A Matter of Loaf and Death (Lammas: August on the Mel)

This title, taken from a Wallace and Gromit film (Nick Park 2008) seems appropriate as in Topcliffe Mill — where James and I spend an afternoon this month of August — are two anonymous poems from the 19th century, telling stories of theft and murder at the mill in the middle ages. Derring-do, robberies, and hidden treasure: the mill lends itself to adventures and ghosts (however there is no trace of Bake-o-lite!)

Topcliffe Mill
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

A phrase from a song that was on the radio a lot in my late 1950’s childhood is running in my mind. I think it is Burl Ives singing If you take my advice there is nothing as nice as messing about on the river.

Waterlight project website

James, Bruce and I have seen quite a lot of each other in terms of planning, as we now have all the footage we need for the film and arranging future events for autumn and winter. Our meetings usually take place at lunchtime in the pub. We are delighted because we have been awarded a grant from South Cambridgeshire Community Chest for our own dedicated website for the whole Waterlight project, where all aspects can be seen in their entirety.


There will be poems, short films, verbatim stories, the river’s history and a link to this blog available to anyone who wants to look. We have set a deadline of 8th October for it to be up and running and launched, so that we do not float away on crystal chalk water… Our friend Mark, web designer and curator of ClimateCultures, is creating an easy-to-use site with lots of photographs and his usual eye for design.

Lammas time

People often refer to the ‘dog days’ of August but it is one of my favourite months as many people are away and the pace of life slows. In ancient times the whole of August, because celebrations depended on where the equinox fell, was called Lammas: a time of ripeness and grains. Closely related to Lugh and Lughnasa in Ireland, these gods were of sun, light, harvest, fullness and their female counterparts were Ceres — the Roman goddess responsible for fertility and for helping people prepare and preserve corn — and Greek Demeter, the goddess of changes: the dark mother who sees summer tilting slowly in the harvest towards autumn. There are many stone carvings of these goddesses holding bunches of wheat.

Nothing can grow without water; we come from water and are largely made of it. So, it has felt entirely appropriate that James and I have spent an afternoon filming in the mill at Topcliffe in Meldreth. Everything remains: the millstones for grinding, the sluice and its gates, the hods to hold the grain, the sheer steps up the narrow towers, the great cogs of the machinery all powered by water. Kathryn Betts the owner of the mill house and mill tells us that she and her husband have looked into restoring the old mill wheel there, with its overshot water power. If that was possible, they could begin to make flour again.

Topcliffe Mill
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

She shows us around each floor of the mill with its tiny windows and a purpose-built Victorian dovecote. The keeping of doves was very common in south Cambridgeshire and at many 19th-century houses dovecotes remain. We speculate on whether they were used to send messages but they must have enjoyed and lived off the fallen grain and were kept for food, eggs and manure. Kathryn also has a collection of black and white photographs of the families who rented and worked at the mill for generations. We speculate that the dust in the air from husks can’t have been a good environment to work in continually. We discover that for centuries the mill was owned by St Thomas Hospital.

A medieval landlord and tenant scheme in an agricultural economy to provide work and supply grain to the city. Perhaps, looking back, a nice irony.

The power of water

Looking through the trap door above the mill race where the water gathers pace before turning the wheel, Kathryn explains that the height of the water would have come up to just below the floor of the mill as a great deal of power was needed. I think of a sentence towards the end of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot: ‘she’s gone and got drownd ded!’ I can see now how easily that could have happened inside the mill itself.  But Maggie Tulliver was drowned in a flooding river close to the mill where she lived. The power of water and its capacity for danger as well as good cannot be ignored. In the novel, the fictional mill is in Lincolnshire and Maggie cannot overcome her circumstances and water gets the better of her. The interior of the Mill seems to be haunted for me on this afternoon by the characters from George Eliot’s novel, perhaps in response to Kathryn showing us the agricultural history of the building, the ancient documents recording families who lived there and the status failures and bankruptcies that were part of their lives over centuries.

In the great heat of early August on the Mel, the river has seemed sometimes to hold an amber dust or deep golden coins of the sun as the light has penetrated through the canopy of trees above it. Before James and I have arrived at the mill we have walked across harvested fields on the section of the river where it leaves Meldreth, crossing towards the confluence at Malton. Here it is possible to see September coming in.

There are dried cow parsley heads and chestnut trees half green and half brown. The earth is cracked, the river hidden in a deep culvert or ditch.

The river is now a practical part of the arable fields’ drainage. It flows beyond some farm fencing as the confluence with the river Rhee is on neighbouring farmland. The owner has been very generous in giving us access but is unobtainable on the phone, as he is probably out on a combine somewhere.

Lammas bread

The Anglo Saxons, whose history marks the river Mel with a possible settlement at its source discovered through the many finds of jewellery and clothing, used to hold a ceremony called hlaefmass (we get our word loaf and Lamas, an abbreviation I suppose, from here); they baked a loaf from the first corn harvested on Lammas Day, which was between 1st August and 1st September, and took it to church where it was blessed and afterwards might have been used to make magic. A book of Anglo Saxon charms directed that Lammas bread should be broken into four bits which were to be put at four corners of the barn to protect the garnered grain. In the Domesday Book ‘the feast of the first fruits’ is chronicled, where tenants gave their landlords a loaf of the first harvest on or before the first day of August. Bread was blessed in both Eastern and Western churches on the first or sixth August, the 6th being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ.

Topcliffe Mill
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

With all this tradition surrounding us, it feels appropriate that we have sat in the sun eating sandwiches, discussing the river, caught the sun and the water in harvest light and that we almost could bake a loaf at the mill in its dusky, moss-watered interior to protect our next four events:

  • The open River Writing poetry workshop
  • The launch of the Waterlight website
  • The concert of Vaughan Williams folksongs collected around the river
  • And of course finally, in May, the finished film.

Whirpools and weirs that you must not go near
Messing about on the river
Backwater places all hidden from view
Mysterious islands just waiting for you
So I’ll leave you right now, go casting your bow
Go messing about on the river

These lyrics are by Josh McCrae, a Scottish folk singer and art teacher. Earlier verses contain references to moorings, docks and boats which the river Mel is not wide enough for, although there are some small docks and history tells us that many sailed along it in narrow canoes, boated at its source and were often seen floating in barrels!         

Nice work, Gromit!

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