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Winds from the past, Horsey's 100 years

PUBLISHED: 13:09 29 May 2012

John Buxton standing in front of Horsey Drainage Mill

John Buxton standing in front of Horsey Drainage Mill

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2012

Horsey Windpump this year celebrates 100 years since it was last rebuilt. STACIA BRIGGS climbed the steep steps for an incredible view of a landscape under attack from the sea.

To an extent, Horsey represents man’s triumph over the waves while also serving as a timely reminder of the ultimate power of the sea.

For centuries, Horsey windpump has stood sentinel over this unspoilt area of Norfolk’s coastline helping to drain the land and make it habitable for both villagers and their stock.

While many of Norfolk’s trademark mills are isolated, surrounded by flat marshes criss-crossed with dykes, Horsey is easily accessible and for those that climb the 62 ever-steeper stairs, the reward is a magnificent view of the Broads and the immense skyscape that compensates the marshlands for lacking the grandeur of hills.

Part of the 1,700 acre Horsey Estate, which also includes Horsey Mere, Horsey Hall, five farms and cottages, the mill and estate were bought by Major Anthony Buxton in 1929 and then leased for a year to Lady Hilton, widow of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott.

The Buxton family moved from Geneva in Switzerland to Horsey in 1931 and in 1948 the estate was bequeathed to the National Trust by the Buxtons who still manage the area and live in Horsey Hall.

Major Buxton’s son, John, now 84, remembers coming to Horsey as a small child and being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of space he was afforded as a playground with his two sisters. A third sister arrived in Norfolk (“we were three Swiss rolls and one Norfolk dumpling!” laughed Mr Buxton).

After fighting in the First World War, Major Buxton left his family’s East End brewing business and joined the Secretariat of the League of Nations in Geneva.

“After fighting in the war, his main hope was to work towards stopping another war ever happening,” said Mr Buxton, “he was sad that the work carried out in Geneva didn’t make that happen.”

Anthony Buxton and his wife visited Horsey after hearing it was for sale in 1930. “My mother, who was from Scotland, was horrified by the flatness of Norfolk and thought the hall to be a bit damp, but my father went straight down to the marshes and saw a pair of marsh harriers and he said: ‘this is where I am going to live’,” laughed Mr Buxton.

John Buxton immediately fell in love with Horsey, with Norfolk and with the natural beauty and wildlife that surrounded him at his new home. “Horsey Hall was a lovely home to have and in essence, not much has changed since the day I moved here because we have been careful to preserve the natural history that makes Horsey so special,” he said.

“Some places need to be kept quiet for the birds and the beasts that live here and we run Horsey along those lines. Horsey Estate isn’t a normal National Trust site: there are areas where the public can’t access and that’s for a reason – to protect the wildlife.”

Mr Buxton’s son Robin took on the lease from the National Trust in 2000, ensuring there will be Buxtons at Horsey until the end of this century.

He remembers the windpump from his childhood, but as a working piece of machinery, it was off-limits to children but stood as a landmark on the immense estate.

One hundred years have passed since Dan England, from Ludham, and Arthur Dove, who would later become a dedicated and loyal mill man, rebuilt Horsey Mill.

Arthur had been called up in 1914 to serve in the First World War in the First Norfolk Regiment and had been gassed on the frontline. When he returned, he married his sweetheart Bessie from neighbouring Somerton and took over from his father Robert and brother Wilmott as mill man.

Before he took up his post, Arthur endured the traditional initiation ceremony of being rotated once on the windpump sails, a superstition said to give the new incumbent the all-important mill man’s sixth sense.

This would prove vital on days when the strong winds would change direction regularly and Arthur would have to stay on duty at the mill all night to stop the cap blowing off, damaging the pump.

On the night of February 12 1938, a north-westerly gale, accompanied by abnormally high tides anda full moon, resulted in a sea breach at Horsey, flooding an area of 15 square miles.

No lives were lost, but most of the residents and the cattle that had grazed the flat marshland had to be evacuated. Twelve hardy souls refused to leave their marooned houses and were left relying on boats to reach their properties and the outside world.

That fateful night, Arthur’s sixth sense had led him to realise that something was amiss. He raised the alarm in the village, telling people in Horsey that the sea was breaking through the defences and helping parishoners and stock to evacuate to safety.

Speaking about the breach some years later, he said: “My wife and I were at home when the flood hit us. We put on rubber boots and waded to the higher land near Horsey Hall.

“Then some of us went by boat to take families from the cottages at Mere Farm. The mill did a wonderful job then helping to get the water down. It was 16 weeks before we got it all off.”

An area stretching northwards to Sea Palling and westwards to beyond Potter Heigham had been engulfed by sea water, transforming Horsey into an island village.

Another phase in the history of Horsey windpump came in 1943, when the mill was silenced forever by a stroke of lightning. From then on, the diesel pump that had stood by as an auxiliary did the work of the mill.

For Arthur Dove, it meant fewer sleepless nights. For 25 years he had risen from his bed every time the wind rose to make sure the mill sails were “into the wind”. On stormy nights, his bed was in a cabin halfway up the mill from which he kept a weather eye on the wind.

Horsey escaped the terrible floods of 1953 by a whisker - the highest wave of the great tide lapped the top of the sand dunes at Somerton but receded before it could wreak the havoc of 1938 – and the mill was restored, albeit not as a working mill, in 1961.

Confident that Environment Agency measures will protect Horsey and the surrounding areas from a similar sea breach in the future, Mr Buxton is always delighted to see visitors to the windpump.

“For me, seeing the windpump in the distance means that I’m at home. I came here 80 years ago and I’ve never left. Once you live in Horsey, it becomes part of you,” he said.

t Horsey Windpump is open daily 10.30am-4.30pm, £2.50, £1 children, 01263 740241, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/horsey-windpump

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