Cambridge repair cafe heroes take Barnwell by storm
The repair cafe session at East Barnwell Community Centre on Saturday afternoon was a good-natured community occasion which brought together volunteers who like to fix things with people who brought their broken stuff to be mended free of charge.
It’s a way to extend the use of everyday objects which might otherwise be abandoned, and the feel-good factor was out in force as the sunshine streamed into the community centre by the side of Newmarket Road.
The event was organised by Abbey People in partnership with Cambridge Carbon Footprint, and some of the trustees and volunteers of the Museum of Technology (also Abbey ward) – a total of 31 volunteers helped to make the event happen.
More than 50 slots for repair of electrical goods, clocks, clothes, fires and jewellery were pre-booked, said Abbey People organiser Mike Kovocs, a sustainability consultant with global retrofit company Arup.
“We’ve got repair cafes booked in for the area until the end of April,” said Mike. “We use a repair cafe kit which the volunteers use. All the tools and items are donated by Mackays, including hardware. It’s going swimmingly!”
I check in at the entrance to two halls being used for the afternoon. I’m led over to a table and meet Ian Harvey. It’s his first time as a repairer, he’s a software engineer with computer security company Entrust, which is based in Station Square – “it’s cryptography,” he explains, “a lot of it is used in financial services whose names you would recognise”.
So how did he get involved?
“I saw a notice up in the window at Mackays which I visit very often because it’s a good shop,” says Ian, a Fen Ditton resident. “Just before Covid I thought ‘I could do repairs’ but then obviously it was all shut down. I mentioned it to a friend I was having a beer with and he said he knew the circular Cambridge people and put me in touch just before Christmas.”
I present my two lamps, which have been out of action for at least two years while I waited for a local repair cafe to come along – the last one I’d been to was in Waterbeach in the summer of 2019.
“That really needs a screw, I’ll see if our toolbox has spares.”
It does. One of the screws is too short, the other too long, so Ian saws it down to size. One working LED lamp from a discarded bit of plastic (by the way LED lamps can be mended at repair cafes).
Lamp number two comes out. The shade is not fixed properly on to the base and wobbles about like a drunk skier.
“It either needs screwing up but possibly the thread has worn out, we’ll see,” says Ian. It’s not just banter – part of the deal is that you sit with the repairer and he or she talks you through what they’re doing, so you can pick up some of the tricks of the trade for yourself.
Ian clicks the plastic back into place and explains: “The lamp holder was pulled out. I don't know if it was bashed about but it’s quite simple to fix.”
I express my gratitude.
“It’s OK,” Ian says. “I do actually enjoy fixing things.”
Turns out I very much enjoy having things fixed and Ian is my hero.
“To make sure it’s not dangerous there’s a testing table,” he adds. “If there’s a problem just bring it back.”
I thank Ian profusely, without trying to sound too pathetic.
“You’re welcome,” he says. “It’s been good to do my first repair.”
I do have one other item to repair, but it’s a long shot – a 90-year-old clock which isn’t working. I get a booking but it’s an hour away, so I wander around a bit and have some tea and cake, say hello to the Abbey People crew, and have a chat with Terence Carty, who’s a GroundWork East Green Doctor (the event is all about trying to promote a sustainable economy). Groundwork operates a team of energy efficiency experts who visit people in their homes, helping vulnerable households to save money and stay warm and well. On the stand are various showerheads – “they reduce flow but you don’t realise it”, says Terence – and various LED lights and some of those plastic sheets which insulate windows. Terence says he is there making appointments and will visit homes which might benefit.
My lamps pass the electrical test. I chat briefly with Tom Bragg, a trustee of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, who is setting up as a repairer for the afternoon, and visit some of the other stalls. It’s very busy. There’s queues of people waiting for a booking, to fix toasters, portable fires, sewing machines, furniture… there’s a cost of living crisis, and a climate crisis, and people want to make their stuff last longer, not just chuck it away. Repair cafes are where throw-away society comes to die and out of the ashes comes sustainability.
Finally, I’m in with the clock repair. I feel like I’ve just made it on to Antiques Roadshow, but instead of a valuation I’m hoping for functionality. My aunt gave me this clock, it’s never worked. At least I can find out why not?
