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Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

The first definitive remembrance I have of it is looking out of my living room window in my new flat, or the flat that I’ve newly moved into, and seeing these sails. And so, I went to discover where it was and found it was in a small park, and it was not in a very good condition at that time. It was pretty derelict looking. It had been left to get rather in wrack and ruin. And I remember thinking how strange to see windmill sails in the middle of Brixton.

 

Veronica Gordon 

I’m Veronica Gordon and this is “Then One Day”, the podcast that explores that special moment when strangers become a community to create change in their local area. In this episode, we’re heading to South London to learn about how a concerned group of locals came together to restore the Brixton Windmill, and more recently supply hundreds of bags of flour for a community in lockdown.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

Welcome to Bristol Windmill. You can kind of very faintly hear the machine from outside. And it gets a lot noisier as you go in.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

Brixton, as you probably know, has become quite a desirable area. But then of course, it’s a very multi-ethnic area. I think something like 154 languages spoken as the first language in Lambeth schools. And we have communities who’ve settled, like the Windrush generation or a big Portuguese community. Now there’s quite a substantial Polish community in Streatham Hill; large numbers of African immigrants have come in and settled in our area. So, it’s very diverse. And actually, as far as I’m concerned, a very interesting, exciting place to live and a very friendly place to live. I mean, I’ve lived through all the riots in Brixton. And I think, you know, we are a very tolerant and friendly community really in the main, although we have all sorts of problems like every community does, where there are people are living in overcrowded circumstances, and so on. So, the park is really important for people who live on estates and don’t have open space for themselves and so on.

 

Veronica Gordon 

That’s Jean Kerrigan, a local resident. A lot has changed in Brixton since a windmill first appeared over 200 years ago. It’s an exciting urban environment, and not the sort of place you’d associate with agricultural landmarks. As a result, many locals like Abigail, who you’re about to hear, didn’t even know it existed.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

So, this is my fourth year now being at the mill. And originally, I didn’t know existed. I moved to Brixton a few years ago and saw a tweet from the council just being like, “Oh, Brixton Windmill Open Day”. And I was like, “What the hell is this? Like I just want to know more”. And I sent an email asking to help out. And yeah, I literally haven’t left since.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

Well, the windmill is much loved by the people who live around it and know about it. But there’s a whole large number of people in Lambeth who don’t know it exists. They think when you talk about the windmill, you mean the pub, which is just down the road from the windmill and is called The Windmill because of the the real windmill. They don’t know it was built in 1816. They don’t know that it was still producing flour right up until 1934, although not by wind power any longer. And they don’t know any of its history, the fact that it had the same family of Millers working at it from 1816 right up till 1934. People from the local housing estate which borders the park are very keen. They use the windmill as their symbol; lots of people use it as their symbol. The local schools call themselves the Windmill Cluster. It’s known in the area. But you go to the bottom of the hill, you’re just down the road to where the land and gardens joins Brixton Hill, and people there would not know that there was an actual windmill in the park, you know, 500 yards up the road.

 

Veronica Gordon 

For Jean, the windmill represents an important part of the area’s rich and varied history. She knew that with a lot of work, this rundown relic of the past could become a new and unifying space for its neighbours.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

Well, I’ve always been quite involved with community things in my neighbourhood. And at that time, the council had a system of having area forums for local people to talk to the council or discuss with the council things they wanted to be improved and so on. And so, at that time, our ward was called Town Hall ward – it’s now called Brixton Hill Ward – and our forum met and we decided that the thing we really wanted to get improved was the Park and get the windmill restored again so that it could become a feature and people could visit it. And we discovered at that point, that in 2002, it had been put on the “buildings at risk” register. So, we made that our main campaigning point. And we worked with the council – they provided a small amount of money for somebody to do some consultation work with us. And out of that, the Friends of Windmill Gardens were formed in 2003.

 

Veronica Gordon 

Forming this community taskforce was a pivotal moment in the windmill’s restoration. But the overall goal was always to make it a space that could be enjoyed by the public. And to make that happen, they needed to find some money.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

We formed a partnership with the council – I think it was around 2007-8 – to put applications in jointly. And that meant…I think the first two applications were not successful. But ultimately in March 2010, it was agreed that there would be money available from the Heritage Lottery Fund; the council had to put in cash and a lot of officer time; and the Friends, it was agreed, would put in £2000 worth of cash and lots of volunteer time, which was valued at that time at £70,000. So, there was a major restoration took place then, and the building was brought to a state of safety. It was improved, and it was made available ultimately, for visitors.

 

Veronica Gordon 

I was shocked to hear that the windmill didn’t become open to the public until 8 years after they started campaigning. That’s a lot of legwork. But they didn’t want to stop there. In 2014, they managed to convince the council to let them start milling their own flour. Brixton Windmill was producing flour again for the first time since the 1930s, making it London’s oldest working windmill.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

These are the stairs and as I said, they’re quite narrow coming up. And the higher you go up in the mill, you’ve got kind of normal steps here but then the rest are like ladders. So, you can go up normally, but you’ve got to come back backwards.

 

Veronica Gordon 

What do people say in general when you say “Oh, I’m a lead miller.” What’s their reactions?

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

People talk about Windy Miller a lot and I’m too young to even really know the show properly. Or they…I suppose it’s just a lot of curiosity and excitement that something like this still exists and it’s still working. And yeah, which is good. I’m just like, I want more people to come; more people should be doing this.

 

Veronica Gordon 

This is Abigail Holsborough. Abigail is an artist and student. But she also volunteers as the windmill’s lead miller.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

I just love the building. I love being in… literally, it just feels like you’re walking back in time every time you go inside. And the processes that we’re doing haven’t changed besides the fact we have an electric motor now and not a steam engine, for example. But it’s really nice. I go in, I switch off, I’m not looking at my phone. It just is something that’s just been really good for my mental health I think, and just as something to keep me busy and as I said be connected to the community and meet new people. Yeah, it’s been good.

 

Veronica Gordon 

Over the last year, Abigail, Jean and the rest of the volunteers at Brixton Windmill had been preparing for an exciting launch – the unveiling of a new purpose-built community building. But just as they were set to open its doors for the first time, the entire country went into lockdown.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

Yeah, pre-lockdown, we were milling once every two weeks. We’d sell all the bags of flour, but demand wasn’t extremely high. We just kind of sold things at open days or to the shops in the area. As soon as lockdown was even being threatened – this was before the lockdown officially began – obviously, we had a lot of people panic buying or just being worried that they wouldn’t be able to get certain staples, and flour was top of the list. And, we had a lot of inquiries. We had a lot of new shops sign up to become stockists of our flour, which was good, but it meant that we had to increase how much we were milling. So, there was a point I remember, at the start of lockdown, I think I was in 3 times in one week. It’s not sustainable for us as volunteers. It’s not sustainable even for the machine; we don’t want to overwork the machine. So, we had to kind of take stock and figure out how best to approach milling under lockdown because we didn’t want to say no to people; we definitely do want to keep producing flour. But, for example, we had to cap the maximum orders that each shop could order at a time. We had a lot more volunteers who were happy to deliver. But again, you have to think about safe ways to deliver and keeping track of who’s delivering what. And it was just a lot more thought that went into it, where before it would have just been me on my bike.

 

Veronica Gordon   

While it seemed like absolutely everyone in the UK was buying flour and making lockdown banana bread, the volunteers knew they were in a unique position to help feed the most vulnerable in their community. So, they put the new building’s launch on hold and refocused their efforts.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

We put out a call for a “Flour Fund”, that’s what we called it, just for people who were able to and wanted to donate money to enable us to make the flour to donate to the food banks. And the response to that was really, really great. We had loads of donations; we were contacted by the collective that we purchase our grain from, and they even donated some grain which is, you know, it’s mad. It was just really heartwarming to see how much people cared and how much people wanted to help us to help other people. There are two food banks now that we deliver to which is really great. And we go once every two weeks, we drop some flour off to them. The first food bank was actually the one that’s in the estate that we are next to, Blenheim Gardens. And that felt like a good fit because people know us – they’ve seen the mill, obviously; they’ve seen us walking around. It’s bittersweet because you feel good that you’re helping people and that what you’re doing is helpful. But at the same time, I’d rather the help wasn’t needed. And when we’ve delivered, they’ve, you know, been really grateful and thanked us for what we’re doing. But yeah, it’s hard. It’s sad to see people in your community struggling. A lot of people have lost their jobs; some of our volunteers have lost their jobs; and that’s quite tough.

