The mill that inspired a children’s classic

The tower windmill at Burnham Overy Staithe is one of the most iconic sights along the north Norfolk coast, and even appears in one of the 20th century’s best-loved children’s books

Even though she spent much of her life in King’s Lynn, few people are aware of the work of Joan G Robinson, who wrote and illustrated over 30 books for children of different ages before her death in 1988.

Dear Teddy Robinson appeared in 1956, starting a six-book series based on a real teddy bear that belonged to Joan’s daughter Deborah (who also features in the stories), and the first book in the Mary-Mary series was published the following year.

Her most famous book however, is the delightful When Marnie Was There which was published in 1967 and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal - the UK’s oldest and most prestigious book award for children’s writing. Telling the story of a young girl called Anna who comes to Norfolk to convalesce, it was based on the author’s own experiences of a family holiday in Burnham Overy Staithe - and the village plays a large part in the story. 

Its famous granary became the fictional ‘Marsh House’ and the beach, sandhills, meadows, and routes across the marsh are major settings of the story - as is the village’s iconic windmill, which plays an important role in Anna’s adventures.

In fact, when the famous Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli made an anime version of the story in 2015 (a film which won the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination) the windmill was still clearly recognisable as the one at Burnham Overy Staithe, even though the story had been relocated to the island of Hokkaido.

The windmill was originally built in 1816 for Edmund Savory, a local miller who was then running a watermill on the River Burn known as Lower Mill. On his death ten years later the mill passed to his son John, who worked it until his death in 1863 - leaving it to his son, also named John.

Six years after that a new law required all ‘trade’ horses to have a licence, and Savory was convicted twice in the space of three years (he received a fine of £5) for having one more horse than he held a licence for.

In 1888 the windmill was put up for auction at the Norfolk Hotel in Norwich, together with a malting house, various granaries, a number of farm buildings and almost 50 acres of land, but no-one wanted it and the mill remained unsold.

Two years later John Savory finally managed to sell the entire operation to Sidney Dewing, but the days of windmills were numbered - and the mill at Burnham Overy Staithe stopped working just after the First World War in 1919.

By 1926 it had been stripped of all its machinery and was owned by Grantchester architect Hugh Hughes, who’d recently converted the windmill at Ringstead to residential use. 

A major restoration project was carried out by the Lincolnshire millwright firm Thompson’s and the mill was given to the National Trust in 1958. Plans to restore it to working order were published in the late 1970s but the work never took place and it has become a striking and unusual holiday let with accommodation for up to 19 people. 

The ground floor comprises a dining room/lounge and a well-equipped kitchen, while the next two floors contain dormitories with eight bunkbeds - the lower floor also featuring an external balcony that wraps around the mill and offers amazing views over the surrounding landscape. The very top floor is a charming library/living room.

At one time there were more than 100 windmills in Norfolk, and it was one of the few places in the country where you  could see all three types - the post mill, the smock mill and the tower mill.

Most of the smaller ones have now disappeared, and many of the remainder are derelict - which makes the mill at Burnham Overy Staithe quite exceptional.

Not only is it a beautiful building in its own right - it’s also the most enchanting place in which to spend a few days.

And who knows - you may even meet Marnie.

The fabulous images featured in this article can be purchased as a ready-to-frame prints (along with 50 other incredible local images) in a range of sizes from our online gallery here.

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