A year or so before I joined People in Common had bought a derelict cornmill with a three and half acre field on the banks of the River Calder some five miles from the houses in Burnley. The Mill was to be the fulfilment of an aim to have a place where “the group could live together in the country within easy reach of the town….”
Altham Cornmill looked bigger than it was, an early industrial building it had had a chequered history, originally the site of a corn mill possibly dating back to Saxon times, the present building replaced one burnt down by rioting weavers after the introduction of water powered looms in the early 1800s. It had last been operated as a woodworkshop making spare parts for the weaving industry up until the 1960’s – when PIC bought it for £7000 it had been used for a number of years as a giant chicken house. The word ‘derelict’ doesn’t really do it justice. It still had a roof (Just), it was riddled with woodworm, the floors were held together by the three inches of chicken shit which covered them and a small stream trickled through the half-basement. I remember my parents telling me years later of their horror when I first showed them round – wondering what an earth we had taken on and not seeing how without any money we were ever going to manage to renovate the place.
In something of a fit of idealistic enthusiasm we set about shoveling chicken shit (made wonderfully rich compost), propping up roof timbers, waging chemical warfare on woodworms (the presevative fluid melted the rubber kitchen gloves we started with – it said use rubber gloves!) and dreaming wild dreams of what we wanted to do with the place.
This wave of somewhat frenetic activity eventually became more measured and whilst some people started working on plans to apply for planning permission and thought about possible sources of money, others began clearing ground to start growing veg on a smallholding scale. I don’t think any of us had any real horticultural experience beyond having an allotment, but what we lacked in skills and practical knowledge we made up with in communal solidarity and WWOOFers. Rod Hunter, a gentle Glaswegian, was our main gardener in the early days and I remember the first night we stayed at the Mill after a day de-turfing a veg patch on the field – the two of us slept on the concrete floor of a pig pen in the basement and tried to cook a tin of baked beans for breakfast on a blowlamp! – The only time I have tried to eat stone-cold beans that actually tasted burnt.
On our way home walking along the canal towpath we were stopped and questioned by two police officers who thought we might be ‘sheep rustlers’. (Quite where we could be hiding sheep was a mystery to us. In our rucksacks?) We tried in vain to persuade them that we were in fact local ‘Mill Owners’ out on a sunday morning stroll – eventually I think the whole surreal nature of the conversation got the better of them and they left us alone.
That night lying on the concrete floor of the Mill I had had a vivid dream of being part of a sleeping pack of large wolf like dogs – it was so striking a dream that I looked it up in a Dream Dictionary and it said it was an architypal dream of coming home – or being safely at home.
Notes: Figures in the ‘Day PIC bought the mill’ picture. Nick Albery was, among many other thiings, the former secretary of the Communes Movement. Dave Treanor was a founder member of Laurieston Hall commune. Derek & Leigh were members of PIC.