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.
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.
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.
A hopper fed the grain between the upper (moving) and lower (fixed) millstones.
A chute channelled the flour into bags at the bottom of the windmill, where the miller lived while the mill was operating.
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.
Other windmills in our area:
Promilhanes (Lot), which has been restored.
Les Espiémonts (a hamlet of Caylus). The tower has been restored, but not the mechanism or the sails.
The closest to us, on private land. Only the tower remains.
You might also like:
Copyright © 2019 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved