Doing up the Mill (Part 6) – Moving in

Altham Cornmill – Early 1980’s

I remember talking about how we might finally move from our terraced houses in Burnleywood to The Mill at Altham. I had one fantasy that we could do the removal by horse and cart – probably inspired by Horse and Bamboo over in Rossendale. I think I even went as far as trying to find someone who could do it. I had been on the Welfare State Winter School on Angelsey with the idea of working out how to mark the moment we moved. I had a long conversation with Boris Howarth while on the course about what we might do. All I can remember from the conversation now is that he said that we should take care to understand the inherent meaning in anything we did to mark the moment – he warned against doing something along the lines of ‘beating the bounds’ without thinking about what message we might be sending out even without meaning to. Did we really want to tell our neighbours to “Keep Out!” ?

What I don’t recall is the actual move. Which occurred sometime in the late summer of 1988. There was the symbolic moving of a few personal items in on the ‘auspicious date’ recommended by an astrological reading. But that had all been done in somewhat light hearted jest. (See: So How Did We Decide That.) When and how we actually moved I can’t picture at all. We probably moved bit by bit in our small van, rather than a full scale commune removal. By the time the Mill was in a state where we could move in we had dwindled in numbers down to just six of us. Four adults and two kids. Quite how we managed those last months of building work with just the few of us is hard to imagine now. We did move into a building that most people would probably have considered to still have been a building site. The main kitchen living room wasn’t finished and we used the boilerhouse / mess room for cooking and as our social space for a quite a while. Only one of the three bathrooms was finished and it was a long time before the other two were operational. There was still a lot of work to do – and we had only been working on half the building.

David a few years before had announced that he didn’t want to move to in to the Mill because he didn’t want to live in a house with holes in the floors that you might fall through and could he just live in a shed outside somewhere. I don’t think the Mill was in that bad a state when we moved in. We had had help from different quarters to get the building into a fit state to move in. Most of Lifespan community came over and gave a boost to our decorating efforts one week. Friends and family mucked in. My dad came up and stayed in his camper van while he fitted a door frame and window. The new members of Burnleywood Housing co-op who were taking over our houses back in town must have had a hand in helping us get ready and moving. I have a picture in my mind of our friend and local Labour councilor, Peter Kenyon, coming out regularly and cutting the grass for us each time he came.

By hook and by crook, by sheer sweat and hard work at times and with a health dose of imaginative perseverance. Not to mention creativity in the finance department. We had done it! It had taken the best part of a decade and a good dozen fairly bloody minded members to get here. And Yes there was still plenty to do. But now we were there and could start trying to work out what it was we really thought we had wanted to do all those years ago when we had had the dream – what was ;living the dream’ going to be like in reality?

I don’t think it was conscious, but somehow by osmosis we took heed of Boris Howarth’s words when it came to celebrating our move to the Mill. In the end amid all the partying we focused on celebrating the people. People past and present who had helped us along the way. We held a grand bonfire party at the end of the summer where we built a bonfire replica of the Mill with a working water wheel. And re-enacted the Burning of the Mill by local ‘Luddite’ weavers. (An entirely unhistorical event as I have learnt more recently – though they did trash the place and throw the ‘evil’ Spinning Jennys into the river)

Mill Bonfire Party

After the mill had been burnt the kids performed a shadow play in the windows of the old Welfare State caravan – telling the story of the Gingerbread man , a bit of classic death and rebirth mythology. Culminating in the children carrying a ‘real’ 3ft Gingerbread man out on a funeral byre and marching out to the big willow tree by the river where the famous newspaper boat was moored (That’s another sorry). The Gingerbread man was laid in the boat and given a Viking send off as we set the boat on fire and pushed it out into the flow of the river as fireworks went off. All in all a memorable night.

More memorable for some of us than others. Me and Derek had done a trial run rehearsal launching the paperboat into the river in the afternoon and it had sailed beautifully in a ceremonial arc through the left hand arch of the bridge just downstream. However on the night the river level had dropped a few inches and the current slowed slightly – just enough to change the trajectory of our now flaming boat and send it heading straight for the central stone pier of the bridge. Where there was a collection of driftwood and rubbish nicely caught on the pier just waiting to be set alight. Me and Derek appeared simultaneously under the bridge having run round, across the main road and down the steps at the far side. We waded out into the river and together pushed the flaming boat out into the main channel and away under the bridge – thereby narrowly avoiding burning down the main A678 Burnley to Accrington trunk road. Everybody watching was oblivious to the near miss drama and thought me and Derek wading in the river was all part of the show. We were then so concerned about a flaming boat floating off into the night that Derek tracked it down stream until he was sure it had burned itself out.

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