There’s been a mill on the site of Howsham Mill since before the Norman Conquest (and subsequent massacre of all things Northern) – it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book.
It’s taken me this long to get round to seeing it. We took a walk there, from Kirkham Priory. This is all that remains of the priory now. The grounds are peaceful, well-tended, and have picnic tables.
From there we headed up into the woods.
The keen-eyed among you might spot a rather cheekily-shaped mushroom at the foot of a tree to the right of the path. More mushrooms were growing on a tree nearby – not edible, as far as I know:
Leaving the wood took us out onto farmers’ land, then a quiet road. A tree had dropped hundreds of tiny apples onto the verge and the tarmac. Many of them have now found their way to places where they stand a better chance of growing. Not into trees with sweet, edible apples to be sure, but at least into trees. This country needs all the trees it can get, and this is just the time of year for-
I have never seen a pear-tree, at a random roadside, drop perfectly edible pears (we tested a few) onto the road like this. Pity to waste them…
We crossed a proper staffed level-crossing. Inside the office, we noticed, the windowsills were stacked with books. Perfect job for someone!
The present Gothic pile was built in 1755 as part of the Howsham Estate – apparently the gentlemen of the house wanted a bit of a conversation piece, visible from their stately home, as well as a useful source of income.
But bit by bit, over the next 200 years, grinding first flour, and then animal feed, became less and less profitable. The last miller left in 1947 and the building fell into such bad disrepair that some bright spark in the 1960s (of course) put in an application to demolish what was left of it.
Luckily, conservationists intervened.
In the early 2000s local enthusiasts formed the Renewable Heritage Trust with the aim of getting it rebuilt and running, both as a source of electricity and a venue for educational outreach and the like.
Our writers’ group had even booked a day there, but sadly it got Covid-ed.
The Mill now has two sources of renewable electricity: a classic mill-wheel that generates about 10 kW (about enough energy to fire the boiler to heat a small house), and an Archimedean Screw (a spiral rod that the water turns as it passes down a tube – particularly good for venues with a low height difference between the water arriving and leaving, as the Derwent has in this flat landscape) which, when we turned up, was generating about 45 kW.
It also has a picnic table – so we had lunch.
The volunteers who run it all appear to be retired engineers. I worry that, as the national retirement age is raised, life expectancy stops its historic 200-year upward trend, and the supply of rail and other mechanical experts dwindles, we’ll be short of the good types who keep this kind of project on the road, and who are willing and able to start up new ones.
In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.
The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.
And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.
We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.
We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.
I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.
Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.
If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.