Last Friday we rejoiced in the torrents of rain that hammered down for the whole day and much of the night. An even greater joy followed: the limpidity of the rained-out atmosphere. The past few days have been bright and clear, and the nights so dark and star-speckled they are, well, heavenly. Two babbling swallows alighted on the telegraph wire in front of the veranda one morning: the first swallows to arrive in our part of the valley. They are Barn Swallows; the Red-rumped we don’t expect to see for a few weeks yet. Our faithful Little Owl is becoming increasingly vocal, day and night. Its repeated ‘weeow’ call sounds like a yo-yo whistling through the air.
Husband is hard at work in the bakery as I type. The latest batch of loaves includes dark-rye Borodinsky breads for a Russian friend of a friend, for whom they taste of home. Some of these loaves will be swapped for a handmade Hoopoe nesting box. Hoopoes occupy the farmland just over the river, but this side is a bit too rough and ready for them with their elaborate, cabaret get-up. We are hoping to persuade them it’s quite refined over here really. As if we didn’t have enough birds! It’s pure greed. Keeping the sparrows out of the nest will be a job, too.
I haven’t paid too much attention so far to the ruined watermill I pass every time I go down to the river. The gradually rotting caravan in one corner of the grounds, evidence of someone’s long-dead ambitions for the site, is off-putting for a start. Plus the land is, of course, private property. The ruin itself isn’t so eye-catching, nor are ruins a rarity round here. I couldn’t figure out how it could be a watermill anyway. Where was the race? Where would the large, vertical wheel have been positioned? Perhaps it was someone’s fanciful idea it had ever been a watermill. Then one day I noticed, having taken a little detour, that at the back of the ruin was a large, deep, rectangular depression: some kind of water storage.
Curiosity gradually got the better of me. This week I persuaded a friend with an interest in mills into trespassing with me. After all, the mill is unoccupied and for sale, so surely it’s OK to take a look. I not only had the benefit of his judgement on site, but also the resource of a splendid book he got hold of (being in fact an antiquarian bookseller rather than a mill engineer): Portugal’s Other Kingdom: The Algarve, published in 1963. The author is Dan Stanislawski, an American professor of historical geography. The book is brilliant. (Thank you, Robert Brown, and Becky B.)
Professor Stanislawski wrote: ‘A typical water mill of the Algarve is built with a vertical shaft. The grinding stones are at the upper end of the shaft, and at the other end are horizontal blades against which the force of water is directed. … [This] simple type … is certainly as old as the first century BC.’
So, nothing like the kind of watermill I am familiar with.
A cavity we found under the floor of the main room must have been where the horizontal blades operated. Among the rubble on the floor were segments of chased stone, which could only be from a broken millstone. The single room behind, several steps up, has a shaft at the rear, where perhaps a sluice-gate controlled the flow of water from the holding tank beyond. Later Husband pointed out that the water reservoir was just downstream of both a deep channel in the river and our neighbour Eleuterio’s abundant well. The mill could have operated not only when the river was running but also in the dry season, using the underground springs that feed the well. He also spotted, among the weeds in the grounds, two entire, pristine-looking millstones, which I had never noticed.
I am the last person who should be trying to describe the workings of a watermill. My engineering skills are, let us say, undeveloped. I have the technological nous of a water rat (but that’s a little unfair on the rat). None the less, I am fascinated by this mill, and its technology that was – if the American professor is to be believed – in continuous use for two millennia, only to be abandoned in my meagre lifetime.
No, I cannot buy the mill. It is for sale at a commercial price on a tourism-potential ticket. One day someone will build a lovely house there, and the mill will be history.