Tilting at Windmills

Windmill at Saillagol

One of the things I love about living here is local people’s interest in le petit patrimoine, the vestiges of a rural life that has faded away. Groups of enthusiastic volunteers contribute to their restoration to rescue them from oblivion. Today, I dragged the SF off to visit one of these projects, lo molin de la Gaventa, a windmill outside the village of Saillagol.

Natural sources of power

In past times, the main sources of power were animals, water and wind. Animals could turn lighter mills, such as walnut oil mills, but couldn’t supply enough power to turn heavy millstones. Water power was the most constant, except in a drought. For example, our local River Bonnette once had a high concentration of watermills. Wind power was vulnerable to the caprices of the weather.

Walnut Oil Mill in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val – Horse-Drawn Millstone

Windmills were once common in the hilly and exposed parts of our area, where there was no running water. But you need a consistent wind speed; blustery wind is unable to keep the mechanism turning the heavy millstone. Even this morning at Saillagol, where a keen westerly was blowing, the sails were turning nicely, but not enough for a grain-milling demonstration.

Moulin de Saillagol

The moulin at Saillagol stands on a windy ridge at an altitude of 365 metres. It was built in 1768, the date carved above the door. It milled flour for about a century, when it fell into disuse. The windmill was partially restored in the 1980s. The full restoration was completed 25 years later. The name lo molin de la Gaventa (Occitan) arises from the name of the earliest known owner, a woman from a family of millers named Gavens.

The president of the association showed us around. To avoid their deterioration, the sails are fixed to the windmill only during the open days. This must be quite an operation, even with modern machinery.

I had never realised this, but windmills have two entrances. Why? Because the sails are turned to catch the prevailing wind and then locked in position. You must use the door on the opposite side to the sails to avoid being decapitated by them. The whole roof swivels, using a huge lever mechanism. All this has been painstakingly restored at Saillagol.

Mechanism for turning and locking the sails, attached to the roof.

Elaborate mechanisms

We gingerly mounted (and descended even more cautiously) a narrow, dark staircase up to the top floor, where we saw the machinery in operation. The sails turned a large wheel with wooden cogs, which turned the mechanism attached to the upper millstone.

Cog wheels

A hopper fed the grain between the upper (moving) and lower (fixed) millstones.

Hopper for feeding the grain into a chute

A chute channelled the flour into bags at the bottom of the windmill, where the miller lived while the mill was operating.

Final destination

Mills and millers

What is it about windmills that is so appealing? Perhaps it’s because from the outside, you don’t see the complex mechanism, only the moving sails, which makes them look almost alive. You can understand why Don Quixote thought he was jousting with giants.

In popular culture, millers were never very popular, since they were always accused of defrauding the clients. In Jean de Florette, Marcel Pagnol’s novel of rural life in 1920s Provence, the local miller feels sorry for the main character, so he only pinches 10 per cent of the flour! You wonder what his normal percentage was.

Lo molin de la Gaventa is open on the third Sunday in March, June (journée des moulins) and September (journées du patrimoine). More info on the Association des Amis du Moulin de Saillagol Facebook page.      

Lo molin de la Gaventa

Other windmills in our area:

Promilhanes (Lot), which has been restored.

Restored windmill at Promilhanes

Les Espiémonts (a hamlet of Caylus). The tower has been restored, but not the mechanism or the sails.

Windmill minus its sails near Lassalle

The closest to us, on private land. Only the tower remains.  

Former windmill near us. You can see right through to the other side, via the two entrances

You might also like:

Walnut Oil Mills and Windmills

Watery Walk – La Vallée de la Bonnette

All Fêted Out

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About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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9 Responses to Tilting at Windmills

  1. Pingback: Noses to the Grindstone? La Meulière de Clayrac near Cordes | Life on La Lune

  2. Kiki says:

    Vanessa, bonjour
    What I like about your blog is the fact that I can read it when I have time and leisure as it is not essentially linked to day-to-day events, and I‘m not particularly interested in what you had for lunch either, so – you‘re an ideal blogger for me 🙂
    This post is so interesting, we marvel at windmills and don‘t know anything really…. They are far more intricate than what we might imagine and of course are deeply depending on the ‚wind factor‘ – I also smiled at your reference to Pagnol…. I had the same thought then!
    Your photos are excellent too and give a good insight to your chosen subject. Thank You for all this. Wishing you warmth (it‘s freezing cold right outside of Paris too but the sun comes out from time to time and the birds are having their pre-spring concert in very great numbers), joy and many further ‚figureoutable‘ subjects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Bonjour, Kiki, and thank you for coming back to read my blog. No, you won’t get to hear what I had for lunch, unless it is particularly memorable!

      I find windmills fascinating and it’s a pity that so many of them have fallen into ruin, but they are difficult to maintain. The sails, in particular, get damaged very easily. I was glad to see this one so well restored.

      It is rather cold here, too, but fine weather is forecast for the rest of the week, and getting warmer, too. The cold wind doesn’t seem to bother the birds, which are singing away in the morning and evening. A lovely sound. Keep warm!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful! The only one I’ve been inside, while working, is a large one in Sicily (between Trapani and Marsala) … once working, it’s the most terrfic experience. The sheer power of the sails and mechanism made a huge impression on me. I’m now going to look at the FB link to yours 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We had seen this one before, but that was prior to the restoration being completed. It’s just a shame that the wind wasn’t strong enough for it to work properly. You realise that relying on the weather made milling a very sporadic occupation.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think there still is a journee mondial des moulins and if I remember correctly it’s during the first half of the year. Lovely article!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Last June on les journees des patrimoine I dragged the other half to Gignac (famous for its festival of cinema) where the restored windmill was open just for the weekend. It was fabulous, what is it about watching and listening to a windmill turning? We really enjoyed the visit and the local restoration group put in an organised day. The site is open but not the windmill, sadly, unless you visit on the village fete day!

    https://www.journees-europeennes-des-moulins.org/recherchesites/moulin-a-vent-de-gignac/

    Worth a trip when it is open but a bit of a trek for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      That sounds like a fascinating day. The sound of a windmill turning is magical, perhaps because it’s a sound that’s no longer heard. The people we met today were so enthusiastic about their windmill and I’m always delighted when these projects have such tangible results. Thanks for the link, which I will follow up.

      Liked by 1 person

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