More than a landmark
By Chris Sandiford
What is the one thing that makes people think of Lytham? The golf? The Lowther Pavilion and Gardens? Maybe. But ask any local and they will probably give you the same answer. It’s the iconic Lytham Windmill that dominates the ruler straight horizon of the Green. As recognisable in silhouette when evening falls as it is in its blazing white glory on a warm summer day, it’s a landmark that connects the rich agricultural traditions of the Fylde coast, and also the many shops and businesses dotted around the town.
This weekend (9th & 10th May) is National Mills Weekend – a celebration of the UK’s quieter times gone by with open houses at over 300 windmills, watermills and heritage centres across the country. Sadly, due to the global pandemic with which we are now living, this and thousands of other social events have been postponed. Lytham Windmill along with the two other complete windmills still standing on the Fylde Coast (Little Marton Windmill near Blackpool and Marsh Mill at Thornton) would have been a haven for visitors, especially with the long Bank Holiday which began with VE Day on Friday.
At one point there were over 35 windmills on the Fylde coast which has led to the area being referred to as Windmill Land. Its flat geography and windy microclimate (have you noticed the wind we get on the Fylde coast?!) made it a natural site for these agricultural workhorses. Since their decline, many have been turned into private residences, but some still remain as beacons of our industrial heritage.
From bakeries to pharmacies, pubs to restaurants and even cobbled streets and frosted glass, the Lytham windmill has lent its name and image to many locations around the town and its environs. Despite the number of people who snap its picture, get married in front of it or pass it in cars or on bikes, it is surprising how many don’t give it a second thought. But in its 215-year history, it has played an important role in serving the region’s need for grain grinding but has also caught fire, lost it sails (twice), and been involved in a tragic accident.
The word mill derives from the Latin molerer (to grind) and the present windmill was built by the Squire of Lytham in 1805 on an area known as Lytham Marsh. It was leased at an eye-watering seven shillings (35 pence) per year to the miller and owner, Richard Cookson.
As one of the largest mills in the region, it served a wide area. Imagine a different view of the town two hundred years ago, with only small clutches of houses and farms to break up the acres of fields and marsh land. Farmers would lead their ponies and carts, bearing heavy sacks of grain along nothing more than a narrow track which led across the Marsh from Mythop Road. There they would be milled into flour, bran or meal and collected later in the day. No corner shop for a loaf of sliced white; it was a hard but simple life.
Standing as it does in splendid isolation on the Green, it has often been referred to as a “candle in a saucer” due to the plinth that has been built around its base. This was not an original feature, however and was added about ten years after its construction to stop cattle and people getting too close to the sails. Hard as it is to believe, the Green was not always a social home for the various festivals and events that punctuate the year; it was once uneven grazing land to sheep and cattle.
The humble process of milling grain continued for many a year. But as time ticked on and the area grew and became more populous, the Green was built up around the Windmill to cater for residents and visitors alike. By 1840, the peaks and mounds of sand and marshy ground had been levelled and the Green as we know it now began to extend far beyond the mill.
As coastal resorts grew in popularity, Lytham was no exception and burgeoned as a holiday destination. Throughout the nineteenth century and notably, when the railways arrived, many more people were extolling the benefits of fresh salt air and healthy sea bathing.
And so, visitors were no doubt fascinated by the setting of a working windmill in the midst of this coastal haven. People picnicked and even rode donkeys around the mill, passing within a few feet of the whirling sails, as farmers continued their passage with grain sacks, weaving amongst the parasols and hampers of the genteel holiday makers.
In 1909, this unhealthy mix of social freedom and working machinery resulted in tragedy. A young boy from Manchester playfully grabbed hold of one of the sails as they swept past. He was carried aloft and fell to his death.
As tourism was fast becoming the new king, the poor old Windmill was a symbol of a dirty and noisy past and was considered an “industrial nuisance” by the local gentility who resided in the newly built beach houses. With clanking chains, clattering sails and belching smoke from the grain-drying kiln, the mill was in its twilight years of operational use. How many of these refined visitors and locals nibbled their sandwiches and scones at high tea without a thought to the provenance of the flour within?
It is peculiar that something quirky and fashionable can quickly turn to an object of disdain. Notable and respected persons are said to have engraved their names on the mill’s beams but sadly this was lost to history on New Year’s Day 1919. High winds whipping in across the Irish Sea caused the sails to run out of control, despite their powerful brake. Heat built up in the machinery and, not geared for such speed, and the resulting friction sparked a flame.
Fanned by the gale, the fire quickly ravaged the mostly wooden interior, destroying the cap and flinging flaming chunks of timber from the sails fifty yards down the Green. More than a hundred sacks of oats were destroyed and come the slate-grey morning of the 2nd January, the once-proud windmill and was a shell of its former self. One eyewitness described the Windmill as a “pathetic sight to all who behold her.”
All this rather dramatically sealed the fate of the mill as a working entity and two years later, it was handed over to the people of Lytham by its Squire, John T. Clifton and was rightfully restored with a new shell, cap and dummy sails. Over the past century, it has since been a cafe, headquarters of the Lytham Cruising Club, home of the Sea Cadets and was once an Electricity Board sub-station. Finally, in 1989 this “sentinel of the beach” opened as a tourist attraction and is now owned by Fylde Borough Council and managed voluntarily by the Lytham Heritage Group.
A final tragedy befell the windmill in recent times in November 2010 amid high storms which battered the North West. As sections of Blackpool’s Illuminations were destroyed and further inland the roof was blown off Darwen Tower, our Windmill submitted to the 100mph winds and lost two of its sails and fantail from the cap.
The sight of the damaged windmill (which was definitely not “four sail”) remained on the Green for the next 8 months until restoration work was completed by the council and local craftsmen. Seasoned Douglas Fir timber was imported from Canada to construct the replacement 30-feet long sails which weigh a tonne apiece. Incredibly, just three months later the sails were damaged for a second time and replaced yet again in May 2012.
Over 25,000 visitors pass through the Windmill and visitor centre annually from all over the world. Serving as the Tourist Information point and spanning five floors, its displays and exhibitions explain the process of milling and the history of this Grade II listed building. There is also a full-size lifeboat from 1901 and the basement depicts a tableau of life in Victorian Lytham.
It’s ironic that these Victorians, tourists and locals alike, became so repulsed by the windmill; that it offended their sensibilities and new expressions of freedom. Now of course, the Windmill itself is a tourist attraction and is synonymous with so much of Fylde Coast. Together with the festivals, theatre, parks, gardens and shops, it is still one of the main attractions of the town.
So, when we emerge from our lockdown hibernation and life returns to normal, the chances are you’ll visit Lytham again. You’ll stroll along the Green in the sunshine, full of fish and chips; grateful once again for social freedom. When you reach the Windmill, don’t just admire it; stop in, connect with the past and take a while to appreciate how things used to be. It’s had a long and interesting history and deserves more than just a casual glance or photo opportunity. Now more than ever we realise that things never stay still in our world; we’re living through our own piece of social change so take time to remember the past.