MUCH water has flowed through the mill race since Herefordshire’s recognised authority on watermills, Alan Stoyel first stepped into this rarefied world of history, rural enterprise and even romance.

More than 60 years of active study on the subject, coupled with a fearless determination to get stuck into hefty rescue missions have made Alan a hero of watermill heritage.

For enthusiasts all over the country, his award of the MBE earlier this year for a lifetime’s contribution to watermill conservation has come as little surprise.

MORE: 20 watermills to visit within 30 miles of Hereford (click on list view)

This year marks his last as county organiser of this weekend's National Open Mills Weekend, an event he has actively encouraged.

As he approaches his 80th birthday, Alan believes it is time to take his foot off the pedal: however, he will remain an esteemed consultant on a subject he first embraced at the tender age of 12.

Born in Kent where his father was an authority on road locomotives, Alan explained he was brought up on steam. “I was riding on the footplate on my fourth birthday,” he said.

“I always loved old machinery and was fascinated by water.” Thus waterwheels proved utterly compelling and by the time he was 13, was already recording mills.

“I’ve never stopped,” he said, modestly claiming that his recent honour is mainly due to the fact his interest has lasted such a long time.

Before retiring to Kington with his wife, Critchell, Alan salvaged mills all over the country; he bought and restored an Oxfordshire mill and has produced three well-thumbed books on his passion.

He admits to having had three careers during his working life, jobs that took him to various parts of the world.

A mining geologist for 17 years, he spent three years working in copper and gold mines in Newfoundland; in Scotland he undertook prospecting work, and in Spain he was taught an age-old means of finding gold.

“They flew out a gold prospector from America and we spent a month under canvas learning how to pan for gold; it was absolutely fascinating,” he said.

Working in Cornwall he came upon a series of waterwheels destined for oblivion.

“Scrapmen from Wales were about to blast a waterwheel and I managed to kid them there was a preservation order on it,” he said.

“I got them to remove the charges but they still wanted their 25 tons of scrap metal.” Bit by bit, he gathered the necessary pile, his task helped with discarded metal from a church renovation in Redruth and metal debris from an old mine due to be reopened.

MORE: 20 watermills to visit within 30 miles of Hereford (click on list view)

Alan’s campaign appeared on television, and a public meeting in Truro led to formation of the Cornish Waterwheel Preservation Society, now the Trevithick Society.

In 1973 he moved to Scotland where he became a founder member of the Scottish Mills Advisory Panel.

He receives commendations from various quarters: from the Welsh Mills Society in recognition of an “outstanding contribution to research into traditional mills in Wales and beyond”, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in appreciation of his zeal in their maintenance.

Alan is a founder trustee of the Mills Archive in Reading, and the world of windmills and watermills acknowledges him as a hero.

When Alan received his MBE from Prince Charles, he had hoped to report on the small wheel he inspected at a farm on the Duchy estate in Herefordshire.

Instead, the prince was rather more interested in Alan’s eye-catching waistcoat sporting the fleur-de-lis.

It was after a four-year sojourn in Spain that he bought and restored a mill in Oxfordshire, running it as a part-time business for 13 years.

In Swindon he worked for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, a forerunner of English Heritage, with a brief to look into threatened buildings with industrial examples including mills as speciality.

“It was a steep learning curve but I was in heaven,” he said.

Alan remains an English Heritage consultant and makes monthly checks on mill workings for them.

He and Critchell moved to their 17th century former school building at Kington 16 years ago, where Alan has stripped back years of paint on old beams and mullioned windows.

He has never had any desire to live in a mill. “They’re not for living in! It goes against the grain,” he pointed out.

Still, he has won the respect and trust of all those owners in Herefordshire who are now more than happy to open up for the National Mills Weekend.

At Kington he is surrounded by no fewer than 14 mills, and many enthusiasts have discovered the magic of mills and weirs through the walks he has led every year during Kington Walking Festival.

But Alan feels he has done his bit on that front, so his name will not appear in this year’s programme.

He has also relinquished the chairmanship of Kington History Society and Kington Museum, though remains an active member.

“It has been an ambition to get the two together and I have been steering this,” he said.

“Our aims and ambitions are just the same – the museum for artefacts, the society more interested in the documentary side. It’s a wonderful mix and I think it’ll be very successful.”

He added: “I shall still be on the committee and remain as a volunteer at the museum.”

Shortly before his major birthday Alan and Critchell will be helping celebrate the 200th anniversary of a mill owned by a friend in Lincolnshire.

In his opinion, the Boston mill is the best in the country, so he flatly refuses to be hampered by a broken ankle – he slipped while taking photographs of gunpowder mills in Cornwall – and fully intends to join the party.

MORE: 20 watermills to visit within 30 miles of Hereford (click on list view)