Wind power and invention

THE ROAD FROM ROYSTON to Wendens Ambo is both winding and hilly, as well as passing through attractive cultivated countryside. East of the village of Barley (in Hertfordshire), we reached the crest of a hill and saw ahead of us a lovely windmill painted white standing on the side of the next hill.

We stopped in a small car park beside the mill that stands on the western edge of Great Chishill (Cambridgeshire) and slightly below the village. The Great Chishill Mill is currently undergoing restoration, although what we saw of it looked in good condition. The mill was built in 1819 on the site of an older mill. It incorporates some timber from an earlier mill built in 1721. It is a fine example of an open-trestle post mill, one of seven surviving examples in the UK. Of these seven, it is unique in having a fan tail. Let me try to explain this.

The mill housing with its four great sails is mounted high on a central post around which it can rotate. An arm, the ‘tail-beam’, projects from the rear of the mill housing downwards towards the ground. Two wheels are attached to the lower end of the arm. When the wheels are made to move around a circular track in the middle of which stands the base of the post supporting the mill, the windmill can be rotated so as to position it best to benefit from the prevailing wind. Usually, the mill is shifted by hand, but this is not the case at Great Chishill. A second smaller windmill, the fan tail, rotates in a plane perpendicular to that in which the main sails rotate. When the wings of the fantail catch the wind, they rotate. As they rotate, their movement is transmitted via cogs and rods to the wheels attached to the tail-beam that projects from the mill house. The wheels rotate, and thereby turn the main mill sails so that they catch the wind. Thus, the fantail automatically repositions the windmill when the wind changes direction.

Prior to the invention of the fan tail system, shifting the mill around on its post involved heavy manual labour. When Alfred Andrews inherited the Great Chishill mill from his father Job, he installed the fan tail system (www.greatchishillwindmill.com/about-the-windmill.html). Long before he did this, the fan tail mechanism was invented in 1745 by Edmund Lee (died 1763), a blacksmith working near Wigan, England. Although only one of the surviving post mills is fitted with a fan tail, other varieties of windmills can be found fitted with a fantail that repositions the primary sails of the mills.

Great Chishill village is close to the post mill and is well worth a visit. It has a fine parish church, St Swithun, founded in 1136 and some fine old houses. Some of these have thatched roofs decorated with animals made of thatch including a pair of boxing hares, a pheasant, and a cat. Once again, we have set out on a trip, this time to Saffron Walden, and chanced upon something fascinating and quite unexpected along our route.

Sculpted by nature

WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.

We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:

“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”

The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.

We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.  

The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm).  On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.

We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings.  Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!

Life cycle

I HAVE OWNED ONLY ONE bicycle. My parents gave it to me as a gift when I was about twelve. My late mother, who was somewhat over-protective of my sister and me, restricted my use of the cycle to our not over large garden in northwest London. Cycling around in this confined face was hardly much fun. The bike fell into disuse.

BIKE 2

In the early 1970s, I met a friend in Luxembourg a few days before he was to be interviewed for a job in the administration of the European Parliament. We spent a night in a youth hostel in Echternach. On the following day, we hired cycles to do some exploring. We cycled over hill and dale, mostly uphill it seemed, through attractive forests until we reached the small town of Vianden about 18 miles away to the north. The bicycle, which I had hired, had a gear change lever attached to its handlebar. I kept fiddling with this as we rode through the summer heat, but it seemed to make no difference to how the vehicle moved.  

When we arrived in Vianden, we headed back on our return journey via a different route. We followed minor roads close to the River Sure, which forms the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany (in those days it was West Germany). There were many small bridges crossing the river and connecting the neighbouring countries. At each bridge, we moved from one country to the other, flitting through short tracts of, say, Germany before the next in Luxembourg. This was long before the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, but we were never stopped by border officials on either side of the river. That was lucky because both of us had (maybe unwisely) left our passports with our baggage.

When we got back to Echternach, we were both extremely thirsty and I was exhausted. We found a refreshment place with outdoor seats and tables and ordered chilled beers. I sat down and then promptly stood up again. Having sat on the saddle for so long, my backside had become bruised. It was at least three days after our excursion that sitting became comfortable again. It was only when we returned the cycles to the hire place that I noted that the gear adjuster lever was not connected to anything apart from the handlebar; the bike had no gear mechanism.

A few years later, in the early 1980s, I decided to go to the north of Holland, which was a part of the country I had never visited before. My plan was to cross the sea from Sheerness to Vlissingen on the luxurious Olau Line ferry, and then to travel from nearby Middelburg to various places in the north of Holland. At each place, I had decided to make use of the cycle hire service that was offered at Dutch railway stations. 

My first cycle excursion was around the peninsula on which Middelburg is located. On this first adventure with Dutch Railway cycles, I discovered three important things. First, the bicycles had no gears. This is not in itself a problem because Holland is not a hilly place. Next, the braking system is not operated by leavers on the handlebars. To slow or halt the cycle, the rider must reverse pedal. Thirdly, Holland can be a windy place. Cycling into the wind is as difficult as cycling up a hill. Well, the first outing was a useful learning experience.

Another thing that I learned but did not make use of was the fact that in those days most Dutch people woke up earlier than me. This meant that when I reached the cycle hire offices at railway stations, there were few cycles left for me to select. Most of those available were far too large for me. I was able to ride them, but unable to reach the ground with my feet when I was perched on the saddle. The only way I could cope was to cycle up to a lamp post or telegraph pole, and steady myself by putting one of my hands against it.

I stayed in Leeuwarden in the far north of Holland, a place that I had long wanted to see – why, I cannot recall any longer. I rented a bike to visit the picturesque coastal town of Harlingen. I returned in the early evening and had a brief rest at my hotel. At about 7.30 pm, I decided to look for somewhere to eat. Almost everywhere had stopped serving dinner because people dine early in Leeuwarden. After eating a pizza in a non-descript place, the evening was still young, but the city seemed deserted. Where was everyone, I wondered. Surely, they had not all retired to bed so early. I strolled the empty streets for a while and found a pub that was open. I entered. It was full, but far from lively. People were either chatting quietly or sitting in chairs reading books or newspapers. The pub felt like a rather crowded cosy sitting room.

One highlight of that visit to Holland was cycling along the Afsluitdyk, a man-made causeway constructed between 1927 and 1932. It is over 20 miles long and separates the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer, now an inland lake but once a huge inlet of the sea. The ride, like most others I made in Holland, was windy.

Since my Dutch cycling adventures, I cannot remember pedalling a cycle again until 1993, when I was ‘courting’ my wife. On one occasion when I visited her health club, she encouraged me to try an exercise bike. She sat on the machine next to mine and an athletic fellow sat on one on the other side of mine. My wife pedalled away energetically with the book she was reading balanced on the handlebar. My male neighbour pedalled as furiously as he might have done had he been chased by a cheetah or a jaguar. Meanwhile, yours truly was unable to get the pedals to move at all. Clearly, I had either reached a stage in my life cycle when my strength was ebbing or a previous user of my machine had set the pedal resistance at a very high level (and I had no idea that it was  adjustable).