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Mill of Benholm volunteers reveal wedding venue and glamping plans as they officially take over historic Mearns site

We were given an exclusive look around the A-listed mill site near Johnshaven ahead of its official handover ceremony.

Mill of Benholm Enterprise chairman Henning Wagner and the historic A-listed mill
Mill of Benholm Enterprise chairman Henning Wagner and the historic A-listed mill. Image: Michael McCosh/DC Thomson

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.

The Mill of Benholm site pictured two years ago. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

But, councillors agreed to transfer ownership of the historic site to the Mill of Benholm Enterprise (MoBE) in January so that they could give it some much-needed TLC.

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

The project boss revealed:

  • How every part of the ancient Mill of Benholm will reopen as they bring it back to life
  • Ambitious plans to stage cooking demonstrations and car shows at the scenic spot
  • And why a problem pond is proving tricky to clear

We meet the man who can’t wait for Mill of Benholm to reopen

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 and motorhomes, along with disabled parking.

A bike shelter would also be added.

A plant sale can be found in the Mill of Benholm car park. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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…”

From grain store to meeting space

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 first stop on my tour is the former grain store.

The former grain store at Mill of Benholm. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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 to restore its traditional look.

The old grain store could soon become a meeting space. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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 smiles.

‘This was so overgrown, you couldn’t see a thing’

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 Mill of Benholm waterwheel as seen in 2022….Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

The council used to turn the wheel once a week to keep it in working order, 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.

…And the waterwheel as it is today. Image Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

“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.

What will happen to the Mill of Benholm building?

Next up is a look inside the mill itself.

As the green door creaks open, 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.

Inside the Mill of Benholm building. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.

MoBE trustees Emma Pollock and Henning Wagner with the bench donated in memory of the late Lindsay C. Watson. Image supplied by Henning Wagner

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.

Shop plan still a work in progress

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 beams as he takes in the surroundings.

The old Miller’s House which will soon reopen as a cafe once again. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

A small stroll later, we come to the old byre which is where the toilets are located.

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. There’s always next time.

Cafe and kitchen to be transformed

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 when they reopen the Mill of Benholm.

The current kitchen will be modernised, and volunteers have recently given the seating area a thorough clean.

Volunteers have been busy preparing the Mill of Benholm cafe for customers. Image supplied by Henning Wagner

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.”

The cafe looked like this just a week ago! Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.”

Pond problems troubling trustees

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.

The problem pond at Mill of Benholm. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.

After reopening, Mill of Benholm could host weddings

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 croft area at Mill of Benholm could play host to events in the future. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.

Fruit and vegetables growing on mill site

The relocated community garden sits next to the croft.

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.”

Various fruits and vegetables are growing at the community garden. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.

The memorial garden at Mill of Benholm. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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 died in 2010.

Before her passing, she had been learning gardening skills along with other trainees at the Mill.

Glamping pods part of ambitious plans

After a trek up 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.

The former gardening area that could soon feature glamping pods. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

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.”

Trustees ‘very excited’ for Mill of Benholm to reopen

So when will the historic Mill of Benholm reopen?

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.

A sign found on the door of the Mill of Benholm. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

“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.”

Read more: 

Mill of Benholm: Campaigners preparing £250,000 fight to save abandoned Mearns attraction before nature claims it back