It is one of Norfolk's most idiosyncratic attractions, sitting in a building that looks like a Hobbit house.

Since 1989, volunteers have been operating the 200-year-old water-powered sawmill at Gunton, between Aylsham and Cromer in north Norfolk, allowing visitors to see history come to life.

But now there are concerns for the future of the mill, after Norfolk County Council told volunteers to "temporarily" stop operating the machinery.

The mill is privately owned, leased by the county council and managed by the Norfolk Windmill Trust. It uses nothing but the power of water to turn the mill wheels and drive the serrated saw up and down.

On open days, volunteers run and explain the machinery for tourists and private groups.

Volunteers at Gunton Saw Mill in 2013. Volunteers at Gunton Saw Mill in 2013. (Image: Anthony Kelly)

A county council spokesperson said: “We have asked the volunteers who operate the mill to temporarily stop using the saw until an updated safety assessment is carried out. 

"Regular risk assessments are necessary to ensure that both volunteers and visitors continue to remain safe at all times.

"We are keen to closely work with the volunteers to carry out the review as soon as possible so that the saw can reopen quickly.

"In the meantime, other activities that don’t use the saw can continue as normal," the spokesperson added.

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The saw mill at Gunton Park is powered by water. The saw mill at Gunton Park is powered by water. (Image: Paul Hewitt)

But Russell Yeomans, volunteer, said the matter has been "handled really badly".

"The council has stopped us running it. But if we're not running it, there's nothing for people to see.

"The timing was really bad. Their attitude to the welfare of the volunteers isn't good at all.

"They don't give a monkey's about the welfare of the people running it.

"It is very much a working museum, the only one of its kind in the country, but they've basically ripped the heart out of it," he added.

Mr Yeomans, who has worked at the mill for 17 years, said he is leaving his position on account of the way the matter has been handled.

"I don't know if it will ever open up again," he said. 

According to the mill's website, as of Tuesday, June 18, the open days planned for the rest of this year include June 23, July 28, August 25 and September 22.

History of the Mill

The sawmill, a timber and thatch structure that houses a frame saw and early circular saw, was built in 1824.

Its purpose was to take its water power from Sawmill Lake, and it was designed to provide sawn timber for the 12,000-acre Gunton Hall estate.

It also has a small grist mill set on the beams within the roof area.

A small brick outhouse stands beside the mill, which was used as a smithy, a rest area and a workshop.

The mill went into decline after the First World War, and finally ceased working in the 1950s.

But its re-discovery in 1976 by Norfolk Windmills Trust triggered a 12-year labour of love by volunteers.

In 1979, the last remaining member of the Harbord family agreed to lease the site and duly signed a 999-year lease to the Norfolk Windmill's Trust who would oversee the restoration.

And in 1988, it was finally possible to use the saw to cut timber using the power of flowing water.

The first public opening took place in 1989.

Twenty-four years on, the sawmill was again in danger of falling into disrepair, largely because of a leaky thatched roof that was allowing water to damage the machinery.

In 2013, the roof thatch was replaced, thanks to a grant from Heritage Lottery Fund, and repairs to the millrace were completed.

The mill is managed by Norfolk Windmills Trust and is operated by volunteers. It is a Grade II* listed building.