Tourism on my doorstep: Colchester’s Bourne Mill
Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town. Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum. After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep. Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.
Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter. The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.
Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle. The structure that you see is Norman. Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems. The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester. In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles. These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):
I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away. This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey. A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.
After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it. Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill. The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.
Well actually, not quite.
What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner. On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory. Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true. This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.
But that story doesn’t end there, of course. Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter. Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.
The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says. They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular. A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth. That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.
Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium. It became a fulling mill, a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable. A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive. Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth. Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead. Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.
After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more. The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton. As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape. By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed. Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more. The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm. I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.
Acknowledgements and practical information
I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill. If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children. The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm. Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access. There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.
There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us.
The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings. I shall be back soon to try it out.
If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer. Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10. Find out more here:
At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby. Better still, take the train. Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.
The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town. More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website: