Every third week of the month, yellow signs sprout along the A40, Eynsham and Witney informing motorists of a mysterious steaming event taking place at Combe Mill. At first I wondered if steaming and steamy might mean the same thing but it turns out that they don’t. Steamy events take place in dungeons and steaming events take place in mills in West Oxfordshire. None the wiser, I still had to find out what these steaming events entailed so one Sunday morning, I took my bicycle and followed the signs.
When I arrived, a lovely volunteer told me a little about the Mill, which has been a busy sawmill in the 1800s as it provided Blenheim Estate with wood and carpentry. However, with the arrival of modern equipment, it fell into disuse in the 1900s and was repaired and renovated by local steam enthusiasts in the 1970s.
The steam engine that powered the wheel when the water level was too low has been restored in its full glory and is the pièce de résistance of the mill. I am not going to even attempt to explain how the machines respectively named “beam engine” and “Cornish boiler”work. Let’s just say that seeing them move, feeling their sound and fury throb through my body, and feeling their power impressed me enough to want to recommend this outing.
I thought this was a great occasion to experience the industrial revolution we hear about so much in history lessons and to get an accurate idea of what these great machines of the past were like.
What stole the show for me however was not the beam engine; it was the availability and passion of all the volunteer enthusiasts who operate the many machines of the engine room, the workshop and the forge. This place is alive because of them and it was lovely to see their eyes shine every time I approached them to ask a question.
In a word, if you are in the region on the 3rd Sunday of the month between March and October and fancy going back in time to discover a working sawmill from the 19th century, this is the place to go. If you just want to see what goes where in order to get things ticking amidst much huffing and puffing, this is also the place to go but remember, this is not a dungeon, this is a mill.