Working Lives

Boats, mills and marshes (1960-2017)

Location: Norfolk Broads, Halvergate

David was born and brought up on the Broads and worked for the yacht and hire fleets. His passion for windpumps led him to team up with Paul Reynolds to restore Mutton’s Mill, a labour of love for 40 years.

I was born in this house in December 1943. I went to Acle Village Primary until I was 15. After that I started an apprenticeship at Easticks, who hired out motor cruisers at Acle Dyke, but I never finished it, because the company closed.

Building yachts at Eastwood Whelpton, Upton

Then I got the opportunity to go and work for Eastwood Whelpton at Upton Dyke, where I did various jobs to do with building yachts. When I first got there we built two wooden ones, designed by Mr Whelpton, the boatyard owner. Later on we had a fibreglass hull made and mostly fitted out these. They were mainly two-berth with a Seagull outboard on the stern.

Things evolve though and we went on to bigger boats, including six-berth, 32ft long Gaffers, but in all we had 16 yachts of different shapes and sizes, some Bermuda and some Gaff. The cabin tops used to go up bodily, but these were changed to lifting ones. These were hinged on one side, like the Dormobiles used to be, and you could lift it up on one of the halliards, so you got 6ft headroom through the middle of the boat. Then people began wanting fridges and showers and so some had showers and some didn’t, but they all had inboard engines.

There’s still one wooden Gaffer yacht in the fleet, called ‘Bootlegger’, which is 85 years old; one of the oldest on the Broads still to be in a hire fleet.

It was a 45 hour week when I started, with a half day on Wednesdays. My first wage was £2.6.8d. We used to work on Saturdays when it was the hire season. We used to do seven until half past five in the wintertime, getting the fleet ready for the following season, which when you’re only 15/16 seemed a long old day.

You got holidays, but if you didn’t go away what used to happen more times than not was they would ask you to go in on Saturdays, as it was turn round day. There were a few slack periods, but generally they used to be quite full seasons really.

Maintenance work ready for the busy hire season

There was a lot of maintenance work on the yachts, because there was always the chance of sailing accidents and also varnish work to be done with the wooden upper cabin sides and so on. We always managed to get through it all before Easter though, when the season started and continued on until half-term in October.

I learned to sail and I did have a very old half-decker, but I spent more time repairing and working on it than sailing it really.

We used to have a lot of regular customers, who we got to know. Some of them used to come two or three times a year, staying for a fortnight, or longer, but then in the last few years I was there, people seemed to prefer shorter breaks.

Enjoying the marshes. David’s parents cycling.

Meeting Paul Reynolds and buying Mutton’s Mill

I worked there for just over 50 years. I met my friend Paul Reynolds there and we ended up buying Mutton’s Mill several years later, in the early 1970s.

He used to work for a company called Dawnay’s in Norwich; they used to design buildings amongst other things. Then he went to Norfolk Broads Yachting Company at Horning and from there came to Upton and got into building yachts.

Tim Whelpton, our boss, told us that he knew a lady whose mill was coming up for sale across the other side of the river from the top of Upton Dyke. So Paul and I put a bid in for it and negotiated a deal with her. Unfortunately, her nephew came along and said ‘oh that’s worth a lot more than that; put it on the market’. So, of course, that went up for auction and we didn’t get the chance to buy it.

Paul and I still really felt that it would be nice to restore one. We got to know John Lawn and his friend who did restore mills. We used to go and see them when they were working on St Benet’s Reach. A few years later another friend of John, who was working on Stracey, told us Mr Sheldrake, the owner of some marshes nearby, had put a mill up for sale. We managed to buy it for £3,500.

Muttons Mill.2006. Photo: Ian Martin.

It came to be known as Mutton’s Mill, because the last marshman around there, who also worked the mill, was from the Mutton family; it was traditional for sons to follow fathers into this line of work.

Restoring Mutton’s Mill

All the mills on the marshes are just for the purpose of pumping water and keeping the water table down. Most of them were working up to the War and then after that many just deteriorated. I think Mutton’s Mill must have been kept in quite good condition before she stopped working probably around 1947, but by the time we bought her, she was in a poor way. Nearly all the cap was missing, the doors were off and the cattle were using it as a shelter.