On the clock stand are Chris Lancaster and Jon Malins: Chris is the apprentice, Jon is the sorcerer. Chris is another software engineer – these folks just like stuff to work! – with Xen Server (formerly Citrix), which is based on Cambridge Science Park. Jon – “I’m just a Mr Fixit” – is a retired electronics engineer (see the pattern?) and physicist.
“My hobby is fixing things,” he says.
Jon checks out the clock.
“It’s a Fusee clock,” he says. “It’s probably 80 or 90 years old. It’s way out of adjustment…. Oh.”
And then Jon utters the words that no clock owner wants to hear.
“It’s been dropped. It’s cracked at the top of the arch which holds the escapement.”
He points to the crack. Ouch. The brass frame, which holds the axle which holds the pendulum, is busted. It feels like game over already but Jon and Chris then perform the clock equivalent of open-heart surgery which makes ‘Surgeons: At The Edge of Life’ look lame (I exaggerate, but only slightly).
Jon describes what is happening for my benefit but mostly for Chris’ benefit in a procedure that takes over half an hour of their time.
“When the clock ticks the escapement wheel clicks one way and then the other way, then hits the pendulum.”
The pallet should be adjusted as close to the escape wheel as possible without locking the wheel, but the crack has distorted the process.
“They’re accurate to a couple of millimetres.” says Jon of the mechanism. “It’s just too close.”
I’m losing hope fast.
“I might be able to move it up though, we’ll see.”
The hope is short-lived.
“It’s a frame mechanism which is all carved out of one piece of brass,” Jon explains. “Oh – the pivot hole is worn badly. This hole has got too much play in it. When it’s up it’s fine.”
“And when it’s down it’s too low,” notes Chris.
Jon: “I can’t raise it. But what surprises me is I haven’t got very much room in there at all (to work on it) – but it might be enough to get it going.”
Jon removes some of the debris with a biodegradable ear bud and lighter fluid.
“I’d take it all out. That pivot hole needs rebushing – I’d drill it out and put in a new bit of brass. The thing is, horological tools are very expensive – the tool to do the rebushing would cost around £500. It just doesn’t clear the wheel….”
“It’s so close to getting it,” says Chris, who got involved because Mike Kovacs is a friend “and he’s been going on and on about one of these repair cafes for years”.
Jon: “We tried lubricating it around the pallet. What we want is for the whole thing to move up.”
Chris: “You could move the horizontal rod?”
Jon: “The arbor… up a bit…. It’s almost working. What puzzles me is why is it so low? It’s distorted. It would need to be completely stripped down and then pushing down into place. It's so close to working, but not quite.”
Then – a breakthrough.
Chris: “That’s ticking away quite nicely now.”
It’s working! But the excitement is short-lived.
Chris: “Now it’s too high.”
Jon: “These things are just plus or minus one millimetre. The escapement wheel isn’t working. There’s just not enough clearance. As soon as I lift it, it works. The frame needs straightening and the pallet arbor needs rebushing.”
Chris: “I can see the abor actually moving up and down.”
Indeed, so can I.
Jon: “Yes. And it’s not meant to. You should only have end play, and which is backwards and forwards.”
The duo have given it their all, but it can’t be bodged. These mechanisms are so finely tuned they were used as reference laboratory clocks well into the 20th century. More than 300 escapement wheel designs were developed, including one by Galileo. The earliest mechanical escapement clock was designed in 1275. They are, and remain, incredible pieces of engineering.
So here’s the pitch: Jon can do the repair, but he can't afford the to buy the horological instruments required to do the rebushing.
“For instance, I need a mainspring winder,” says Jon. “That would cost about £300. I’m even thinking about making one myself. I’m getting so much work at the moment, and a clock mender would probably spend five or six hours on this repair, which would cost about £500 or £600.”
So maybe there’s someone out there who has these bits of kit sitting in a shed, or a retired clocksmith wants to find a good home for the equipment? If so, please get in contact and I can let Jon know. He works for free, what’s not to like?
The next repair cafe is on March 8 in Bassingbourn.