From the field side, I was able look down and see (and hear) the weir which tumbles the brook into a culvert through this garden – now I’ve come to look at it from in front. The first, and unexpected, thing I discover is that Upper Vatch Mill has a bit of secret stream. I hadn’t realised, looking at it from the field, that their garden includes a short section of the brook before it falls over the weir. I’ve rather over-used the word ‘secret’ in relation to the Slad Brook, because of the way it is largely shrouded in trees, but this little bit really does feel secret because it's fenced off on three sides as well.
This 'secret stream' is also unusual because while on the opposite side of the brook the banks slope down to the water in the normal way, on this side there is 10-15 feet of flat land beside the brook, and then a bank which slopes up into the field beyond. For some reason the trees have chosen to grow on the bank, not by the stream in the usual way, so this little bit of flat land, covered in dead leaves, nettles and fallen wood, is like a tiny bit of no-man’s-land, neither brook nor field. It's like a long narrow tray with a lip round the edge. It's only after I've been walking up and down it for a while that the obvious conclusion occurs to me - this was probably once a section of a man-made channel, designed to be much wider than the stream itself, and part of the mill system.
There were indeed once mill buildings in the grounds of Upper Vatch Mill, though according to the owners the house itself was never part of the mill. The mill buildings were somewhere in the garden, nearer to the weir – which makes sense. Evidently it was all part of the Vatch Mills complex which included Vatch House and its leat.
By the weir the stream turns sharply to the right and goes through what would once have been sluice gates. Sections of wall remain on either side with a large tree growing out of one end of the wall. The gates themselves are mostly gone but on one side the gatepost remains and you can see the channel cut in the stone where the gate would have run. On the other side, the stone has fallen over, partly blocking the gap, and the whole thing is covered in swathes of ivy. Nevertheless, the stream is finding its way through; water can always find a way. I catch glimpses of small birds nipping in and out of the ivy and dodging under the undercuts in the stone and guess that it must be a pair of wrens. I'm proved right when one of them appears right in front of me, shouting abuse. Size is no guide to chutzpah in birds - I'm always amazed by the boldness of wrens compared with the relative wimpishness of magpies. I watched a magpie being seen off by a wagtail once, but that's by the by.
|Remains of sluice gates|
In my mind I try to reconstruct what all this might have looked like when it was a working mill. It's hard to see exactly how the water was supposed to run. There are three streams of water coming over the weir, only one of which comes through the main gap where the sluice would have been. The other two come from a sort of tunnel on the further side of the weir and what looks like a deliberate gap in the wall beside the sluice. On the far left of weir is what was obviously another run-off channel, with more moss-covered stonework at the top of it, so presumably some of the water could have been diverted down it. From this angle, by the weir, I can see a sharp little bank at right angles to the sluice which could well have been the edge of a mill pond, if that's what that flat area by the stream was. But if so, shouldn't the sluice gates have been higher up rather than at the level of the current stream? I give up my speculation and concentrate on recording the sounds of the weir and of the stream running into the culvert with a satisfyingly hollow glopping.
|Weir and terrace|
The owner of Upper Vatch Mill was talking about wanting to restore the sluice gates and the stonework if he ever had the money to do it, and that would be really interesting to see, but I’ve been very glad to see the stream and the remnants of the mill as they are now, on this cold, bright winter morning, just as time has left them. All low light, long shadows and gentle decay.
The sun is still out, so on my way home I detour up Swift’s Hill to get the last of it. Over the apex of the hill, one of the local kestrels is being mobbed by a couple of rooks. Much higher up, a buzzard floats undisturbed, sunning his wings. On the way back, I spot a single spray of white flowers growing out of the hedge in the lane, and a rosebush in the garden of Knapp House is sporting two perfect red rosebuds. Small intimations of spring in the depths of winter. Odd, but cheerful.
Google map of this walk