This is a “prohibited place” according to the Official Secrets Ordinance (Chapter 82). What?! What the hell is this ‘ordinance’? These white stencilled words occupy my mind as I leave the daylight for the darkness shaping the rock-hewn tunnel leading to the mill chambers under the Mistra Village Complex, limits of St Paul’s Bay.
The shadows start taking shape and I am definitely not alone in this post World War II complex, built in the wake of the 1950s Cold War. There is noise, lots of it. Many others seem to have challenged the ordinance and I gladly break into the crowd at the entrance hall. The people look on as a huge industrial structure rattles and rolls in the underground vault. I barely have time to get used to this surrounding mix of people, machines, noise, dust and what not that Oliver gets hold of me, gives me a light briefing and instructs one of the aides to guide me around.
We walk up a wooden staircase into the ‘sifting’ room. Pipes, machines, tools and curious instruments are tightly arranged in this elevated level. We go through a very small tunnel entrance, walk a couple of metres into the dark and come to a dead end with the only exit being a manhole above our heads. My guide explains that this is not usually open to visitors - well, that’s why I’ve come here. We climb in and the space is amazing. The raking yellow light from the bulb above the manhole fills the empty three-storey high chamber. “That is where the wheat used to be deposited,” says my guide and points upwards to small hole in the roof through which traces of daylight filter into this vast emptiness. I walk up the funnel-like, slanting ground to take my picture.
Walking out of the silo along the spiral conveyor which used to feed the wheat out into the machines, I learn that each silo could take up to a thousand tonnes of the grain.
Back downstairs, Oliver introduces me to Spiru Spiteri: another founding member of the Fondazzjoni Wirt Industrijali. Spiru’s territory is the dark green machine responsible for all the noise in the chambers. “This is the heart of it all. It is this machine that drives the whole mill,” he says enthusiastically, going on to explain the research and manual work the foundation has already done and its future projects.
Together with Oliver and Spiru, Godwin Hampton, John Hili and Clive Sammut, three other engineering enthusiasts with a passion for preservation have come together to bring back to life old pumping stations and other industrial sites, all of which clearly have great potential as curious places to visit.