Category Archives: Screen

Tilting at windmills

WINDY HILL Jack and Jill Mills in Sussex (Photo: David Blaikie).
WINDY HILL Jack and Jill Mills in Sussex (Photo: David Blaikie).

A Writer’s quixotic adventure.

THEY all said I was mad. Every Miller in England told me there would be no wind in August. If I was expecting the sails of their mills to be turning when I arrived in the languid late summer with a camera crew, I’d be wasting my time.

But I’d already scheduled a month’s worth of filming between Lincolnshire and Sussex, crisscrossing the country in search of some of England’s most treasured surviving windmills, in places where I’d just assumed there would be plenty of wind, all year round.

So I just sat on this wisdom quietly, because I’d already promised delivery of a one-hour program in time for Christmas. If it was going to happen, the footage needed to be in the can and edited by the end of September at the outside.

Our packed itinerary started close to home in the Cambridgeshire fen lands, where, on arrival at Wicken Fen drainage mill (managed by the National Trust), the little green canvas-covered sails of the smock mill were ripping around at a very pleasing pace.

Thinking that I’d struck the one day of late summer wind, I got cameraman Alan James to film just about everything we could see that was moving in the gale.

The next day we had two interviews scheduled. Ideally, I wanted windmills turning gently in the background. Apparently, they could be cranked around by hand, so at least I had that option up my sleeve if there was no wind.

First subject was Nigel Moon, Miller at Whissendine Mill in Rutland, who scratched his head when we turned-up as agreed, saying he couldn’t credit why the wind was blowing so well for the time of year.

As we embarked, the crew noticed something very interesting about wind.

When the sun comes out from behind a cloud, it brings with it a thermal gust strong enough to get a windmill’s sails turning, making a pretty picture behind the interviewee.

But for a film crew, bright sunlight means the interviewee will be over-exposed. A sudden gust of wind is also hazardous for sound recording. The crew handled this frustrating situation with great skill and patience. We all became instant weather watchers, recording only during the passing of very large, long clouds.

At Green’s Mill, right in the city of Nottingham, Miller and writer of our documentary, David Bent, took us through the entire workings of one of England’s best-preserved windmills.

We quickly completed every bit of filming that didn’t require turning sails, so I let the crew go for lunch. Meanwhile, I climbed up into the tower mill, surrounded by its fascinating internal workings, all so beautifully wrought from timber, stone and iron. Out on the balcony, where the Miller would set the sails on his mill, there was not a trace of wind. Had my run of weather-luck finally come to an end as predicted?

Ever-hopeful, I climbed higher again, to see tiny windows looking over the courtyard where the crew lunching far below.

UNHORSED BY WINDMILLS I felt a little like Don Quixote.
UNHORSED BY WINDMILLS I felt a little like Don Quixote.

The pressure of the quixotic plan to bring my first full-length documentary in on time and budget was now palpable. I’d hitched my reputation to something as fickle as the weather, an energy I already had a love-hate relationship with. The realisation struck me with a feeling of anger and desperation, so I did something I rarely do … I prayed!

After a few resigned moments looking at the view, the noise of one of the large timber-toothed cogs inside the mill caught my attention. I watched it, oblivious for a few moments to what its movement meant.

A shadow slid across the small room from the window, and I realised the sails outside were turning.

I shouted out the window to the crew and got them back on deck within a minute. Across a nicely windy afternoon we got all the shots we needed.

After a great night’s sleep we headed north into Lincolnshire. With its endless skies capturing as much wind as any Miller would ever want off the North Sea, Lincolnshire was surely designed to harness wind power.

With its sleek black tower, the six-sailed Sibsey Trader Mill (stewarded by English Heritage) rises above the flat landscape like something straight out of Tolkien. I half expected to see Saruman stalking the wrought-iron balcony.

Alford’s beautiful five-sailed Mill put on a brilliant show for the camera. This tower mill was the first operating windmill where we saw windmill-ground flour for sale, and the point of the whole windmill revolution sank in.

In the summer of 1996, food was still fighting for attention in the midst of the media’s gardening and home renovating revolution. Operating mills, which had once been the centre of every town’s economy, were lucky to have survived the industrial revolution and the invention of the supermarket. At many of Lincolnshire’s mills, the seeds of the current paddock-to-plate movement had well and truly sprouted.

Wrawby Post Mill was the next quintessential timber post mill in our Lincolnshire leg, where the Miller kindly acquiesced to my requests for him to catch a ride on one of his mill’s sails for our documentary’s historical recreations.

The majestic span of the mighty eight-sailed Heckington Mill at Sleaford was turning so fast we were able to get excellent shots of the internal workings of a windmill without the essential (but not that attractive) caging required to prevent visitor injury.

In the heat and noise within the cap of a working windmill we got a great sense of the dangers that mill workers endured. Hundreds of timber teeth wait to capture every bit of loose clothing and each stray finger.

David Bent had researched some macabre extracts from The Stamford Mercury, relating the terrible deaths of Millers in centuries past. Once harnessed, wind power can be every bit a life-threatening as electricity.

We’d been warned by more than one Miller to watch out for low-passing mill sails, which are often so quiet they’re easy to forget about, as they come rushing up behind you.

(Photo: Jason Smith)
WILD MILL Halnaker Mill in Sussex (Photo: Jason Smith)

We reached the south of England in a more confident mood, and climbed the path to film the stunning Halnaker Mill in West Sussex, high on a wild hill where every blade of grass was bent by the wind.

The Clayton Mills on the South Downs are also beautifully situated on a hillside, which is why they got their names “Jack” and “Jill” mills. Like the Union Mill in the beautifully preserved town of Cranbrook in Kent, Sussex’s upland mills show the prominence that windmills had in most townscapes during the era when wind power was the major source of energy.

By the time we got home to Suffolk, every mill that was capable of having its sails turned by the wind was captured in motion. My sense of achievement helped in tilting-at a great voice for the documentary’s narration, so I approached Janet Suzman’s agent.

I arrived at the recording studio more than a little nervous. She just stepped out of a cab, rolled up her sleeves and dived-in, instantly capturing the feel I’d anticipated for the commentary, and in her character readings of those gruesome northern newspaper reports.

Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but since the making of Seven Centuries of the English Windmill, whenever I’ve been faced with outdoor location filming and performances, I have quietly invoked whatever spirit answered my weather prayer inside Green’s Mill in Nottingham. I’ve also become an advocate for wind turbines, because wind power has a longer, cleaner and cheaper track record than any other human-created power harnessing method we’ve ever mastered. No wonder it’s considered so controversial as it makes its comeback.


Seven Centuries of the English Windmill is distributed on DVD.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Beth Chatto – a natural subject

A GARDENER'S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto (Photo: Alamy).
A GARDENER’S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto.

A Writer’s year with a great gardener.

WHEN I first arrived at the Beth Chatto Gardens in midsummer 1996, a bright, animated woman called Rosie greeted me and showed me into the house, where gardener and writer Beth Chatto hosted me for morning tea.

I was there to investigate the viability of producing a documentary on Beth and her work, and what struck me immediately was her gracious nervousness. Taking nothing whatsoever for granted, this multiple Chelsea award-winning gardener was as vulnerable as an auditioning actor.

She’d loved the program one of my colleagues had made about another respected local gardener – Suffolk’s Peggy Cole – because it had captured the truth about what it takes to nurture an English garden, and she hoped I could do the same for her.

Once outside, and more relaxed within the fluid environs of her garden, Beth related that she’d made a program about her garden before, but to date, she felt, no-one had captured what the Beth Chatto Gardens was really all about.

We walked, we talked, and Beth encouraged me to get right within the garden itself, to tread through beds to see the workings of the water garden or the structure of the gravel garden.

Passing a small group of visitors, she introduced herself, directly but politely, to a woman who was taking cuttings, not by reprimanding the culprit, but by saying, “Please, feel free …”, despite the well stocked nursery on the other side of the hedge.

That mixture of shock at her garden being picked-at, and her inner turmoil at wanting to share it without rancour, showed a complex woman with a very interesting story. All I wanted to know was when could we start?

I read as much as I could about Beth’s work and her place in post-war English gardening. She patiently gave me time to catch-up, but underlined that we’d need to spend time in the garden, perhaps an entire year, to film it in its fullness.

