In most of Western Europe there is a tradition of water mills spanning every available river and big stream, harnessing the power of the flow to turn millstones or operate simple machinery. The industrial revolution rendered most of these installations obsolete. The buildings – solid stone-built edifices for the most part – survived and became sought-after dwellings in many parts of Europe. Today, ecological and environmental concerns have sparked a resurgence of interest in these structures, largely because of their potential for generating carbon-free electricity.
But before looking at the purely financial returns possible, it must be pointed out that water mills are extremely pleasant places to live. Yes, they have water churning underneath them day and night; yes, there is always a river, a mill-race and sometimes a mill-pond nearby … but they are rarely humid, damp or in danger of any sort. Sure, they can be flooded in times of exceptional rainfall, but centuries of experience has meant that builders of these installations have learnt how to cope with flooding (living quarters are always above the flood level) and how to channel the water so that it doesn’t affect the structure of the building. After a ‘flood of the century’ it is often the local watermill which is the only building left standing.
Potential for electricity generation is calculated by measuring the flow of water (cubic litres per second) and the ‘drop’ between mill-race at the front and back of the mill.
It is interesting to note that, in France, mills built before the French Revolution in 1789 have an ‘inalienable right’ to water from the local river. If the authorities cut off their mill-race or stream then compensation can be sought.
GITES à la française always has a few water-mills on its books. Here are a few of our more interesting ones: