Debra grew up visiting the Norfolk Broads on family holidays and now runs the Wind Energy Museum at Thurne Mill. She took on her role at the mill after its previous owner Bob Morse saw her passion and asked her to take over. With the mill as a backdrop Debra has also created a social enterprise which helps support the local community.
Holidays on the Broads
I grew up in London and since I was 18 months old, year in year out, my family and I would to come up to the Norfolk Broads on holiday. We moved around the Broads on boats which was lovely. It’s difficult to explain the sort of feeling you get being on a boat when during the year you’re generally in a ‘hustle bustle’ place that’s full of all sorts of noise, it’s peaceful. And we’d always have the family dog with us which is something else that’s so nice about the Broads, you can take the dog.
I just love the Broads. I can still remember the smell of the little grocery shops when you moor up, I loved it. And I think it’s no different now, it’s an untouched place, especially Thurne. Thurne is probably my favourite place but Ludham Bridge’s just the same; when you go there the smell’s still there, it’s nice. It’s a lovely place to go and I recommend it to anybody.
I always remember my father as we came along the river Thurne would say to me, ‘Go into the cabin’, and then he’d say, ‘Right, come out and say what side of the river that mill is on now?’ It would always be on a different side, and I think I was probably about twelve or thirteen before I realised the mill didn’t actually move, it was the bend in the rivers.
After I got married and had children of my own I started to bring them too. My daughter first came up when she was nine months old, and then in the mid-eighties when my son was about three months old we had our first trip on the boat, so they grew up with it too.
The Thurne and Wroxham part of the Broads were always our favourite, so we would hire the boats Oulton Broad or Lowestoft way. The reason for that was that we hated passing the boat hire place during the holiday as it felt like you were almost on the way home, so we liked to get the boat and go away for a bit. Our holidays would usually last a week or two weeks, it varied year to year.
I fell in the water a time or two and my husband was always falling in. His balance has never been the best and the amount of times we’ve pulled him out is nobody’s business. One time we were at Salhouse (I have to laugh): we moored up, we tied the dog to a chair and it started to rain so as my husband went to get the dog he slipped and hit his ribs on one of the mooring stakes. This frightened the dog, so the dog ran off and when we all got them back together and on the boat we had to get my son outside to close the press studs. As he was doing that he slipped and he went in as well. What the boat next door must’ve thought we were like I just do not know, and that was without a having a drink…
Moving to Norfolk
Moving to Norfolk was always on the cards as my husband holidayed up here in cottages when he was younger. We decided to do it before the children got too old and had the attitude where they didn’t want to come. It was a case of go now or we probably won’t go at all, so that’s what we did.
We found a beautiful place in Hemsby. I fell in love with it. One morning I said to myself I think they’ll carry me out here, so I did love it, but life changes and you do different things. We then moved to the Wind Energy Museum at Repps which at the time was a private collection run by Bob Morse. We built a log cabin, on site, and my husband and I lived in there for quite a number of years.
Getting involved with Thurne Mill
Thurne was a passion as a child. It was my favourite place to go. I loved it because it had a brown and white cow that was always in the field year in year out, which I called Daisy.
When I moved up to Norfolk my husband was working away from home Monday to Friday and the children were at school. I didn’t know anybody, so I decided to do an A-Level in photography. Photography had always been a passion of mine even before the children were born, but what I didn’t realise was that you have to pick a subject. It’s not just a case of taking photos. You actually have to learn a history and live the project so there was no question about it, it had to be Thurne.
I went to the mill and my daughter said to me, ‘Why don’t you get in touch with that man who owns it?’ I knew he saved the mill in 1949 so I thought he could be long gone by then. But I got home and looked in the phone book and there it was, R.D Morse, and I thought I’d give this a go and I gave him a ring. Bob invited me out to the cottage at Repps and he was so helpful, he got all the photographs out, told me all about his history, how he came to get the mill and what he had done to the mill over the years. Which all became part of my project.
