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Coronavirus: 1,000-year-old mill brought back to life after lockdown baking sparks flour shortages

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Coronavirus: 1,000-year-old mill brought back to life after lockdown baking sparks flour shortages
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A 1,000-year-old water mill in southwest England that’s been out of commission for years has resumed commercial production to meet rising demand for flour during the coronavirus pandemic.

As people across the UK try to keep busy indoors throughout weeks-long lockdown restrictions, thousands have turned to home baking and even bread making, causing shortages in supermarkets.

The Sturminster Newton Mill, in Dorset, was operated through the plague in the 17th century and the 1918 Spanish flu but had since been turned into a tourist attraction.

Its supervisor Pete Loosmoore remembers helping his grandfather work the watermill. He never imagined he would be required to restart production.

"The local shops came back to us and said 'yes, please, we would love some flour'. There were no other shops around anywhere near us that had any sort of supply," he explained.

"I suppose there is a feeling of pride. Not personal pride but to be able to be one of the people who keeps the old place going."

"There is plenty of flour available in the UK, we just can’t pack it in small bags quickly enough for all the new-found homebakers at the moment."
National Association of British and Irish Millers

Water has powered the Sturminster Newton Mill for a millennium, but the mechanism was last fully operational in 1970. It then became a museum, occasionally producing flour for tourists.

Now it’s back in business and has produced more than one tonne of flour in two weeks. Its output is certainly needed these days, helping local bakeries keep bread on the shelves.

The UK’s milling industry is currently running at full capacity, yet there is still a shortage. According to the National Association of British and Irish Millers, it seems home bakers have been buying up all the flour from shops and supermarkets.

"To meet demand, UK flour millers have been working 24/7 and producing twice as much retail flour as before – up from 2 million bags a week to 4 million. We're running at full capacity yet still struggling to keep up," the trade group explains on its website.

"There is plenty of flour available in the UK, we just can’t pack it in small bags quickly enough for all the new-found home bakers at the moment."

Such is the spike in demand that the trade group designed a "Where can I buy flour" map to track down commercial-sized bags of flour, but it crashed shortly after going online.

Other mills now following the same path

Imogen Bittner, Loosmoore's assistant at the Sturminster Newton Mill, had to learn on the job. Usually a volunteer in the museum, she’s now a vital part of the operation.

"I grew up here, so I’ve always known the mill – I live just 300 metres down the road. So, for me, it’s especially nice to be back in there," she said.

The Sturminster Newton mill is now showing the way for other historic mills.

"I’ve already had two other mills phone me and ask me exactly what I’m doing because they are thinking of doing the same," Loosmoore said.

"Hopefully, we’ll have one or two more historic mills coming into a little bit more production."

You can watch Luke's report in the video player above.