ANCIENT THAMES MILLS
Almost the greatest loss to country scenery is the decay of the ancient windmills and water-mills. The first has robbed the hilltops of a most picturesque feature, while in the valleys and little glens the roaring, creaking, dripping wheel sounds no longer, except in favoured spots where it still pays to grind the corn in the old way. The old town and city mills often survived longer than the country ones, and those on the Thames longer than those on smaller rivers. The corn and barley which was taken to market in the town was easily transferred to the town mill, and thence by water to the place of consumption. Every Wykehamist remembers the ancient and picturesque mills of Winchester, with the mill-stream bridged by the main street. At Oxford some of the most ancient mills remain to this day, while others have only recently been destroyed, or have undergone a curious conversion into dwelling-houses, beneath which the mill-stream still rushes. One of these houses stands near Folly Bridge; another old mill has just undergone the same process, that close to Holywell Church. Some of these mills are the most ancient surviving institutions in Oxford, far older than the colleges - older even than any of the churches except perhaps one. Some of these - the Castle Mill, for instance - have ground corn for centuries since the abbeys, for whose use they were founded, utterly disappeared. Others were standing long before abbeys or colleges were founded, and were part of their endowments. They are the oldest link between town life and country life left in Oxford, or indeed in England. For a thousand years the corn grown on the hills beyond the Thames meadows has been drawn to their doors. Saxon churls dragged wheat there on sledges, Danes rowed up the river to Oseney and stole the flour when they sacked the abbey, Norman bishops stole the mills themselves. That iniquitous Roger of Salisbury was "in" this, as we might guess. Roger, who knew that attention to detail is the soul of business, commandeered this particular mill with others in these parts, and, when forced to let it go, with a fine sense of humour made it over to the Godstone nunnery as a pious donor.
The Knights Templars had another mill at Cowley, and the king himself one on the Cherwell, which was given to the Hospital of St. John, who "swapped" it with Merton. Later on these mills helped King Charles's army vastly, for all the flour needed for the Oxford garrison was ground inside or close to the walls.
At present the Thames is mainly visited as a source of rest and refreshment to tens of thousands of men "in cities pent," and of pleasure rather than profit. In a secondary degree it is useful as a commercial highway, the barge traffic being really useful to the people on its banks, where coal, stone for road-mending, wood, flour, and other heavy and necessary goods are delivered on the staithes almost at their doors. But when the old mills were first founded, and for eight centuries onwards, it was as a source of power, a substitute for steam, that the river was valued. The times will probably alter, and the Thames currents turn mill wheels again to generate electric light for the towns and villages on its banks. The chance of this coming about is enough to make any one who owns a mill right on the water keep it, even though not useful at present. First the old roads with auto-cars, then the old mills with hydraulic lighting and low-power dynamos will come to the front again. Whereof take the old story of the Oxford river as full and sufficient witness, and Antony Wood for storyteller. "Oxford," he says, "owed its prosperity to its rivers," of which there were apparently as many branches and streams then as now.
The rivers were "beneficial to the inhabitants, as anon shall be showed," though the Cherwell was "more like a tide" than a common river sometimes, and once nearly overflowed all the physic garden. That garden stands there still. So does the Cherwell still behave "more like a tide than a river," and the scene at the torpid races a few years ago is evidence that the rivers have not diminished in volume. What, then, was the "great commodity" given by them to the city? First and least, a water which was good for dyeing cloth and for tanning leather; secondly, and by far the greatest benefit, it turned the wheels of at least a dozen important mills. As mills were always a monopoly, as much opposition was raised to the making of a new one as would now be evoked by the proposal to construct a new railway.
It was meddling with vested interests of a powerful kind, but there were so many rivers at Oxford that each turned one or two mills without injuring any one's water rights.