 

Veronica Gordon 

As well as donating to the local estate’s Food Bank, the team at the windmill wanted to help the wider community. And that’s when they got in touch with John Taylor, the General Manager of the Brixton branch of the Norwood and Brixton Food Bank.

 

John Taylor, Norwood & Brixton Food Bank 

So, you would think that you couldn’t really get more than feeding 10,000 people a year; you’d think that really couldn’t be surpassed, but yeah demand has just gone up. And in April, our figures year on year, it was 134% increase, which is just staggering. And I know Trussell Trust, I think they had, I think it was 89% increase as an overarching body if they took every single Food Bank. So that was a huge increase in itself. But our recent estimations would suggest probably demand has quadrupled, which is more than that initial figure I’ve just given you, which just blows the mind really doesn’t it?

 

Veronica Gordon    

Those figures are quite hard to take. I asked John if he had any examples of the reality so many people were facing.

 

John Taylor, Norwood & Brixton Food Bank 

Lots of examples, actually. I’ll try and give you a couple of recent ones. A really good one is a lady that, if I recall her partner was a painter and decorator, was self-employed. And unfortunately, because of the whole lockdown situation, he’s lost his job and couldn’t continue working. But he didn’t qualify for the furlough scheme. And that’s just unfortunate because he’d only been employed, or self-employed for a year. So, they were really struggling, and she worked part time in the NHS. And they just didn’t quite know how to get a food bank voucher. But their school called them, or the school that their children go to, and said we issue these food bank vouchers, would you be interested? And so, they were, you know, hugely excited at that. “Yes, please, can you help.” It had been a few weeks, and I think they’d even gone about a week without any food. And when we delivered it – we’ve got these guys that we employ; we’ve got a grant to employ some people to work for us – so the van pulls up, and the food came, and it was more food than she could possibly have imagined. And she said she just broke down, got on her knees and started crying. She was so so happy that that food had come because she’d been so desperate. So, I suppose it’s a bittersweet story because it just shows you how hungry people are. But it also shows you the immense impact that getting that food parcel can have on people’s lives.

 

So, this is why the relationship with the windmill has been particularly important. And it was just fantastic of them to be so proactive. So, they contacted us and said, “Is there anything we can do to help your clients? We’ve got this flour; would you like to have it?” And of course, we snapped their arm off – that was a wonderfully kind and generous offer from them. And, I suppose that’s just transpired now – so for weeks and weeks and weeks, they have been giving us 40 or 50 bags of flour, 1kg bags of flour, and our shelves are really quite full of it. But we get it off the shelves as quick as it comes on, goes into the parcels. And it has just immensely blessed our clients. We already give loads of different food items but to add flour into the mix as well just gives it that new dimension. And you can use some of that fresh fruit and some of that fresh veg to make all sorts of things. And I’m no cook, I’m a terrible cook, but I assume you can make all sorts of pies and cakes, and anyone that’s half decent at cooking could just come up with all sorts of recipes. And I think that’s what people do do. And that will be why it just comes off the shelf so quickly in the superstores. So, it’s been terrific; it’s just been such a blessing for people.

 

Veronica Gordon    

It’s really moving to hear John’s stories. I was particularly struck by how the windmill and Food Bank pull together to meet this new demand, and to help those who’d never needed this type of support before. But as the months passed, and lockdown started to ease, the Friends of Brixton Windmill Gardens could finally turn their attention back to the launch of their new building.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

