The millers’ tale


Tracie Beardsley discovers the timeless grind of Cann Mills, where the Stoates blend tradition and modernity in the craft of organic milling

Michael (right) and Ollie Stoate, fifth and sixth generation millers at Cann Mills near Shaftesbury
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

Cann Mills, near Shaftesbury, was recorded in the Domesday Book. Today, fifth and sixth generation millers Michael and Ollie Stoate produce a range of organic flours for both domestic bakers and fancy London bakeries.
Wearing a light dusting of their trademark flour, Michael Stoate sits with his son Ollie, in their small office, with the walls decorated with hessian sacks proclaiming a five-shilling reimbursement on return. Modern-day computers sit alongside red and blue leather-bound ledgers. Inside these, beautiful handwriting holds the records of 180 years of the Stoate milling legacy.

Cann Mills was mentioned in the Domesday Book, but a major fire in the 1950s means that today’s mill building looks less medieval, and more ‘industrial mid-century modern’

This millers’ tale dates to brothers William and Thomas Stoate, who leased a mill at Watchet in Somerset in 1832. Four generations later, Michael’s father, Norman, came to Dorset in 1947, bought Cann Mills, and began supplying animal feed to local farmers.
Disaster struck seven years later when the mill burnt down. Michael says: ‘Part of the mill was run by a diesel engine and its manifold overheated, setting hessian sacks on fire. Father was delivering animal feed and saw this plume of smoke billowing from the valley.’

Stoate & Sons produce a range of organic stoneground flours – spelt and rye, strong 100% wholemeal, strong white, brown and white self-raising and the popular Maltstar

Flour dust is more explosive than gunpowder and 35 times more combustible than coal dust: ‘It took all of the Tisbury, Gillingham and Shaftesbury fire brigades to put it out. Luckily no one was hurt, but it meant my father had to completely rebuild.’
Norman switched production to stoneground flour, using massive French Burr millstones driven by an iron waterwheel powered by the Sturkel, the tributary of the Stour that runs past the mill. That wheel is still a formidable force, providing a quarter of the mill’s power and helping produce 800 tonnes of flour a year.
Michael recently unearthed the 1860 invoice for the waterwheel at the Dorset Archive. It was made by the Maggs and Hindley iron foundry at nearby Bourton, and cost a princely £36.
Michael says: ‘I’m also looking through old cine films. It’s incredible to see how cold our winters used to be. We’ve got footage of villagers skating on the mill pond.’

Stoate & Sons produce a range of organic flours for both domestic bakers and fancy London bakeries

A family businessFor Michael, who is 62, the mill was his childhood playground, larking around in the grain stores and boating on the millpond. It became his first job as he began helping during school holidays. ‘I didn’t like school and I left early. I’ve always liked tinkering around with machinery, so I did an engineering course. My father was getting old – he had me quite late in life and the physicality of milling work was taking its toll, so I joined him full-time.’For Ollie, who is severely dyslexic, school was also a challenge. But he showed the Stoate entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. Aged ten, Ollie started making dog biscuits from spare flour, tagging along with his dad to sell them at trade shows. ‘There was zero pressure from dad to join the family business, and I didn’t plan on being a miller. I studied gamekeeping and worked in Australia. But just like dad, I started working part-time here and loved it,’ says Ollie. Now 28, he is taking Stoates into the modern era – while respecting its heritage. ‘My dad and grandfather always taught me that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well and worth doing as soon as you can. Evolution is essential, and my aim is to introduce one major upgrade every year.’ This includes a green energy solar power grant from Low Carbon Dorset. ‘If we generate our energy ourselves, we can remove all the drive belts which are a huge health and safety risk. It will also allow us to produce flour 24/7.

The 1860 waterwheel still provides a quarter of the mill’s energy. It was made by the Maggs and Hindley iron foundry at Bourton, and cost a princely £36.

’Cann Mills is now a leading voice in the South West Grain Network (SWGN), which brings farmers, millers and bakers together to discuss better ways to support each other. Michael says: ‘These relationships support regenerative farming to look after the soil.’Forerunners in organic products, Stoates flour is certified by the Soil Association and a lot of their grain is sourced within a 30-mile radius. ‘We were milling organic flour before organic was really invented!’ says Michael. ‘In the late sixties, just as health food stores became popular, we milled ‘compost grown’ grain from a local farmer. The flavour was great and the provenance unquestionable.’

The flour is ground from natural grains in all their distinctive colours and shapes

Michael and Ollie agree: ‘One of the best parts of this job is being in the middle of such a strong, local supply chain. We love chatting to farmers beside crops that we will transform into flour, and then deliver to artisan bakers to produce amazing bread.’


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