THE stone tower windmill that dominates the countryside between Great Haseley and Great Milton in South Oxfordshire has never been too far from the thoughts of Sir Martin Wood.
As the man who founded Oxford Instruments, which from a humble start in a garden shed grew to become an international firm pioneering developments in medical gadgets and superconductivity, he has realised most of his ambitions as an entrepreneur.
But as an engineer he still regards the 250-year-old windmill as unfinished business.
It is a place that holds wonderful boyhood memories for him – and helped fuel his fascination with machinery and the workings of complex instruments.
He first climbed up to it in his early teens, at the side of his father, a retired civil servant and skilled carpenter.
Having seen the once proud landmark deteriorate after decades of neglect, he promised himself to one day see it properly restored, perhaps even as a working windmill.
Now at the age of 86, Sir Martin and his wife Lady Audrey Wood are close to seeing the completion of a £350,000 project that promises to become in every sense an unmissable attraction from Oxfordshire’s pre-industrial past.
Sir Martin said: “We lived in Great Milton in an old house in the village. My father was a keen amateur carpenter. He liked doing things with his hands and carrying around his tool bag. It was almost bigger than me.”
When father and son began to explore the mill outside the village, they were both depressed with its state of disrepair.
- The mechanism by which the sails rotate to stay in the wind
Dating from about 1760, the mill reached the end of its working life 100 years ago on the eve of the First World War. Having ground corn for 150 years, it had fallen increasingly into disuse with the arrival of the internal combustion engine, but its isolated position meant that the Great Haseley windmill, unlike so many other tower mills, had not been demolished for its stone.
Sir Martin recalls: “The door was not locked and people just went in to help themselves to firewood.
“The mill attracted both of us. I would have been about 13 and I loved doing things with my father. So we decided to get on with some elementary repairs to the door, stairs and windows. I suppose something inside me liked restoring old things like that.”
Establishing who actually owned it was another task they set themselves.
It turned out to have been bought by Colonel Muirhead of Great Haseley after it stopped working.
The Woods reached an agreement to rent the windmill for five shillings a year, allowing father and son to get on with repair work and providing the young Martin with a valuable early encounter with industry, albeit one dating from a long-forgotten past.
Sir Martin would go on to spend three years as a ‘Bevin Boy’, spending his National Service down a South Wales coalmine rather than going into the Army, earning something under £3 a week. This would be followed by six years of engineering education in Cambridge and Imperial College, London .
His return to Oxford saw him establish Oxford Instruments, the first substantial spin-off company from Oxford University, in 1959.
- The view
It also saw him acquire the mill, which he was determined to save from further deterioration.
A date stone exists, marked 1806, but it is thought that the mill had been constructed 45 years earlier.
It was a tower mill, with common sails, meaning an open wooden frame bearing the sail cloth. Ironwork dated 1889 suggests repairs at that time, involving winding gear and curb cogs. The timber sails had rotted and broken off and in 1969 the original copper roof was stolen, which had to be replaced.
But six years ago Sir Martin and Lady Wood took the decision to hand the mill over to the newly created Great Haseley Windmill Trust, with trustees coming from both Great Haseley and Great Milton and the retired investment banker John Alexander, 71, becoming a key figure in co-ordinating the work .
The trustees were encouraged by the restoration of a smaller tower mill down the road at Wheatley, completed four years ago.
They enlisted the services of the celebrated millwright, David Empringham, who had worked on that successful project.
Sir Martin believed not only its place as a traditional landmark justified the restoration, but also the fact that it was a link in the evolution of technology and a monument to the craftsmen of the 18th and 19th century. Above all, he added: “It is an object of beauty.”
Fortunately much of the machinery had survived, although in a poor state. The most urgent repairs were carried out with the staircase being rebuilt, beams replaced and the floor relaid with oak.
The project reached a pivotal moment in July when the new cap was hoisted by crane on top of the old mill.
Now the sails still need to be added, with another £50,000 remaining to be raised, but the end is clearly in sight.
It is hoped that the windmill could be open to visitors later this year, perhaps even with occasional demonstrations of corn being ground for the first time in a century.