Although we’ve taken over our new building in difficult circumstances, determined by the COVID-19 restrictions, we are, first of all extremely grateful to the council who have invested in this building. And we think that reflects their belief that our organisation, which has been around since 2003, is worth supporting with quite a big capital investment, which I think is pretty unusual in these times in local authorities. So, we have this fabulous new building. We’re also grateful to the architects, who are a company that’s moved recently into Brixton a few years back called Squire & Partners, who did the design of the building completely free for us. And it really is a nicely designed building in keeping with the windmill. So that means now we’ve got big plans, or we had big plans before we were hit by COVID-19, to be able to increase our education programme. To expand it from just delivering to primary school children, which is what we’ve been doing up to now, to courses that older young people could get involved in or even adults; to expand some of our training courses and things like that into food production, baking, and so on, which we were never able to do before, linking the mill to the education programme in that way; and we will be able to improve the experience for our visitors who come to the windmill and want to learn about the history of the windmill. And finally, of course, we are providing a really nice new facility for the local community to be able to hire themselves, to be able to use for their community groups. And also, it will allow us to have a much better events programme in the park because we will have this building as our base. So, we need to thank the council, we need to thank the architects, we need to thank Power to Change, who’ve helped us fund that. And prior to that, the Heritage Lottery Fund who of course, first enabled the mill itself to be restored, but also gave the Friends a grant over 18 months to prepare themselves for this new stage in our development – to become a CIO; to be able to employ people to train our members in all sorts of ways so that we’re capable of managing a building.

 

Veronica Gordon   

A CIO, that Jean just mentioned, means Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Basically, the windmill is set up to operate with a charity status. It keeps the focus on their community work, gives them tax breaks along with other financial benefits, and makes them eligible to apply for a bigger selection of grants. The main downsides come in the fact there’s plenty of regulation about what you can and can’t do, which inevitably means lots of paperwork, and box ticking. Now back to Jean.

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

I mean, we’ve signed a lease for 20 years, and we’re now totally responsible for this building. And that’s a big step for us. You know, it’s a big responsibility, and it’s community money that’s enabled us to get this far. So, we have to respect that and make a success of it.

 

Veronica Gordon

It took a lot of you and a lot of work to get this community treasure, and what tips would you give to another community to try and save a building like the windmill?

 

Jean Kerrigan, Brixton Windmill 

Well, I think you have to have a firm basis in your community, and you have to engage as many people as possible and be as open to anybody’s different ideas about how they want to help. Our real strength is our volunteers; they are fabulous. Some of them work harder than others, but we’ve got a wide range of volunteers. We’ve got volunteers who did the milling now of course since 2014 when we learnt to use the mill for milling. We’ve got volunteers who do gardening. We’ve got volunteers who are tour guides and who undergo training in order to be able to take people into the mill because it’s quite a tight space, so they have to be walked through and talked through the history of the windmill. We’ve got people who work on, you know, deliver our website, our social media. And so, anybody can help, and we’re open to anybody. And I think when we decided to become a CIO, we decided we would still remain a membership organisation. We didn’t want our trustees to be the only ones making the decision; we wanted the local community to have ownership of the project. So, we hold annual general meetings, we invite contributions, and so on. And we’re not just about the windmill, we’re also about the park and the playground and keeping it looking nice and organising events in the park.

 

Veronica Gordon 

Over the past 17 years, Jean and the rest of the team have taken at dilapidated building and turned it into the heart of the community. So, it’s really exciting to hear about everything the new building is going to allow them to do.

 

This shared experience of lockdown seems to have heightened our sense of community and duty to look after each other. But as we start to move back towards normality. I wonder whether people will still be able and willing to look out for their neighbours in the same way. I hope so.

 

Abigail Holsborough, Brixton Windmill 

If you’re spending every day, you know, commuting to work or travelling; doing all these things where you just kind of maybe have blinders on sometimes to what’s going on around you. And there are neighbours that I’ve met that I didn’t meet before lockdown. And we’ve been sharing, you know…literally we’ve started like a book, a book swap where we live or, you know, there are kids that live around us and I’ve seen some people just giving them like paints or things to do just to keep them busy. And I’m sure the parents are really appreciative of that; do you know what I mean. And it’s, yeah, it’s nice to kind of be forced to look a little closer to home. Yeah, it gives me a sense of pride. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to something that’s bigger than me and that’s always a good feeling.

 

Veronica Gordon 

If you’ve been inspired by anything you’ve heard in today’s episode, head to www.powertochange.org.uk for more information. And make sure you join us again in two weeks’ time for our bonus episode, where community business leaders will be sharing tips that they’ve discovered along the way. “Then One Day” is a Pixiu production. And thanks to independent trust, Power to Change, who brought you this podcast. I’m Veronica Gordon. See you in two weeks.