It had a pair of stocks in and not much else. Stocks carry the sail frames and shutters, usually four, which catch the wind to turn the sails. There’s a big driveshaft through the middle, with a paddle in the bottom which lifts the water up and moves it on to another dyke and then another mill. Finally they all emptied out into Breydon.

Mutton’s Mill has an internal scoop wheel to lift the water, which is quite unusual as most of the others have wheels on the outside.

We put a new cap on, put in a new stock and got some sail frames. We also put a fantail on the back, so that’s always heading into the wind. Originally all that had deteriorated and so was only facing one way when we took it on, although the 2½ remaining stocks did used to turn in a good wind.

We did have a problem with the fantail we put on in the 80s, because the housing moved up and down a bit on the spindle and slipped and we did damage a couple of the blades in a strong wind, but that’s all up and running well now.

Our restoration work has involved quite a bit of trial and error really. For the brake wheel, which had just about all disintegrated, we had a few bits and pieces, so by the time we set that up and then with Paul, who’s good at working all these things out and the one with all the knowhow, I think we saved it anyhow.

Mutton’s Mill, June 2018. WISEArchive.

Half a stock inherited from Berney Mill

One day when we were working on the mill, because we used to spend a week camping down there, we went across and got chatting to the lady who used to look after Berney Mill. She told us there was half a stock laying there they didn’t know what to do with; a few years prior to us buying the mill, they had put new sails on Berney Mill. Anyhow we managed to get hold of this and spliced it together with Mutton’s stock to form the set of stocks along with the original one.

An eerie trip back from the pub at Berney Arms

It was a good walk to Berney Arms. When we were camping down there once, we decided to go to the pub, so we walked across. By the time we came back though, the mist had come down and that’s a very eerie place to be when you can’t see far in front of you.

We eventually got back to the mill, but only after struggling to find a gateway and then follow the dykes round on each field until you reached the next gateway and so on. We only attempted that once.

We do more work on the mill in summertime I suppose really. In the wintertime the trackers get very muddy and that’s a cold old place out there when there’s a good north-easter blowing and so we don’t do as much then as we used to.

A beautiful view from the top of Mutton’s Mill

The mill is about 32ft to the top of the tower and then it’s slightly higher with the cap and everything on. It’s a beautiful view from the top, because you can go out onto the fan staging and there’s a gallery all the way round the cap. When we restored it all, we put a gallery round and that made it much easier painting the cap.

You can see right out to Yarmouth and Berney and round the other side the tower of Filby Church and Thrigby Church. Looking the other way, you can see Wickhampton and across over the Yare right into the distance. If people come along, they don’t like the idea of climbing to the top, but it’s worth it just to see the view really.

It is surprising the people who walk past while we’re working there just ignore you really, but they most probably aren’t interested in mills, I don’t know. The funny thing is though if we go down there, say, to grease it up, we know we’ve had visitors, because they open the gate and never shut it properly. I mean it doesn’t matter at all about going in and we’ve never had any damage or vandalism, but they just don’t seem to know how to shut gates that’s the only thing.

David, Paul and Mutton Mill’s 10 minutes’ worth of TV fame

It must have been in November last year the BBC came down, wanting to film some derelict mills, because they’d read in the paper about the Broads Authority’s grant of £2½ million for restoration of the mills. We just happened to be there at the time and they visited us.

Some people from the Broads Authority have been to see us, so we’re hoping that there might be some money in the pipeline, as it’s still very much an ongoing project. The tower needs tarring and pointing up in places and the cap will want repainting. Also another stock and a set of sails would be very handy, but we’ll have to wait and see whether or not we get a grant.

Labour of love for over 40 years

It must have been about 1974 when Paul and I bought Mutton’s Mill and we never imagined we’d be working on her for over 40 years.

There was a little bit of subsidence there in the tower and there was a bad crack, so we put three big steel bands round it to hold it together. As the mill has got an internal scoop wheel it means you’ve got an archway on opposite sides, so consequently that is a weak point.

These mills were built on only a very rough wooden raft, because I suppose at the time they most probably didn’t imagine they were going to be standing for another 150 years. Anyway, she’s still quite steady. We took a few measurements, which showed it hadn’t moved much in her lifetime, even though that was settling a bit, but putting the steel bands round has done a great deal to keep it together.

