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Lessons to learn from the past

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A relative gave me a lovely little book for Christmas which charted a sort of sabbatical taken by a developer during the recent property slump. The death of his father had left Charles Llewellyn responsible for the disposal of a water mill, in Essex. Anxious to find a purchaser who would properly respect the property, Mr Llewellyn set any ambitions for a quick sale aside, and a wonderful story unfolds as television producer Roger Tabor eventually enters the stage as buyer.

Through Tabor, who is both a naturalist and a historian, Charles discovered that Fulford Mill was part of a unique history stretching back to the Knights Templar and the Domesday Book.

Fascinated by The Mill's Life, which has also been presented as a bbc tv documentary series, I chose a very wet Sunday two weeks ago to inspect first hand and better understand the subtleties of a 'managed working landscape' that originates in Saxon times.

Fulford Mill is of course a relic of a bygone age, but as I watched the flood-water thundering over the sluice gate I marvelled that such extraordinary power and energy should today be wasted, while massive power lines pass virtually overhead, the huge pylon structures that support them forming jagged silhouettes against the grey sky. In contrast to the mill, the new energy source is of course unsustainable as irreplaceable fossil fuels are burned with devastating impact.

This quite humble book provides a precious insight into a bygone time. In particular, I had no idea that water mills (which long predated windmills) evolved as part of a highly sophisticated and widespread system that combined water management with energy production. Indeed, at their height virtually the entire natural drainage to all valley and lowland regions of our country was once controlled by water mills - rarely more than five miles apart and frequently as close as half a mile.

But a water mill is only the most visible element of an extensive civil engineering project that usually involves some half a mile or more of channels and sluices that control adjoining river levels. By retaining water in marshes, they harbour a sustained energy supply in drier periods, occasionally allowing any surplus to discharge safely to other marshes and mills further down the water-course.

Here, then, we see a clean and sustainable energy source (Fulford Mill generated electricity until 1959) that once operated on a massive scale. We also see a very different approach to water management which has become completely alien to our modern water boards - that is, until recently.

For through Roger Tabor I learned that recent policy has been to drain land to sea as fast as possible, in pursuit of two objectives: first to maximise the available arable land, and second, in more recent years, to release our natural river flood-plains for housebuilding. But these policies are apparently disastrous as we now suffer massive land erosion through 'accelerated run-off', rapid flash-flooding as the landscape loses its capacity to retain water, and general water shortages which are of course aggravated further by misuse and climatic changes.

As we become increasingly aware of the inter-relationship between issues of pollution, energy production, and climatic change, we can draw many good lessons from Fulford Mill.

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