I decided that once I passed the AS level that I would get in touch with him and thank him. so I phoned him up and he cleared his throat and he said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me I haven’t spoken to anybody all week’ and I thought that’s so sad. So I made it my promise that I would phone him every day just to make sure he was alright, and I started to phone him at quarter to six every night. It got to that if I didn’t phone him by ten to six he would phone me to make sure I was alright. He became part of the family. He came at Christmas and when we had barbeques, he’d never had a barbeque in his life, he was a vegetarian. In his house he had one knife, one fork, one spoon, one plate because that’s all he needed. He just became part of the family.
Bob Morse and Thurne Mill
He bought the mill in 1949, from the Internal Drainage Board. I always classed Thurne as a very lucky mill because most of the mills at that time were being demolished for the ironwork. Most of them were out of action because the electric and diesel pumps were in and after the war they were far more valuable as ironwork than they were as buildings. So Thurne was very lucky that Bob had the interest that he did have. He brought it off the Internal Drainage Board for £75, which in 1949 was probably more than we think.
It took him just a year to restore the mill. He employed Albert England to help, who was a direct descendent of the millwrights that built it, England & Co of Ludham, and the two of them set about doing it. We’ve got a lovely journal inside the museum, which I must digitalise, of how Bob took stuff down to the boat and took it along the river. There would be how long it took him on the river, how much petrol he used, what paint and supplies he took, everything.
It cost only £7 and 6d to paint the tower; that was including all the paint and Albert England’s wages. Nowadays maintenance has easily taken up £10,000.
Bob had been interested in windmills from a young age. When he was seven his grandmother took him into a shop and he had a choice of a colouring-in book: he could’ve picked a train, a boat or a windmill and he picked a windmill. Two years later he made a balsa wood model of the windmill, and we’ve still got both the colouring in book and the windmill. It wasn’t until he was 81 that he found out that the windmill on the front of his colouring-in book actually exists. It’s called North Mill down in Kent and is now a B&B; he didn’t have any idea that it actually was a real mill. That’s where his inspiration came from and from that age he’d always wanted to own a windmill. He was just obsessed with it.
He gave his life to wind power and Thurne Mill was the beginning. Once he had restored the mill he leased it to the Norfolk Windmills Trust and then he started creating the collection that we’ve got now in Repps. Which is now the Wind Energy Museum. Back then it didn’t have a name, it was just Bob saving things. There’s a lot of local bits here, he saved the scoop wheel from Whitlingham Lane in Norwich where it used to drain the marsh, he saved the Holmes engine from Hemsby. That was the steam engine that had the turbine on it, which is the only one left in existence. So he’s done Norfolk a favour in being able to demonstrate its history.
He came from West Sussex originally. His family has a very lovely story, his mother was South African, and his father came from London. He told me that his grandfather and his grandmother wanted to get married when they were in London, however both their families objected. Strangely enough they met up in South Africa so they both got on a boat and met in Cape Town and got married. His mother was born out there. It turned out to be quite a sad story because his grandfather had to go to the Boer War when his mother was only small and one day the telegram man came up the drive and his grandmother thought that he had died in action and suffered a massive heart attack and died. However, he was only injured.
He was the youngest of three brothers who all enjoyed engineering. Bob never had what I call a proper job, which sounds rude, but I don’t mean it to be. His father was a steam locomotive engineer before the war, then after the war he went into commissioning ‑ people commissioned him to build steam engines.
Bob himself never married nor had any children so in a way he kind of adopted me when I took such great interest in the mill. I think he liked to see the passion. My husband and I opened it in 2001 to the public and when the Norfolk Windmills Trust restored it in 2002 we had a great big party at the mill and we invited around 250 people. We had a marquee, cheese, and wine. It was lovely, and we did things like that throughout which was nice for Bob to see and be part of.
When he died, I made a promise to him. He asked me if I would take this collection on a good five or six years before he died, which was quite a tall order for me. I’m not an engineer. I’m passionate but I’m not an engineer and I had long talks with my husband about this and we decided that we would take it on in his lifetime. So in 2002 we decided that we’d take it on lock, stock, and barrel. He would have us and he would see we were determined to make it stay where it should be, and I’d have him because I’d need his input when things went wrong. I just wish I’d listened more.
