Sturminster Newton is an ancient and pretty market town, with a slightly quirkily designed town centre which is well-worth a visit. But it is also home to a real Dorset treasure, which is as fascinating as it is beautiful.
Often shortened to “Stur” by the locals, the town’s prosperity was historically linked to its large livestock market, which traded in calves and cattle drawn from dairy farms in the area.
Dairy farming was once the economic engine of much of Dorset, but even though there are still many dairy farms today, times have changed. The livestock market closed just before the millenium and the town’s once important rail link, which would have carried milk and dairy products to the cities, was axed by the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. Both developments have resulted in “Stur” becoming something of a sleepy, residential backwater, which belies the town’s proud trading past.
The town itself developed at an important crossing point on the River Stour, and it is here, just along from the town’s beautiful arched stone bridge that you will find the Old Mill.
You could easily visit Sturminster Newton and miss the Mill completely, but that would be a mistake. This is one of Dorset’s most beautiful and vibrant architectural treasures.
It may not have the grandeur of some of the County’s great houses and civic buildings, nor does it house any works by great artists, but Sturminster Newton Mill is no less important and in some respects of greater worth.
On a purely superficial level, in a world where location is everything, the Old Mill is in a beautiful spot. It is perched delicately on the River Stour, shaded by trees and looking out towards the bridge and across open meadows to the town. If it were a home or great house this location alone would be invaluable. But this old building, is more alive than any home or house could ever be.
Its close proximity to the river, which it has helped to shape, means that its moods change with those of the river and the seasons: torrid in winter storms; lazy and cooling in hot summer sun. But the Mill really comes alive when doing what it does best - working!
Yes, this is a real, living, working water mill. Restored during the 1980’s and so brought back to life doing the job it would once have done, making flour to feed people all around. The mill is open to the public at certain times of the year and is run
by the Sturminster Newton Museum Society. Do your best to visit at a time when the mill is open. It is of great educational value for young and old for a very reasonable entry fee.
See how flour would once have been ground and learn too about the engineering of water-powered industry. Don’t expect to see a waterwheel though. Sturminster Mill was at the cutting edge of the technology of its day. Its wheel was removed and replaced by a more efficient water driven turbine at the beginning of the last Century!
There may be messages here too for the future. What role can water-power play in a carbon-conscious renewable energy Britain of tomorrow? Small-scale operations may have a role, but it is worth remembering that this whole mill, with its investment in buildings, weirs, sluices and races produces the same power as just one, very small, tractor!
Regardless of that, this working water mill is a thing of beauty. To be able to go there and see it working, to hear and feel it rumbling and vibrating, with belts slapping and pulley’s spinning is a huge privilege. It also helps to reconnect us with our own food and reminds us that somewhere, on a much bigger scale, someone is doing just the same things today, so that we can buy our own bread from the supermarket. If you fancy a change from that, ask at the mill where you can buy bread made from flour ground there!
The Old Mill at Sturminster Newton is a very pleasant visit of itself. It is one of those places where it is just good and relaxing being there. But if you want to extend your visit, there is a beautiful walk along the River Stour, which kids love as much as watching the mill or seeing the waters cascading noisily down the weir.
There is far more to Sturminster Newton than the Old Mill. The renowned Dorset poet William Barnes, was born nearby and the County’s other literary great, Thomas Hardy, mentions his own version of the town, Stourcastle, in some of his works. Barnes’s poems were largely written in Dorset dialect, making them slightly impenetrable to most modern readers, but Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles reached audiences of millions in print and film. The latter was filmed in France, but purists who love the novel will be able to visit Sturminster and see very similar scenes to those Hardy saw himself and described.
Hardy’s Stourcastle played just an incidental role in Tess . You can make Sturminster Newton and the Old Mill as big or small a part of your visit to Dorset as you wish. It is well worth the effort, whether you call in just because you’re passing or whether you plan your visit to coincide with the workings of the Mill. Either way, you’re almost certain to want to return, partly because it's just a great place, but also because, if you do stumble upon the mill on a day when it’s closed, you’ll find yourself drawn to go back on a day when it is open!
The Mill has its own picnic area overlooking the millpond and a small car park. You can also buy fishing licences for the Stour at outlets in Sturminster Newton, if that’s what takes your fancy!
If you want to make a day of it, you could also take in the sights of Cerne Abbas or Gold Hill, depending on the direction in which you are heading.
Either way, the Old Mill is well worth visiting and exceptionally good value!
This is one of Dorset’s most beautiful and vibrant architectural treasures...."