SCHOOLCHILDREN in Herefordshire have been getting to grips with an ancient county craft now largely disappeared across the entire country.

There is only one horse-powered cider mill still operational in the UK, and it happens to be producing farmhouse cider here in the heart of the Golden Valley. After a century of inactivity, the massive stone mill is turning once again at Bacton, thanks to a period of renovation, and a friendly and versatile gypsy cob called Tommy. Old varieties of cider apples from small orchards in the area, are crushed in the mill then squeezed through hessian on a stone press. Between 3,000 and 5,000 litres of cider, dry, medium and sweet, are bottled each year at Fair Oak Farm.

Further good news is that the cider mill has open days, and just recently young visitors from primary schools in Peterchurch and Clifford, as well as pupils from the Steiner Academy in Much Dewchurch, have been helping with the time-honoured process at the 17th century mill owned by journalist, Matthew and publisher, Hilary Engel. Tommy the skewbald gelding pulls the mighty stone millwheel, while the Engels’ daughter, Vika energetically follows the horse scraping apples into the round, stone channel. Then the Year 6 children get to work helping to spread the pulp by hand, their reward a tot of pure apple juice straight from the mill.

“This is the best school trip we’ve ever had!” enthused one 10-year-old boy. Another pupil said she thought horses were simply for riding until 14hh Tommy showed his mettle in the mill. Owned by John and Wendy Lloyd from Llanigon, he has the right strength and temperament for the job.

“Like us horses get giddy after a while, so he has to stop to get his bearings,” says Wendy.

With breathtaking views across the valley to Hatterall Ridge in the Black Mountains, this spot is steeped in historic rural industry.

“People have been living here since the Middle Ages,” explains Hilary. Traces of an ancient watermill can be seen beside the Dulas brook, there is evidence of charcoal pits, and even remains of old lime kilns. Beneath the farmhouse, built at the same time as the cider mill, a cellar connects with the building. “It meant that barrels could be rolled straight through,” says Hilary.

Alan McCardle, who worked as care services manager for Herefordshire and Worcestershire until his retirement, volunteered to help with a project to restore the mill’s old timbering. Now he is chief cidermaker. “You just learn the art, you talk to people - so many local people make cider,” he explains. “People who worked on farms in the old days got paid in cider,” he points out. “Not a lot has changed because that’s all we get!” he jokes.

Neville Fleet is a trainee cidermaker at the mill, having retired from his IT job in California earlier this year. He has settled happily into life in Herefordshire and learning his new craft.

“We came back here in February and I’ve had a fantastic time since!” he says.

* Open Weekend at Fair Oak, Bacton HR2 0AT will be on Saturday and Sunday, November 3 – 4 from 10am until 4pm. For more details call 01981 241210 or go to