tale from troubled times in England's rich history.

The boy, Ben, pulls at his father’s shirt-sleeve. “Daddy, the floor’s dirty.” The man looks down and notices a dark stain blotting the polished floorboards. “It’s been here a long time, son,” says the man, feeling a draught as he speaks. “There’s bound to be stains.”

It's open day at the old flour-mill that stands proud on an earthen tump set aside from the village. The mill’s sail frames are still and silent and the central pole on which it once revolved is set and anchored now so that the mill no longer faces in to the wind. But the wheel that allowed the miller to move his machine in to position is still there. The ladder, the door and the mechanism inside are all preserved. It opens once a month to visitors, a tourist attraction now.

But not on that late August day in 1642 as the miller, “Dusty” Tom Bodden, a man slightly stooping now in his mid-fifties, his hair whitened by age and flour, opened his door to a breast-plated soldier, in a cow-hide smock, gauntlets and rounded helmet. The solider had asked for flour for his men. He’d paid a fair price too and Bodden had been happy to hand over his milling for the day. It was harvest time and the village would not go without.

The solider said his cavalry troop had come from Cambridge and was heading for Northampton to join forces with the Earl of Essex. They’d be staying a few days. The miller’s wife offered the men rooms and other villagers did the same and wished them well. Two of the ploughmen joined the troop and were carried shoulder high from the inn. There was no love here among the common folk for the papist king.

Bodden went to the inn and asked the soldier his name. The soldier said his name was Oliver Cromwell, a farmer, now an officer in the Parliamentary army. He wasn’t a handsome man but he wasn’t brash either, thought the miller. He was plain speaking and his men listened to him. He seemed to have their respect.

Not a chicken was stolen or a household disturbed beyond the comings and goings of the soldiers. Cromwell told the miller and the innkeeper that if either of them experienced insults or poor behaviour from his men, they were to tell him at once.

The village was buzzing. This was the first encounter for any of them with a war that had seemed distant and detached since the King had raised his standard in Nottingham before heading westward to gather more recruits. That had brought home to all of them that the country was indeed divided. Some of the young men had left to find the armies. The Proctor twins had argued and fought with their fists. One had gone to join the King’s men, the other had enlisted with Essex. Their mother and father had been beside themselves with worry.

The cavalry stayed three days and offered to leave a guard behind but Pastor Travis said that the villagers could look after themselves. Months passed without word of the fighting, the only disturbance being an artillery piece drawn through the village by four shire horses. It was on its way to Worcester, said the Parliamentary soldiers who accompanied it.

Bodden, meantime, borrowed some farm hands to switch the French burr stones he used for milling wheat to the coarser Derbyshire grit stones for grinding the barley.

It was dark inside the mill but he felt comfortable there, knowing every creak and groan of the wood. Some creaks would tell him of a wind change and he would go outside, climb down the ladder and heave the small wheel, sometimes with the help of a passing farm lad, until once more the sails were in to the wind.

The mill smelled of musty flour and after the harvest Bodden’s arms, hands and face turned a creamy white from the fine dust of the flour that crudded his eyes and layered his tongue. No wonder the locals called him “Dusty Tom” More than one youngster had taken him for a ghost as he opened the Mill door. Children on their way to the church school would not go near the mill, telling themselves it was haunted.

Tom Bodden laughed at the stories. He had bats nesting in his eaves, but there was no ghost there but himself. The mill was his life-blood, providing a good income for his family so that the Boddens were known and respected in the village. They had their own family pew in the church right next to those of the Standens, owned by the biggest landowners in the neighbourhood.

The Standen men were absent from Sunday worship. They’d gone west to join the King, taking with them their ablest farm hands, most of whom had no truck with the royalist cause. But they would fight for the King all the same at the behest of their master.

The Standen women and their children went to church, ensuring that the puritan pastor steered a wary path in his sermons. Henrietta Standen, the family matriarch and mother of the squire, James Standen, had spat at Bodden as she stepped out of the lych gate one Sunday. “Traitor,” she said. “Your time will come Tom Bodden and you’ll swing with all the other traitors.”

The younger Standen women had led her away and one of them, Martha, had apologised to Bodden and his wife. But the incident had troubled him. How had people come to hate each other so much, he wondered?

They lived more than 60 miles from London and none of the villagers he knew had ever been there. Politics didn’t interest them but religion did and this was a war of religion as far as he and most of his neighbours were concerned. They’d rid England of the papists in Henry VIII’s reign. They didn’t want them back but King Charles had changed everything.

A century had passed since villagers had whitewashed the church walls and ripped out the rood screen. The church was simple now, just like its congregation’s relationship with the bible. You couldn’t buy a seat in heaven in the same way that you could buy a pew in church. You had to earn your place in good works. And Tom Bodden tried hard to be a good man. He was faithful to his wife, fair to his children, paid a tithe to the Church and worked at his mill. “Why should I pay the King’s debts too?” he said.

Bodden prayed for a Parliamentary victory and as the war dragged in to years the fighting was swinging Cromwell’s way. Three years later the King’s men were in retreat when another cavalry troop galloped in to the village after the royalist defeat at Naseby not far from Northampton.

The men looked wild eyed and fearful, their fancy cavalier uniforms torn and spattered with mud and blood. Tom Bodden was at his milling when the door swung back on its hinges. The man who kicked it open ordered another to remove the stockpile of flour. Bodden rose to protest but the first man shoved the miller so that he fell sprawling on the floor. Bodden thumped his head on a timber and staggered to his feet. He recognised James Standen, a man he’d stood beside in church, exchanging pleasantries where never a harsh word passed between them. Neither man said another word before Standen lunged a rapier in to Bodden’s breast. The miller fell wide-eyed, mouth gushing blood that rippled over his flour-white smock.

Houses were ransacked, women raped, valuables looted and the inn drained of its ale before the troop went on its way. The miller’s wife found her husband’s body lying in his own blood on the floor of the mill.

Scrubbing couldn’t clean the wooden floor, even through the restoration work carried out long after the mill closed down and fell in to disrepair. Few people notice the stain today but when they do, like the boy and his father, they sometimes feel a chill in the air. Schoolchildren rarely venture near the mill as dusk draws over the common. Bats still fly from the roof and on dark nights some say they’ve seen the white figure of the miller at its door.


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