Doing Up The Mill (part 2)

Altham Corn Mill Circa 1980

It was a big blow to realise that we wouldn’t get any grant funding to help us renovate the Mill. There was talk of selling it and focussing on the houses in Burnley. But that seemed too much like giving up on a dream. There must be some other way to raise the funds we needed or to get to the point where it would be possible to imagine that we could fund it ourselves. We had managed to complete the refurbishment of the Boilerhouse as a mess room and adhoc dormitory using our own resources. We now needed to find a way to start to tackle the main building – starting with the roof.

At the time there was a small Communes Network Revolving Loan fund that groups could apply for to carry out projects. It was pretty much a no strings attached loan. The group that had it before you was charged with OKing that they were happy with the proposed project and you were asked to add some interest on it “If you could afford to!” before you ‘repaid’ it. And you had the task of passing the loan on to another community when you’d finished with it after three or so years. Where the money had come from in the first place was lost in the communal mists by the time we applied for it – well quite how you actually applied for something that was so informally administered I now don’t remember – there was probably a note in the Communes Network newsletter inviting ‘expressions of interest‘ which we responded to. I vaguely recall it was Lifespan who had had it before us to build a greenhouse linking their terraced houses together. Suffice to say we got the loan of £1750 which would just about cover the materials to repair and reslate half the stone slate roof of the Mill. All we needed now was a skilled team of roofers who would help us do the job- for no pay!

We had already managed to tap into volunteer labour to come and help us through IVS, the International Voluntary Service,to fit out the boilerhouse and get mains water laid on.(More about IVS later) But tackling a major roofing job called for a different level of skill and commitment. Enter the unbelievably amazing team from Rapid Transformations.

“In case you haven’t heard of Rapid Transformations before, they’re an elite anarchistic group (their own description!) who live in communities, or are otherwise engaged in alternative activities, who choose to take a‘holiday’ together each year to do a roofing job for a community in need …”

Alison Crabapple Collective experience

If there are any events from the 1970’s & 80’s Communes Network that deserve to have a mythical reputation – Rapid Transformations summer roofing ‘holidays’ are one of them. Over a number of summers for little more than the price of feeding them, space to camp, space for their DIY sauna/bathhouse/sweatlodge and a bottle of Scotch – a crack team of builders would gather from the far corners of the communal diaspora and descend on your community and set to carrying out a task that was just too enourmous for you to contemplate doing on your own. I’ll let RT tell it in their own words:

Rapid Transformations is an occasional building collective. It exists only when we are living and working together. The people in it, women and men, all live in communes and collectives, where they tend to take on responsibility for building work. So, Rapid Transformations is most importantly a holiday – a holyday from isolated responsibility.

We tend to take on jobs which none of us would dare do on our own individual initiative, partly because we each think that the others know what we are doing and partly because we discover huge collective confidence. How we are working and living together is as important as what we are – the work stops when anyone needs it to. We seem to find it easy to want to look after each other.

We only do work for groups (and try to avoid working for any of our own groups – which can create its own tensions.) Preferably on jobs which they need to do, but don’t have the confidence to start. And we encourage (and sometimes require them to work with us, so that they can do it themselves next time.)

Tony June 81. Communes Network 63
RT bus arrives at the Mill. Clive & Nevil

And so it was in the summer of 1983 that an old single decker green bus and a crew of anarchist builders arrived at the Mill at Altham.

We had done a load of prep for the job ourselves before they arrived (Put up 3 storey scaffolding, ordered materials and roof trusses, stripped slates from a nearby old barn.) And worked in advance with Dave and Keith from RT to rough out some design issues and a schedule of work.

I have been trying to remember those two weeks that summer. But it is all a bit hazy. I can picture Keith, Dave, Clive and Derek working out how to get the old rotten roof timbers out safely with a complicated rigging of ropes, Cindy endlessly drilling peg holes in stone slates on the top of the scaffold, Ray hauling on a rope and pulley to get stone slab slates up on to the roof, Finn and Josie way down below playing in the sandpit…. the ‘Sauna’ – an old frame tent with a pit fire running through it covered with corrugated iron with a tin bath on top. The only bath I’ve ever had that got hotter the longer you stayed in it.

RT Crew on the Mill roof: LtoR Pete, June & Nevil

I would swear the sun shone for the whole two weeks and a wonderful time was had by all – But Whatever! – We did just about manage to strip off an old roof and lift out the rotten timbers, put in new trusses and felt, batten and reslate the whole of the ‘long-side’ section of the Mill roof all for the price of feeding the crew and that bottle of scotch. We did have to finish some bits of final slating and, if I remember rightly a bit of pointing on a chimney after Rapid Transformations had gone. Oh and we had to take down a load of scaffolding – for which Catriona’s mum and dad gave us a hand

Don & Fiona Stamp

But much, much more than that we broke through a psychological barrier that summer. The barrier that said “You can’t do this – not the 7 or 8 of you on your own – not without money – not without being proper skilled builders…….” Well perhaps now we could. Now the building had a new roof (well half of it had a new roof) now it wasn’t going to fall down. Perhaps now we could come up with other ways that we could bootstrap finance the rest of the renovation

To clear the site up we hosted a second IVS workcamp that year a few weeks after RT had departed. And then slunk back to our houses in Burnley fairly exhausted for a well deserved rest. Rapid Transformations carried on with thier builders summer holidays for a few more years into the 1980’s. I joined them the following summer over at Lifespan reroofing the top terrace there. They then eventually faded away into communal mythology.

A huge thanks for all their help back then to: Dave,Linda & Pete from Laurieston, Nevil from Lifespan, Keith from Tweed St, June from Rainbow, Clive from Redbricks, Tony from Double Helix, Cindy from ? and all the other RT crew who are lost to my memory.

Rapid Transformations Bus & Crew on thier way to Denmark 1981 – By Charlie Easterfield

Coda: It turns out that habits of generosity are hard to shake off. Ex-RT crew members, Clive and June, now semi-retired, still provide what they call the FFFF service – Fast Fix for Friends & Family – whereby when friends have moved house they will turn up a day or two later with tools at the ready and proceed to put up shelves and hang curtains for you – all for the price of a – well not sure if you have to provide space for a mobile sauna anymore, but you get the picture.

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