The Mill at Sonning

‘The Mill at Sonning’ may sound more like a title for a 19-century romantic novel than a name of a local theatre. Well, this is not just any theatre, but a unique Dinner Theatre set on the banks of the river Thames in a historical location that shares some important landmarks in English history.

From London, Paddington station to Reading, it is a mere 24 minutes by train, and then a 8-minute taxi ride or an hour walk (2.8 miles) to the theatre and the environment is worlds apart from hustle of London. No wonder George and Amal Clooney with their young family found the place so beautiful as to make it one of their homes. They are literally, the next-door neighbours, who also support the theatre.

The Mill Dinner Theatre at Sonning opened on July 22nd, 1982, and since then it has been going from strength to strength.

I went to see the new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1970s play How the Other Half Loves. The whole experience turned out to be a fabulous day out.

Sitting with a glass of wine at the balcony overlooking the Thames was a prelude to a two-course meal. The service was second to none. Delightful young ladies polite, friendly and make you feel as if you are at a family dinner. Nothing was too much for them.


Before every performance, a meal is on offer, and it is included the ticket which is very reasonably priced. This is a delicious prelude to an evening at the theatre.

The semi-circular auditorium embraces the stage like a Roman theatre with a roof. The touch of simplicity is rather welcoming and makes the view clear from every angle. Most importantly, no hats or hairdos obstruct the view as the gradation between the rows offers sufficient drop to eliminate such obstructions.

I did not realise that there has been a mill at Sonning for many centuries. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. There were three mills at ‘Sonninges and Berrochescire’. We are informed that in the 1600s, the rents for the mill went to the Royal Exchequer.

During the First English Civil War (1642-1646), when Cromwell had his headquarters in London and King Charles I, had his in Oxford, the troops met in the middle at Reading. It was Sonning which supplied the flour for the besieged garrison in the town.

The building was all wooden and therefore it is likely that due to fires and easy mobility of such structures, the site of the earliest Sonning mill could have been in a different place. That does not distract from the serenity of the location. The current building dates from the 18th century, but the main parts of the present theatre building are from around 1890. It was owned then by the wealthy Witherington family who added the top two storeys and larger waterwheels to provide more power to drive the machinery. Around 1898 they put in a steam engine to supplement the waterpower. Just before the First World War, in 1913, the Phillimore family took over the mill, remodelled the inside of the mill the following year but trading under the name of C.H. Witherington and Sons Ltd. The 1950s, the post WWII years of austerity, left their marks on the place, that is until 1962, when the business was taken over by Associated British Foods Ltd. Electric engines although the main source of power was still produced by the water wheels. The 1960s economic revolution and a new wave of industrial competition forced the closure (1969) of the last flour mills on the Thames driven by wheels.

It was in 1977 that new visionaries saw the potential in the location. Tim and Eileen Richards, who had a great love of theatre, found the derelict building, and decided to convert it into The Mill as it is today. Tim invited his brother Frank to join them, and the transformation took four years to complete. The Mill at Sonning Dinner Theatre opened on July 22nd, 1982.

Sadly, Frank Richards died in 1994, Tim Richards in 2002 and Eileen Richards in 2015. Her daughter Sally is now Managing Director of The Mill which continues to go from strength to strength thanks to its ever-loyal staff and audience, having produced an abundance of plays and musicals.

In 1984 The Mill at Sonning was given a conservation award by The Times newspaper and The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors for the design, restoration, and conversion of the derelict mill into a dinner theatre.

It was named Most Welcoming Theatre by the Theatre Managers Association for three years running: 2016, 2017 and 2018.

A view from the theatre’s veranda, next to the bar…..