They say Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water, Jack fell down, broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. The true story is rather different. Another fellow, Duncton, was already up the hill in 1765, waiting for Jill, who lived in Brighton. Jill was evicted from her home, which sat on land due to be redeveloped. In 1821 she was carried up the hill to meet Jack by teams of locals men; she’s a big lass. Her relationship with Duncton was relatively shortlived – he lost his head and died. Jill stayed at the top of the hill, waiting for Jack. He came up to join her in 1866 and the two of them have lived up there ever after, though not always happily. There was no pale of water.
I am, of course, describing to the two much loved windmills sitting on the South Downs above Clayton. In 1906 both Jack and Jill went to sleep, after people found modern mechanisation more profitable. In 1978 work began to restore Jill to her former working glory. When the Great Storm hit Sussex in 1987, the members of the Society formed for her restoration rushed up the hill to save her. Reading their modest accounts of that night makes it plain to anyone who witnessed the wind’s fury that night, that they risked their lives to save this magnificent machine. When the rest of Sussex was being flattened by a 120mph gale, Jill’s sweeps turned against her brake, threw out a torrent of sparks and set her on fire. These brave folk managed to bring the blaze under control and eventually stop the sweeps. Over 700 hours of voluntary labour repaired the damage. Such is the love that Jill inspires.
I’ve walked past Jack and Jill many times. When I was a boy and it snowed hard in the winter, the cattle track which curves away from them down the very steep side of the downland was the scariest sledge run in Sussex. More recently, I trudged past it as dawn broke on my sixth attempt to walk the South Downs Way alone over midwinter. Whether committed to the toboggan run or the long walk, it is impossible to ignore Jill’s arresting beauty.
I visited her again on Sunday, when she was open to the public. People clambered throughout her chambers, childlike, marvelling at her giant wooden cogs and the ingenuity of her design. Society members explained her machinations in as much detail as you could want. Instead of demanding an entrance fee, they simply left a collecting box at the foot of her stairs, as if a modern money grabbing approach would somehow offend her nineteenth century spirit. I climbed to the top floor inside – the ‘bin floor’ – and felt her swaying in the wind beneath my feet. I found myself lingering there a while, enjoyed her wooden soul.
Jill is open every Sunday and Bank Holiday in the summer. This really is the perfect example of a working museum and a wonderful aspect to a Sunday afternoon stroll. My wife and I will be joining the Jack and Jill Windmills Society. We’ve been so impressed that we’ve decided to pay for life membership. However long we’ve got left to us, we’ll be pleased to help preserve Jill for the centuries to come.