Volunteers unveil plans to turn historic Mill of Benholm site into tourist hotspot

Mill of Benholm Enterprise chairman Henning Wagner
-Credit: (Image: LDRS)

Glamping trips, weddings and a diner for day-trippers could all be on the cards as a decade of decay is scrubbed away and the Mill of Benholm is brought back to life as a tourist hotspot.

And, in a bid to encourage visitors to make the most of the surrounding Mearns coastline, volunteers are keen to offer up ebikes too.

The A-listed oat mill was closed by Aberdeenshire Council in 2014 and the site was abandoned, with weeds and bushes left to overgrow.

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But, councillors agreed to transfer ownership of the historic site to the Mill of Benholm Enterprise (MoBE) in January.

An official handover ceremony will be held at the mill next weekend, but I got to visit for a sneak peek ahead of the big day.

I meet chairman Henning Wagner in the Mill car park, which is awaiting planning approval for much-needed upgrades.

It frequently gets muddy so plans have been lodged to improve drainage and add allocated spaces for buses, motorhomes, along with disabled parking. A bike shelter would also be added for those who wish to cycle there.

The improvements will help with the trustees’ plan to turn the site into a travel ‘hub’. And Henning reveals they are hoping to offer ebike hire later on this year.

He explained: “A lot of people have big campervans or motorhomes and are not so confident in driving them. For example they don’t like to drive down to Johnshaven, but if they park here they can hire an ebike or walk down.”

As we walk down to the mill, Henning points out a number of pathways in the Mill Brae Woods opposite the site.

Trustees are currently in negotiations with the neighbouring estate to lease the woodland so they can open up the paths once again.

Henning reveals the talks are “nearly there” but some walkways will need more attention and their fencing repaired to ensure they are safe.

The former grain store at Mill of Benholm
The former grain store at Mill of Benholm -Credit:LDRS

The first stop on my tour is the former grain store. As Henning unlocks the door he admits the building is “not that interesting” at the moment.

Inside the floor is sloped, designed that way to ensure the grain could be easily accessed by workers. Over the years, internal walls have been added but these would be removed as part of the future plans.

Once renovated, the grain store would become a meeting space. “You can gather here, you can have information boards or maybe sit here with a little coffee,” Henning says.

As we step out, we look down upon the old waterwheel, which we can only see thanks to the hard work of dedicated volunteers. Henning tells me: “This was so overgrown that the bushes reached the wall and you couldn’t see a thing.”

The council used to turn the wheel once a week but this was stopped during the pandemic. “For the last four years, the bottom of it was submerged but now we are turning the wheel constantly so that it evenly dries out,” Henning explains.

“If there is any damage, that needs to be assessed now. Any damage to the wood would cause imbalance to the wheel.”

But he admits that it, thankfully, looks to be in good condition. Next up is a look inside the mill itself.

As the green door opens, Henning explains that the historic building will be turned into another meeting area while the existing museum will be retained.

Visitors can see the old kiln where oats were dried, along with the old shelling stone and grinding stone, which is made of French quartz.

We carefully make our way down the mill’s small staircase and find the original equipment used in the milling process.

The Mill of Benholm received its A-listed status as it was one of the last surviving commercially used watermills in Scotland. Oats were milled there until 1982 when the last miller, Lindsay C. Watson sadly died.

A seating area has been planned outside the mill, and a bench can now be found there in memory of the late miller. It was recently donated to the trustees by his daughter, Sheila Hosie.

On the beautiful bright May morning of my visit, the site is peaceful and you can’t hear the traffic of the A92 nearby. The only sounds are water from the Burn of Benholm trickling past, birds chirping and the odd bee buzzing by.

“Imagine sitting here with a coffee, it’s just amazing,” Henning exclaims. A small stroll later, we come to the old byre which is where the toilets are located.

The Mill of Benholm
The Mill of Benholm -Credit:LDRS

Next to that is a “very horrible” and “mouldy” unit which Henning reveals will become a shop. I don’t get to see that as it still needs to be cleared out. But, I’m told the wooden door in place at the moment would be replaced with a glass front.

Next door is the old Miller’s House. It was formerly used as a cafe and that’s exactly what the trustees want to replicate here again.

The current kitchen will be modernised, and volunteers have recently given the seating area a thorough clean. They are also planning to add more outdoor seating around the cafe.

Henning points to the woodland next to us and says: “It’s really gorgeous, there’s a viewing platform up there with beautiful views. You can see Inverbervie and all over that direction.

“It’s even more beautiful in the early spring because the whole walk is framed by snowdrops so you have this lovely white ribbon going up there.”

While the mill is still closed, the trustees have already been contacted by groups with an interest to use the space.

Henning revealed: “We get contacted by a lot of organisations who are dealing with people with mental health issues or coming from domestic abuse and depression. This would be fantastic for them to have sessions here and just sit and relax.”

We then take a walk past the pond, which is currently overgrown. “Yes, it looks like a field at the moment but here is the plaque, here’s my proof!” Henning exclaims as he points at the sign next to me.

A company came out in January to try and get the pond back in suitable condition, but unfortunately their attempts were unsuccessful.

Henning tells me that there are a lot of amphibious creatures living in the pond so they are limited to what they can do at the moment.

We then walk on the former croft area which will be flattened and cleared to allow various events to be held there from car shows to cooking demonstrations.

Sitting alongside it is the beautiful heritage orchard where apples, pears and plums grow. The trustees also want loved-up couples to consider the mill for wedding celebrations.

Henning explained: “The A-listed Benholm Kirk is nearby. You could get married there and have your function down here.”

Across from the lade, Henning points out an outdoor classroom which will be reinstated too. The relocated community garden sits next to the croft.

The old Miller's House which will soon reopen as a cafe once again
The old Miller's House which will soon reopen as a cafe once again -Credit:LDRS

Henning said: “It’s hard to imagine but you couldn’t see anything, it was overgrown with brambles and all kinds of bushes. You couldn’t walk through here.”

But the trustees and dedicated volunteers have managed to bring the area back into use in just four months. Now the Mill of Benholm Gardening Group grow various produce on site from strawberries and potatoes to beans, peas and lettuce.

The group, led by Mary McCaffrey, currently sell their goods in the Mill car park. They are also planning to create a herb garden behind the cafe.

Immediately adjacent to that is the memorial garden which was initially created in memory of Alyson Reid who sadly died in 2010. Before her passing, she had been learning gardening skills along with other trainees at the Mill.

After a trek uphill on one of the many paths, we find the former gardening area, but what is the plan for this space now? Trustees hope to add three or four glamping pods for locals and tourists alike.

In a bid to sell the idea to me, Henning said: “That is quite a view. Imagine you stay here and wake up to this, it isn’t bad and it’s very peaceful.”

So when will the historic mill open its doors once again? At the moment, Henning is hesitant to give an exact date.

But he explained that trustees will concentrate on bringing the basics back this year, ensuring that visitors can walk around safely.

“It’s brilliant that the site is opening again because it was really sad to see such a beautiful place being neglected,” Henning said.

“And now we are very excited for the future – what we can actually achieve and do, and what we still have to do. There is a lot of work to come but with the support of the community we are moving forward.”