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  • Writer's picturePaul Rees

Portugal's Winds of Change

Have you ever wondered why hundreds of windmills in the Algarve are left to decay? Does anyone care about their preservation or are they just too inconvenient to matter?


Portugal’s windmills were mostly built at the beginning of the 18th century and 200 years later many of the original walls are intact although most interior workings are long vandalised or ‘recycled’ by locals. Their longevity is a tribute to the builders who of necessity built incredibly strong structures to withstand the weather on their exposed sites.



Windmill technology in Portugal started in and around Lisbon and many early millers imported exotic hardwoods from Latin American colonies and trading partners. The windmilling trend moved swiftly to the Algarve where local wood such as sobreiro were used. Like the canal network in the UK, Portuguese windmills’ working lives were short, maybe 50 years, as the advent of accessible steam power for milling heralded their demise as viable businesses. Many had little residual use apart from basic storerooms and animal shelters. These are the ones with fixed tiled rooves supported by a crossbeam that replaced the original conical roof on tiny wooden wheels.


The conical ‘witches hat’ rooves were originally made from straw but as business picked up and funds became available these were replaced by wooden frames under thin tin coverings. Dispelling the myth that all windmill walls were painted ‘Algarve white’, many were actually pastel shades, yellow or rose, although the use of limewash white with its antiseptic properties was prevalent in the region.

Many remaining windmills still have the old arched bunker interior on the ground floor supporting the flagstone floor above upon which the massive millstones ground away. This curved interior gives them a rather Arabic look. The original floors were cobbled with later coatings of a strong, sand coloured composite which facilitated mucking out when animals were housed.


The wood from most old mills is long gone so finding remains of this nature helps you to piece together how they functioned.


Enough history, what about the here and now? Why are so many windmills left to decay? There are many enlightened Councils that have repaired or reconstructed mills creating interesting tourist and historic features. Hundreds more are still in private ownership and the answer to their parlous state may simply be a lack of money and no real desire to reconstruct something of little practical use. Many foreign buyers have helped preserve this finite resource by converting windmills into small houses although this has often been an affair of the heart rather than business good sense as resale values reflect the internal size. Lettings are a further option although I couldn’t imagine spending more than a day or two in such a small space.

A Portuguese farmer and old mill owner summed up a prevalent attitude, “Why rebuild my old windmill for twenty thousand euros when, if I needed additional storage space, I could put up a concrete store for five thousand? Windmills and old farms maybe remind us of the poverty our parents endured on the land, this is why so many of our young go to live in the towns and go abroad to work. Perhaps they will return to buy these old buildings but an apartment by the marina seems to be a stronger dream.”


Seeing a restored functioning windmill can be a thrill. There are a few on the west Algarve and lower Alentejo coast periodically open to the public. Restoring a windmill to its precise antique use is the purist’s aspiration but is expensive. In addition, it needs to be used weekly to keep the wooden moving parts from warping -the resulting production of flour can be prodigious.

So next time you make for a distant mill on an Algarve summit only to discover a urine-soaked ruin, stop and ponder before muttering, ‘why doesn’t somebody do something?’ The windmill tracks Portugal’s social growth and change. The situation is at the turning point where public and government interest may be kindled just enough to save this fine heritage before the weather and the vandal both take their toll.


Negatives:

  • Windmills are often on small plots of land, often inaccessible

  • It is expensive to reconstruct as a functioning mill, and there are no government grants for private owners

  • Mains electricity is often at a prohibitive cost but you will have plenty of wind as a power source. Mains water may well be a distant dream

  • Don’t let your heart overcome your available resources, there is only so much you can do

  • You are unlikely to get permission to extend a windmill to form part of a house and the internal diameter may prove too small a space for comfortable living.


Positives:

  • They can be restored as a viable building with the original shape, perhaps even their rigging, but without returning to being a functioning mill. This should not be at prohibitive cost and will contribute to the preservation of an historic asset for a variety of modern uses

  • Windmills offer a unique and enviable space with a variety of potential uses

  • They have stunning views

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