This article first appeared as a magazine article in Stories from the Grassroots in 1994.
So long… and thanks for all the dust.
That was the title penned by a friend and co-volunteer for his novel about our experiences building The Hornbeam.
We’d spent an entire Sunday chipping loose plaster off the walls and doubted we’d ever be free of the dust. And as for the thought that one day people would be able to eat in the planned vegetarian café, well it seemed inconceivable. But the novel never got written, since the friend took the easy way out of volunteering at The Hornbeam – he emigrated to the USA.
So what is a Hornbeam? Well it’s a tree that’s very common in our area of North East London. But now it’s also an Environmental Centre, and very proud of it we are too.
I guess my involvement began back in 1990, when I first met Jowanna and Diane at a meeting of the local environmental forum. They’d met while working at a local vegetarian café, which had become the meeting point of a Friends of the Earth group. Unfortunately the café had closed down, but Jowanna and Diane realised the place was more than just a café, it had been an environmental focus for the whole area, and they weren’t going to let that focus disappear just because the place wasn’t open any more. So the idea was born. An urban environmental centre, run by the community for the community. A vegetarian café and restaurant, a retail outlet for fair trade goods, exhibition space for local arts and crafts, meeting rooms, an environmental educational resource, offices for environmental groups, displays of renewable energy systems, the list was endless. But how do two well meaning people turn a dream into reality? Well after four years hard labour we’ve all learnt the hard way how to do it.
Jowanna and Diane told me their ideas and I was sold on it. Basically along with many other people, I wanted there to be just such a place. Those people included the Economic Development Unit of the local authority, a community recycling project, the local environmental forum and a number of individuals. The recycling project made some office space available, the EDU made a feasibility grant available and Jowanna and Diane took it from there. They produced a business plan and on the strength of that got a couple of grants and some low interest loans.
Now all that was needed was some premises. The recycling project occupied part of a council owned building and the rest of it was vacant, and with plenty of imagination Jowanna and Diane saw the environmental centre of their dreams. It needed plenty of imagination though, since the building was virtually derelict, and the £20,000 of money wasn’t going to go very far.
Anyway the lease was signed and the volunteers moved in. Looking back it’s hard to believe how naive we were. We started work in February 1992 and talked about it being open soon after Easter. It makes me blush even thinking about it, but I suppose if we’d realised how long it was going to take then we’d probably never have started.
So the building work commenced.
Initially we were just demolishing rickety walls and removing plasterwork and flooring. But as time went on we attracted a few professionals and with their guidance our confidence grew. You name it, we did it; built walls, laid bricks, plastered everything (including ourselves), re-wired, re-plumbed, installed central heating, built toilets moved the stairs and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it. At one stage, Jowanna actually considered giving up the environmental centre idea and starting her own building firm, but it didn’t last.
By the summer of 1993 the centre was really starting to take shape, but the money was running out. We’d been continuously fundraising, but the big grant applications hadn’t come off, and although the quiz nights and benefit gigs helped, the money didn’t go very far.
The building was owned by the council, and since we were improving one of their properties, we decided to seek a grant from them. After a few problems trying to explain what we were about to a few councillors, but with the whole-hearted support of other councillors and officers, we received a grant of £8,000 to complete the building work. So we did.
As November drew to a close, the basic work was completed. As planned, the downstairs was ready to open temporarily as a shop, to raise some much needed cash by selling Christmas merchandise. On November 30th we worked till well past midnight, stocking the makeshift shelves and creating a window display. We left for home in the early hours, with great expectations for the morning. These however, were dashed by some uninvited visitors, who must have watched us the night before. At around 6am they forced the fire exit and started helping themselves to our merchandise. Fortunately for us a police officer, who was on his way home from work, spotted them and intervened. The burglars ran off and the police sat in the centre until our shocked volunteers turned up at 9 o’clock.
Although nothing had been stolen, most of our stock had been packed into boxes by the thieves, so the police took it all as evidence. So come our opening time we had nothing to sell. Word soon spread and volunteers started arriving. One went down to the police station, and by 11 o’clock was back, arriving in a police car with all our merchandise. Amazingly, by midday we were open, with all our original stock. The feeling of relief was incredible, and we got plenty of publicity, but it was a trauma we could all have done without.
The shop, which was entirely run by volunteer effort, stayed open till Christmas Eve, and we closed down £1,000 better off.
The next time we opened the centre would be complete, but only if we could raise a further £5,000 to equip the kitchen and restaurant. Without these we would not have the means to be self-financing, and we weren’t prepared to always be dependent on handouts. This is where our supporter scheme saved the day.
Back in November, when we’d realised we needed to raise funds for the kitchen, we came up with the idea of the supporter scheme. Basically we asked local people to loan us £50 (or multiples thereof) for five years. Interest would be paid in discount vouchers for the restaurant, and the money paid back after the five year period. The response was staggering, over £5,000! All we had to do now was build the kitchen, and finish off the rest of the building.
On April 23rd at midday the Mayor, accompanied by two local MPs, cut the ribbon and the centre opened. It was a marvellous day. Everyone involved was on a high, which was a good job, since we worked non-stop for the previous two weeks. And the party that night was a heck of a do.
So The Hornbeam has now been open for six months (December 1994), with Jowanna as Centre Coordinator and Diane as head chef, but it’s been far from plain sailing. Initially staff were recruited to run the café and restaurant but business was a bit too slow at first. After three months we hit a cash crisis. Supporters chipped in with a further £2,000, expenditure cuts were made and some staff took pay cuts or even voluntary redundancy. The lost working hours and more besides were made up by volunteers, including the people who’d taken redundancy.
So the centre survived, business has now picked up and we’re about to recruit more staff, though we’re still dependent on volunteer labour at the moment. We also recently won our first regional award, which was a tremendous morale boost.
But what have we achieved? Well, Jowanna and Diane’s dream is a reality. They’re the first to admit that it’s not as they imagined, but I feel we really have created what they set out to achieve; Hornbeam is an urban environmental focus for the area. Groups are meeting at the centre and taking initiatives which would not have happened had Hornbeam not been there. People, previously uninvolved with local environmental issues, are coming into the centre and getting involved. The centre is also providing a means of distributing information and enabling communication.
And how about the individuals, the 90-odd volunteers and everyone else involved, what have we got out of creating our own environmental centre? A tremendous feeling of community between everyone involved. Skills which we never imagined we’d get (and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted five years ago). But what stands out for me, is the realisation that with a lot of vision and a little encouragement, ordinary people can achieve great things.
It’s hard work, but can give you a buzz like little else. It brings you to tears when it goes wrong, but the elation when you succeed makes it all worthwhile. And it produces a hell of a lot of dust.
Jim Craddock (September 1994)