The mill can lift water, but this only goes round in a circle and won’t actually go into any of the main dykes now, because after the War they put some sluice gates in. About 10 to 15 years ago, as part of the flood alleviation works, these were replaced with different Dutch sluice gates and so Mutton’s Mill is nearly on its own little island.

Marshmen tended miles of dykes with cromes and dydles

I hate to think how many miles of dykes there are in Halvergate Marshes and they all had to be cromed out and cleaned out by hand, also using dydles, by the marshmen. Nowadays, of course, machinery is used and it’s all a lot easier and quicker. Also there isn’t anywhere near the number of people living on Halvergate Marshes there used to be.

There used to be a station at Berney Arms and several people worked there. There was also a little row of cottages. There’s still a few houses in the area; there’s one near the mill and; there’s Manor Farm and two further out into the marshes.

Grazing on the marshes and marsh lettings

The marshes are used mostly for grazing these days, although there was one time when they did plough a lot up more towards Breydon way, but now they’re all been put back to pasture. Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which used to be known as Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, own a lot of that part of the world now.

Water’s or Howlett & Edrich’s used to run marsh lettings events at Acle in the spring. Other times they’ve been held at The Bell in St Olave’s.

Livestock markets at Acle

There were livestock markets in Acle then, so Acle was a busy place on a Thursday. The cattle arrived by cattle float, or sometimes they used to be herded here in earlier days and then whoever bought them would take them up to Acle Station to be herded onto trains. There also used to be pigs, chickens, rabbits, and fruit and vegetables for sale.

David’s father, a baker in Acle

My father lived in the village all his life and when he left school at 14, there was a baker’s in Acle known as Mr Palmer’s and my father went to work for him. At a later date one of his daughters married a Mr Sewell and then it was called Sewell’s and my father carried on working there until he retired. He ended up working nights just making bread.

David’s father

Norfolk Hollow Biscuits

They used to do a variety of cakes too and also what was known as Norfolk hollow biscuits. In fact, ‘well known for their Norfolk hollow biscuits’ was written on their paper bags. They were about two inches across and you only made them at the end of the day when the ovens were turned off. They used to put them in and cook them very slowly on a reduced heat. They would raise up a bit and he used to pierce them on the top; there would be 9, or 12 little holes and he had a special little implement he used to just press on each one. He used to split these open and put butter and cheese in them.

When my father retired, some people asked him to go and show them how to make these biscuits, including a man at a bakery in Trowse, but he didn’t realise that there was so much work involved and so he didn’t want to know in the end.

My father did try to make them at home, but you couldn’t make them in a conventional domestic oven; only in the coal ovens he used at work, which later converted to electric.

He had all this knowhow and he was an amazing baker; he could make anything. It’s a pity really it all got lost, because I never took it up.

David’s mother in service at Wingate’s

My mother was in service at Windgate’s, which was owned by the Scott family, who were part of Laurence, Scott’s of Norwich. She worked there until she married my father. He used to say she was a skivvy and she didn’t like that at all.

David’s mother

David’s family lines

Her maiden name was Starkings. I think granddad Starkings originated from Somerton, but how he met my granny in Acle I don’t know.

The family lines have pretty much died out now. I’ve got a cousin, who lives in Essex, and he had a son but, like me, he never married and so there’s nobody to carry on the Highs, nor anybody to carry on the Starkings’s.

My grandfather Starkings worked on the herring drifters out of Yarmouth. Apparently they used to sail right round the top of Scotland and come down a fair way on the Atlantic side. When he wasn’t doing that, he used to work at Cantley sugar beet factory. So my granny most probably didn’t see him for months and months on end really.

He always used to bring something home for my granny. She used to have what my mother called a ‘whatnot’, which was a shelved unit in the corner. This was full of bits and pieces he’d brought home, including a pair of dog ornaments, but one of the grandchildren pulled the whatnot over and that’s the only survivor now over there.

There is a High’s Mill on the Halvergate Marshes, not far from Mutton’s. So whether there could be a genetic link back there and that’s the reason why I’ve been interested in wind pumps I don’t know.

David High (b. 1943)  talking to WISEArchive on 28th February 2017 in Acle.

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