Written by Stewart Howe
Glatton Round Hill, Yaxley Stone Mill and Whittlesea Mere, Are the three great wonders – of Huntingdonshire.
So reads the archaic Huntingdonshire rhyme, oft misquoted since its inclusion in Fenland Notes and Queries, the quarterly antiquarian journal. Sadly, the three great wonders no longer exist, at least not in their original form. The belvedere and deer park at the arrow-shaped Round Hill are no more, the stone mill has been demolished and Southern England's greatest expanse of water was drained in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whilst their importance has faded, the significance of this triangular arrangement of places did not escape the attention of English landscape painter Peter de Wint (1784-1849), whose canvases offer a tantalising glimpse into a time when our region was truly wondrous.
The Yaxley Stone Mill, later called the Black Mill, due to its later plastered and tarred appearance was said to have existed in various forms since the 16th Century. According to a 1927 article in the Peterborough Advertiser, the dates 1500, 1677 and 1742 were visible on the structure. Referencing its significance as a local landmark, it seems to take precedence even over St Peter's church on a couple of early maps. This is probably due to its function as not merely an agricultural building, but as a "lighthouse of the Fens". Standing on the proud glacial deposits of the undulating Fen edge, the mill had a commanding view of the boggy lands below and most importantly the Whittlesea Mere. This great lake, very much the economic engine of the region at least since Anglo-Saxon times, was so important that its shoreline dictated the boundaries of both old Huntingdonshire and local parishes who shared its fish, reed and fowl. The mill itself offered a clear view of Ely Minster on a clear day.
The structure therefore served as visual point of reference for lighter barges crossing the Whittlesea Mere. The waters, though shallow, were treacherous with more the one historical report of squalls upsetting vessels. A local legend recounts how the sons of King Canute were drowned during a "violent storm and whirlwind" while travelling from Peterborough to Ramsey. The abbey stones at Engine Farm on the Great Fen may have found their way to the lake bed in similar circumstances. Those caught in a fierce Fen Blow need not exercise too much imagination to conjure a picture of water farers in trouble on the fen.
Yaxley Stone Mill was demolished in 1935, in a time when conservation and heritage very much played second fiddle to industry and commerce. The aforementioned article describes the process – "With the upper storeys to the level of the white cross in our picture, and surrounded by the debris of ancient stones and hand·made bricks from the four-foot thick walls, the romantic structure presents a derelict with the worn-out millstones, the massive appearance at the moment. But all this, 16ft. cast-iron spindle on which the sails revolved, the robust oaken rafters of the floors and the rotting cone of the roof, scattered higgledy-piggledy round the base will be cleared away and stacked and the inside cleaned out to enable the foundations to be investigated".
Tales of an eighteen-foot deep dungeon beneath the mill containing buried gold (rumoured to be a medieval prison) and a tunnel network connecting the structure to St Peter's church and the manorial Burysted are mysteries that remain unsolved. A hand-written note in the Norris Museum in St Ives by a Reverend Vigers details an unsuccessful attempt to locate the tunnels; it seems that a local had directed the gentleman to the incorrect location – the Tower Mill on the Broad Way!
What is true however is that when it was demolished, large blocks of Barnack stone were discovered beneath its foundations and a millstone at Manor Farm might possibly be a relic from the mill's illustrious past. A mysterious standing stone, hidden in undergrowth close to its location might also be a component of a structure that was far more than the sum of its parts.