The Mill’s attraction
Thurne Mill is one of the very few working windpumps on the Broads and it’s 199 years old; it’s white, it sticks out, it’s accessible. So it gets visitors just because of what it is, it’s iconic. It’s probably the most photographed mill on the Broads it appears all over the world. I went to visit my aunt in Australia and her doctor’s surgery had a picture of Thurne Mill in it, it’s crazy really.
And the sails go around so we get people mooring up. We’ve got a lovely volunteer Paul Hooper who dresses up as a marshman in all the finery and he gets it going most Sundays. People will see it from quite a distance on the river and then moor up and come in so it’s really nice.
Maintenance of the Mill
Maintenance is always an issue with mills ‑ it’s constant. Unfortunately in 2013, it got attacked by a red algae which I understand came over from Europe to Cornwall in 2007 and was working its way upwards. It was turning the mill pink and really eating away at the paint, so we had to do something quite quickly. A local company, Hugh Crane, lent us their equipment and we pressure washed it. Last year it was wrapped in scaffolding and we got stuck in with the painting of the tower and the cap. Thanks to volunteers we’ve managed to get the tower done, the insides done, and we’ve just got the sails to do, so the maintenance is ongoing. Once it’s painted up properly we should get a good five or six years out of it, but we do have a millwright called Paul Kemp who goes every month to look and make sure everything is okay. With it being a working mill it’s so easy for something to fall out, bolts and all sorts so it’s good to have somebody with the knowledge to look it over once a month.
The mill ceased working in 1936 and it was taken over by diesel and electric. We’ve got a little green shed at the end of the staithe, which pumps the marsh, nowhere near as attractive but it does the job. Thurne does pump but it pumps in its own circle of water for demonstration purposes only. The reason Thurne was built in 1820 was to drain the marsh so the farmers could use it for the cattle and that is still the case now. Without our little green sheds scattered all around the Broads the marshes would just fill up again so it’s an ongoing issue with the marsh.
Future of the Marshes
I’m hoping that the marshes don’t change, I’m hoping that things carry on the way they are. However with climate change and what they say about global warming who really knows, but my opinion is let’s keep doing what we’re doing because I think it’s just lovely to see it as it is. That’s what’s so quaint about the Norfolk Broads or the Broads as a whole ‑ it is untouched. I think Bob would’ve said the same.
Thurne Mill today
When I first took it over, I’ll be perfectly honest, it was all about the machinery. It was all about what Bob had created. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it alone, so I started to get volunteers to come and help. I call it an ‘Erect a Windpump Weekend’ and people come from all over the country and we feed them for the weekend and we have a jobs list and they get on with them. We have regular volunteers too and they are people from all walks of life, some of whom couldn’t even look you in the eye when they were talking to you. It didn’t seem long before all of a sudden, they got ownership and are looking you in the eye and they are talking about the things as if they are their things. Which is what you need, you need ownership.
Prime example is our volunteer Paul. When he does the guided tours he talks about it all as if he created it which is great because that’s what you need, and it made me sit back a bit really and look at the whole site. We’re down on the marsh – there’s two and a half acres, it’s quiet, it’s peaceful and I thought it’s as much about the place as it is about the machines.
We decided to open a Broadlands men’s shed for the local men around the Broads area who haven’t got anything to do in their life, so they can mix. Because men can find it difficult to mix when they’re left on their own or when they retire whereas women just muddle through doing all sorts of things.
We’ve also had the Duke of Edinburgh awards and the Prince’s Trust at the mill. We do an awful lot for people and colleges. Apprentices from the 3sun Group do a bit of work and people from The Bread Kitchen support organisation come along to do workshops to teach them woodwork. It’s so varied because what it is with the place, is it’s not all about the machinery. What we need to do is use these windpumps as a backdrop to a lovely quiet place where people can just relax and be away from the ‘hustle and bustle’ of everyday life. So we created a social enterprise and we spend more time having people here just relaxing and doing things that help them than we do paying customers who come to look at the actual exhibits.
Schools is the other thing we’re involved with, when I first took this on I said to myself I need to get children off a computer for at least 10 minutes a day and were beginning to do it, so slowly it’s getting there.
Debra Nicholson (b. 1955) talking to WISEArchive on 19th June 2019 at Repps.
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