As a producer new to the company he worked for, that meant I needed to test budgetary terms, and face questions about when the product could be ready for the marketplace. Could the execs wait another Christmas? Had this territory already been covered enough by another company?

GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).
GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).

The best thing I could think to do was simply to start. A cameraman, Alan James (another Essex gardener in his own right), and me, just filmed as the seasons cycled, as they do so dramatically in England. Along the way, I felt sure I would find a way to make the project work for all the stakeholders.

Beth Chatto’s ornamental garden is just one part of her work. Situated at the end of a farm lane, not far from the Essex town of Colchester, it occupies a small gully between working farm fields which Beth and her husband Andrew transformed into their world famous garden.

A commercial nursery makes up almost half of the property, and much of that is taken up by large-scale compost production. I recall Beth’s delight when we proved ourselves willing to film tractors at work on steaming piles of leaf litter. Her approach to our company, with its track record for making programs about farm machinery, was paying off.

On one day’s filming in winter, a quiet, well-dressed man (who looked a bit like I’d imagine a Russian philosopher would) was seated on the other side of the fire in the garden office when I arrived. Rosie asked me to take a seat to warm myself, and Andrew Chatto gently introduced himself.

Beth credits her husband Andrew Chatto with the original inspiration behind their garden for one very simple reason. It was Andrew who came up with the idea of finding plants from across the temperate world, and to grow them in England under conditions that were suited to their needs. This was Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ concept in a nutshell.

To explain why such a basic philosophy became so revolutionary, you’d need to tackle centuries of horticultural collecting conducted by the great botanists who accompanied Britain’s explorers on dangerous voyages to bring seeds and cuttings back home.

The famous glasshouses of Kew were built to house this booty, and to keep it alive against the cold climate. The movement eventually encouraged generations of ordinary gardeners to buy whatever plants we liked, stick them in our back yards, and hope for the best.

Beth and Andrew were every bit as exploratory, not just because of their plant-inspired travels, but also because the climate and soil in Essex are not what you’d call typically English. Certainly the annual rainfall is not what other counties enjoy. The Chattos were also not afraid to wait many years to see what happened.

And what happened speaks for itself … the scrubby gully is now a stunning series of gardens that descend almost imperceptibly along a natural water-course. Preceding Beth’s well-loved books on water and shade gardening, these immaculate green spaces were her laboratory in an ongoing love affair with plants.

DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.
DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Photo: Alamy)

Our filming coincided with the peak early years of Beth’s latest project at the time – her gravel garden. In an ongoing experiment, quite ahead of its time, she vowed to never irrigate this garden, to test the boundaries of gardening under drought conditions, well aware of the tussle to come between farmers and gardeners over access to water.

Here was something an Australian could really get his head around – the gravel garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens reminded me of home, with its sparse, elemental feel and the heat that emanated from the ground, literally inches thick with small stones and filled with plants familiar to me from roadsides in the Outback.

As the months passed we got to know Beth’s staff quite well. I would often catch a glimpse of her observing our filming processes from a distance, and once she saw her gardeners chatting with us and surrendering to the often annoying process of, “now, could you just do that again, and we’ll film it from this angle …”, she would disappear into the house to get on with other work.

As an interviewee on camera Beth Chatto proved a natural. I realised very quickly that I’d only need to capture her in conversation and get Alan to just turn the camera on. Years of communicating her story had given her an edge that needed no other commentary.

In the last few months of filming, Beth kept gently reminding me that she’d like some group shots of the staff, and on one day in the Summer of 1997 we got everyone to down tools and take part in a photo shoot that we committed to tape. As the centre-piece to those moments, I saw Beth about the happiest I’d ever seen her.

She also understood innately what I was doing when I asked one of our execs to be an extra in a whole day’s filming, our one ‘big budget’ spend, working with a crane to capture high-angle motion shots. Beth guided my boss through the highly repetitious process of take after take, until we had it just right.

I became a gardener as a result of my year with Beth Chatto. What I know about gardens I learned from her, particularly about how to live in a garden and not be too precious about the life that runs through it – pets, visiting wildlife, and people who like to take cuttings.


The Beth Chatto Gardens DVD is available from BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.