Visiting Denver

MENTION ‘DENVER’ and most people will immediately think of a city close to the Rocky Mountains in the American state of Colorado. Recently, we visited Denver, not the city in the USA but a village in the English county of Norfolk. This small settlement lies a few yards west of the A10 road between Ely and Kings Lynn, immediately south of Downham Market. Norfolk’s Denver derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Dena fær’, meaning ‘the ford or passage of the Danes’. This name dates from the time that the Danes and Vikings were invading Britain after the Romans had abandoned it. Denver is located close to the River Great Ouse that flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn. It was this river that the Danish invaders needed to cross as they headed on their way to invading parts of England.

Denver windmill

The village of Denver is attractive and is arranged around its parish church of St Mary. Surrounded by its graveyard, the walls of this mainly mediaeval edifice, mostly 13th to 15th century, are made of large irregularly shaped boulders held together with mortar and trimmed with carved stone. Many of the village’s other buildings have walls constructed similarly, a feature that we observed in several other north Norfolk villages. St Mary’s has a square tower at its western end. Inside, its nave has a wonderful timber barrel vault ceiling decorated with carved features typical of gothic design. Otherwise, the church’s interior is simple without being plain. We could not spend too much time examining the place because we did not want to disturb a small group of elderly people praying aloud.

Denver has a tall historic windmill. This is on the western edge of the village and was built by John Porter in 1835 to replace an earlier mill on the same site. In 1863, a steam powered mill was erected next to the windmill. Further modernisation followed that. The large sails of the mill have gone, but the small fantail remains. The mill forms the centrepiece of a small complex of commercial enterprises housed in buildings that were formerly part of the mill compound. These include a café and a coiffure, aptly named ‘The Hair Mill’. Denver Mill is one of several lovely old windmills we saw dotted around northern Norfolk.

A narrow thoroughfare, Sluice Road, leads west from Denver towards the River Great Ouse, which is about 1.6 miles away. The road reaches a complex of sluice gates that regulate the levels of water in the river and other waterways including the River Wissey and the New Bedford River (man-made) that meet here. Now managed by The Environmental Agency, this set of sluice gates was first established, albeit in a simpler form, in 1651 by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677). It was he who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, mostly in East Anglia and the Lincolnshire Fens. He married an English woman, Katherine Lapps, and his descendants remained in England, having changed their surname to ‘Youdan’. In 1647, Vermuyden lived in Maiden Lane in London’s Covent Garden.

There are at least five modern, electrically operated sluice gates at Denver. By operating them judiciously, water levels in much of Norfolk and its surroundings can be regulated. The Duke of Bedford River was built by Vermuyden to shorten the distance that water had to travel to and from Bedfordshire. According to the season, this was either flood water or water needed for agricultural purposes. The system of rivers and canals regulated by the sluices at Denver is far from simple. So, I will not attempt to explain it, but visitors to this impressive water-controlling complex can read all about it on a series of informative panels posted next to the sluices.

Sluice Road crosses the River Great Ouse and other streams along bridges to which some of the sluice gate mechanisms are attached. Although the river system would have been quite different when the Danes invaded England, it is possible that where Vermuyden built his first sluice might be close to where the invaders forded the Great Ouse and lent their name to Norfolk’s village of Denver.

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.