Hertfordshire home: Pretty converted watermill in Westmill
PUBLISHED: 08:48 12 November 2020 | UPDATED: 13:32 12 November 2020
Once owned by a bodyguard to Edward the Confessor, and a hideout during the Profumo affair, The Mill in Westmill is a home with a long and intriguing history
Christine Keeler, the showgirl at the centre of the Profumo scandal, went into hiding at this converted watermill in the Hertfordshire countryside to escape the political storm that rocked the Tory government and ultimately led to the resignation of the prime minister Harold Macmillan.
The owner of the house at the time was Mark Chapman-Walker, managing director of the News of the World, the Sunday paper that won exclusive rights to her story. Chapman-Walker invited Keeler to hole up at his home in the village of Westmill while she was front page news. In a well documented history of The Mill spanning almost a thousand years, local historian Marilyn Taylor notes, 'There are plenty of local stories that confirm [Christine Keeler] stayed at the mill for some time in the spring of 1963.'
The newspaper chief bought the property in 1959 from George Roberts who owned both the mill and neighbouring Westmill House for 20 years. Roberts had a large plumbing and heating business in nearby Bengeo and sold the mill following the death of his wife in 1958.
It hadn't been operational since 1936. At that time the miller was a Mr Gobel whose new wife was the daughter of the publican of the Robin Hood at Tonwell. Although he was a tenant he had an entrepreneurial streak and opened a tearoom to attract passing trade from cyclists who pedalled out from London at weekends.
Unfortunately the venture had only just got off the ground when there was a huge downpour. To prevent flooding upstream, a sluice gate was opened, resulting in disaster. Marilyn explains, 'Someone upstream opened a sluice gate without telling Mr Gobel so he was unable to prevent the structural damage to the walls and mill wheels when a tree was brought down the river and under the house via the mill race.'
With no-one able or prepared to fund the repairs, the miller and his family had no option but to leave. That was the end of the mill on the river Rib after a history of flour making going back, according to the archives, to when it was owned by a bodyguard of Edward the Confessor.
Before its demise it had been an important site, says Marilyn. 'It was rebuilt in the 1580s with two mill wheels by the Munden family. It was the largest mill in Hertfordshire and the only one with two wheels.'
The height of its prosperity as a working mill was the 1700s and 1800s when both wheels were going like the clappers and a miller called John Wyman French went on to build up one of the largest milling and baking companies in England - J W French of Ware, producers of Frenlite flour.
While no longer a working mill, the tearooms set up by the last miller brought in income for subsequent owners, another occupier ran kennels on the site, and so it limped on until Chapman-Walker arrived in 1959 with 'the means and vision', as the historian puts it, to set the wheels in motion to create the impressive house spanning the mill stream today.
The initials of the News of the World MD are on a plaque over the front door dated 1962. It was during the renovations he said that an architect who had worked at Tudor Hampton Court identified some of the foundations as Elizabethan, says Marilyn.
Present owners Peter and Claire are private people. For them, the mill is the star of the show, and they prefer to keep a low profile.
The couple say they fell in love with the house on the spot after seeing it for sale on the internet 12 years ago. They were living in a period house when they bought The Mill but this was a proposition on an altogether different level. However, the pair 'knew we had to buy it the minute we walked through the front door.'
In 1946 the Ministry of Housing designated the mill an ancient monument and a building of special architectural interest. Today the house is Grade II listed.
It has six bedrooms and four bathrooms, two en suite. Peter and Claire credit their more recent predecessors with each doing their bit, with good taste, to create their home. They in turn made improvements and extended slightly to meet the needs of their family.
Claire says there's no escaping (nor would you want to), the building's history: 'The first thing you pass is the mill wheel and then you're presented with a very large picture window which looks straight down the river. It simply takes your breath away. All our guests on their first visit say "Wow!" as they walk in.
'During our time here we've added the garage and cart lodge as well as a modern family room which was an essential addition for our three boys and we've also upgraded the bathrooms and had a beautiful new kitchen fitted. It's now an incredibly comfortable yet stunning looking home.'
The extensive garden is a major feature of the property. Although very beautiful it's been designed for ease of maintenance.
'Close to the house we have more formal beds which provide us with colour and there's an attractive well. A beautiful wisteria adorns the back door,' Claire explains.
'Beyond the weir, the garden comprises trees, lawn and a tennis court and we also have a small orchard and a number of fruit trees and bushes that have kept us well supplied with apples and summer fruits.'
It's a stunning garden that has provided space and freedom for energetic children and a wonderful backdrop for summer entertaining. And of course, there's the river.
'Whether we're sitting by the weir with a glass of wine listening to the flowing water or going off for a gentle row in one of the boys' boats, the river simply adds a wonderful dimension to our lives,' Claire says.
The pair love entertaining and say their favourite rooms have to be the dining room and the lounge. The dining room has a high vaulted ceiling and it's large enough for 28 to sit down for Christmas dinner.
'From a practical perspective the house has been perfect,' Peter says. 'It's positioned for many excellent local schools. There's a choice of train lines for a commute into London and although it's just a few minutes' walk from both Hertford and Ware we feel we are living right in the countryside.'
Inka, the family Labrador-cross-Springer Spaniel enjoys her five mile walks, all straight from the back door, and the Hertford Way and the local canal system are within easy reach.
Ducks, moorhens and coots are all regular visitors. There's even a spectacular kingfisher who comes and sits on the wall by the conservatory. 'Twice last year she came into the house and she's returned again this year.'
Peter sums up their time at The Mill: 'We have been fortunate to have lived here and brought up our children in such wonderful surroundings but sadly the nest has emptied and it's time for another family to enjoy this very special home.'
For the next owners there may be another political angle to this home, as Marilyn notes: 'The river Rib is still a parliamentary and parish boundary, so as the river runs through the house the owners of The Mill have to decide where they want to vote.'
As Hertfordshire Life went to press, officers at East Herts District Council were looking into the matter.
The Mill in Westmill Road, Westmill is for sale for £2.3m with Savills in Bishop's Stortford