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Waterbeach repair cafe adds value to community and life to product cycles

In focus for 'Inside Out' report at Waterbeach Barracks. Picture: Tim George
In focus for 'Inside Out' report at Waterbeach Barracks. Picture: Tim George

Repair cafes take place every month around the region: the more local ones are organised by Cambridge Carbon Footprint, but other locations are available.

To find out more I went along last weekend to Waterbeach Barracks to speak with organiser Paul Bearpark and get a couple of items repaired while I was at it, of which more later. When I got there there was a BBC TV crew filming for a report on Inside Out. Repair cafes are surfing a new thirst to get broken stuff fixed.

After Paul disengaged himself from his station where he was mending electronics items to chat, he explained that he lives in Waterbeach and work as head of electronics and software at 42 Technology in St Ives - and, it turned out, had been a trustee at Cambridge Carbon Footprint.

"That was several years ago," he says. He's been involved with Waterbeach's repair cafe for four years.

"This event is actually part of Waterbeach's Summer At The 'Beach Open Studios exhibition. There's also a music event on and a graffiti workshop on the green. We're one of the events."

There's seven repairers on duty, and they get through "probably 50 or 60 items a day".

Some of the group participated at a Cambridge repair cafe event which set a new world record for successfully mending items - 232 in one day. So what sort of items have been brought in so far?

"There's been a hedge strimmer where the cables had been cut," he says, "and a Soviet-era 1960s record player manufactured in Russia or the Eastern bloc. Plus a cassette Sony Walkman - you can still get the parts. And a TV."

Paul Bearpark at Waterbeach Repair Cafe. Picture: Tim George
Paul Bearpark at Waterbeach Repair Cafe. Picture: Tim George

What makes a good repairer?

"Someone who's interested in finding out about how things work," says Paul. "An understanding of when to stop, too, because some tasks are very challenging, especially modern gadgets such as mobile phones. It's not totally intentional - as things become more integrated it makes them more difficult to repair, so if for instance a product is waterproofed it completely seals the enclosure.

"But there's a missed opportunity in making products people can't repair. They feel bad about having to throw things out after a couple of years."

Which manufacturers emerge well in terms of repairability and environmental impact?

"Apple do very well, partly because of their use of renewable energy. Amazon are quite low down the list, largely because they're not very transparent. Dell's and HP's are quite easy to repair. It's all about encouraging people to look at the environmental costs of the stuff they're buying."

That's one part of it - the other part is that it brings people together, gets them out and saying hello.

"I enjoy being at repair cafe," says Paul. "The ages of the repairers and the people that come in are pretty broad - it's a community event that brings people together. Even if you don't repair someone's item, if you give them some advice and they feel like they've done their best to keep something going, that's progress. And everybody's incredibly grateful."

I wonder over to another room where I find Gina, who is on seamstress duties. I've got a couple of shirts with me. I plead with Gina to sew the buttons back on because the shirts have been sitting in a corner for months. When she's got a gap in bookings, she's on it.

"I've been doing repair cafes for around two year," she says. "It's about one a month. It's quite fun actually. I probably do 30 or 40 repairs each time. We get a lot of buttons - the schools don't teach it any more."

Histon-based Gina - one of a dozen sewers available locally - is about to put that right. Now retired from teaching business at local colleges and ARU, she's starting a craftwork course at Impington Village College in September. Book early!

Gina at Repair Cafe stand. Picture: Tim George
Gina at Repair Cafe stand. Picture: Tim George

Gina's take on our consumerist tendencies is clear-cut.

"When I was young it was cheaper to make clothes than to buy them, so people developed their skills - but now it's much cheaper to buy than to make. If you want to put the effort in you can make something different but that's how it's changed. Where we are now is throwaway fashion and the fast-fashion environment. We've done fashion shows - on the repair cafe circuit and at Cambridge Carbon Footprint - on how to make clothes last longer. We've also done Swish events, which is good quality clothes people no longer want, particularly evening wear, and they bring it along to swap it, and we turn up at the event and we can make the clothes fit on the spot."

Gina was one of the world record team.

"The record-breaking one we did in a church at Christ's Pieces. There were a lot of repairs but there were a lot of us there. We've lost it since, so we're going to give it another go. Repair cafes is international - we pinched the record from France. In future, community courses are going to be part of mental health courses, and this will be part of it."

Can't come soon enough.

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