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The Mill Dams

Not so far away from Comber Station was the Andrew's flax Spinning Mill dams. The Mill was completed in 1864 not that long after the railway lines were opened, the railway being conveniently used for the transportation of building materials - not least for the enormous amount of stone from Scrabo quarries for the Mill's construction. Water was essential for the spinning processes, and the dams - four in all - were sited just north of the Mill itself, all fed with water from the Glen river along the route of the Ballygowan Road and the "Clattering Ford". This name is derived from the noise of the water wheel where in earlier times a corn mill operated, fed by its own dam on the Ballygowan Road.

A couple of hundred yards from the station the Newtownards-Donaghadee branch line while curving around the town cut across two of the dams linked together by a culvert under the line. Laurel Bank would take you up to one of these dams which today (2021) has virtually disappeared under neglect of weed and tree infestation, and any water left is almost impossible to see. The dam on the other side of the line has also suffered recently by the invasion of a recent new housing programme which has virtually wiped it out. Such a pity as these two dams were once a lovely area for visitors and local people feeding the ducks and swans - a regular feature on the water which was so much a very pleasant nature and wild life habitat in that area of the town.

Mill Dams

A further two dams were close by, nearer to Railway Street, and labelled by the Comber kids and teenagers who constantly trespassed them as the hot and cold dams. The cold dam was rectangular in shape and seems to have been a header dam for the others in dry spells. It had a small natural island in the middle with trees and shrubs. The hot dam was square in shape and had the distinction of capturing the hot water from the mill spinning machines which drew the wax from the flax as it was spun. The hot water leaving the mill ran down a concrete trough about three feet wide, and by the time it reached the dam the gentle flowing water was still nice and warm to the touch. The hot dam had a concrete ledge about a foot wide all around its edges, and normally about six inches or so below the water level. Between the two dams was nothing but a hard earth causeway about fifteen feet wide, and two or three feet above water level. these were the two dams where it all happened - read on!

The easiest way to the dams was from Railway Street. Climb over the boundary wall of the railway which by 1950 had closed - another sad story, but for another time! Follow the well worn path a short way through the grass, thickets and undergrowth; just ramble a further few yards through a line of trees, and the hot and cold dams were at your service! After school hours it was a regular haunt for the locals, and a row of virtually nude lads could be seen lying flat out in a line along the trough enjoying the pleasure of a free bath as the warm water lapped around their torsos. The usual stance for most of us was to strip off, some to their underpants, others to their birthday suits (some maybe didn't have underpants). Stage one was to Leap into the cold dam, and show our prowess by swimming over to the island. Once there, the feeling was triumphal knowing some of the others couldn't swim at all or were just learning. Stage two was to swim back again, and by this time if the weather was not so warm a bit of shivering came into play! Stage three was to immediately leap out, race across to the "hot" and leap or dive into the lovely warm water and slosh around with everyone else who was having fun. Following this, stage four was to find a gap in the concrete trough, after exhausting ourselves with all the swimming and horseplay and enjoy a relaxation period flat out with the lovely warm water swirling around us in the trough! Wee whirlpools of frothy scum could usually be seen in the trough here and there, and often the water was slightly coffee coloured, begging the question what source apart from the spinning machines did the water come from? It was even hinted that the doffers splashed around the water on the machine room floors in their bare feet. But it certainly didn't stop us having our fun! We usually dried ourselves with our vests or shirts - a towel was a rare sight - and after a few minutes sitting around we were nice and dry, ready to leave our "Palma Nova" and head off to the outside world again beyond the trees.

So believe it or not, Comber did have its own swimming pool complex, but a very unofficial one! And it wasn't just in the good weather - in colder days there was often a deep foggy haze over the hot dam where the warm water vapour hung mysteriously over the area, but still a few of us enjoyed the luxury of the warm atmosphere while indulging in our aquatic activities! The hot dam was always full of small fish, namely roach or rudd, and you could feel them banging into you all the time as you were swimming around. It was even possible to scoop them up into the air with your hands once in a while. With bulging eyes and pouting lips they always looked so astonished as they somersaulted back into the water! Some of us used to catch them using a bit of line with a bent pin and a small rolled up bit of bread or even a wee ball of silver paper, and then throw them back in again afterwards. A good number of the boys couldn't swim, but it was all about enjoying yourself, and frolicking around in the water at the shallow end where you could just about keep your head up for air. Sometimes a football, an inflated car or motorbike tube, or a toy boat would appear, brought by somebody for added sport. One or two rafts made up from bits of wood and old oil drums tied up with cord were certainly present at times, but usually sank or tipped up when everyone invariably tried swarming on to them at once! Further out from the edge we were definitely in the deep, maybe seven or eight feet or more! I remember when a couple of lads brought an old tin bath and home made paddles to cruise around in. However, after taking off their socks and shoes (the bath leaked a wee bit) they bravely hopped in, and pushed out to row, only for the whole lot to turn upside down within the blink of an eye and experiencing full immersion, clothes and all! Naturally there followed much jubilation from the onlookers!

The area was quite secluded by trees and undergrowth and little attention was given to being seen. However, if one of the lads was daft enough to bring a girlfriend along there was usually more than a hint of panic! Those who were completely disrobed had to escape quickly when the warning was heard, or else keep calm and stay in the water till the female had gone! Sometimes for devilment a pair of trousers or shoes were hidden, and panic for the victim was the usual outcome since he might be finding his way home in a rather compromising manner. We were trespassing on private property, and a watch always had to be kept in case a member of the mill staff were to suddenly appear which was very rarely. Ned Skelton was in charge of the Spinning Mill's huge steam engine which drove all the machines throughout the different floors of the Mill by way of leather belts and pulleys. Ned was always attired in a big boiler suit with old cloths hanging from his pockets for cleaning off the oil and polishing the brassware on his engine. He would occasionally be spotted in the distance coming from the Mill working his way through the bushes, and a mad rush to clear the site was the inevitable result.

As model aeroplane builders my brother John and I also built boats and twin hulled hydroplanes with small diesel aeroplane engines fitted to them with propeller power. We made up the fuel ourselves using one part castor oil, one part paraffin oil, and one part ether which we got in pint bottles from Harry Porter's chemist shop in The Square. The dams were perfect for testing them out, and they whizzed around the dams in a very lively manner using only an adjustable rudder to plan their proposed trajectory. But often we had to swim out to them if the engine stopped or they got tangled in the weeds and briars overhanging the water's edge at the far end of the dam. We all loved the smell of the exhaust from these wee engines with the ether mixture. There was nothing like it, and even the famous "Castrol R" they used on the old car and motor bike racing circuits couldn't beat it!

These were days of carefree adventure, where as children we had the opportunity of adding to our education by exploring and learning by experience. Many of the things we got up to were unmistakably risky. Climbing overhanging trees and jagged briars and diving into the dams; jumping in over the top of bodies swimming underwater; getting the odd fishing hook stuck in your foot, and skinned arms and legs from the rough concrete edges around the hot dam - plus the quality of the water or what was in it! "Health and Safety" was way out in the future, but I have no recollection of any disasters. It was all a part of growing up and meeting the mishaps and tumbles head on when they presented themselves. I doubt very much if the parents knew even half of what we got up to!

Unfortunately, Andrew's Mill has been closed down since 1997. However, the Mill still stands in its historic and architectural glory, now thankfully preserved albeit as a private, very pleasant, and very unique housing complex. But if we return to the area today where the hot and cold dams once were, there is no evidence of their existence at all as the place is now occupied with new housing as the extension of the Mill Village development. The "hammer head" at the top of "Mill Manor" has eradicated the location completely, but not the memories - that's for sure!

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