The Mealy Meal Mill Shack was built in 1997 and burned down the same year on the 11th November at Horndon on the Hill, Essex, UK.
Q&A with its creators John Howe & Reece Millidge.
What was ‘The Mealy Meal Mill Shack’ and what inspired it?
Reece: A big wooden folly with a mill wheel, window box, balcony, bird table, bell tower and crap shack. Most of these features were more cosmetic than functional. I think the inspiration came from the complete freedom to do whatever we wanted as we knew it was to be destroyed. That’s quite a liberating condition.
John: The Shack was just another bonfire for Guy Fawkes November 5th. At least… it started that way.
Who built it? And who burnt it?
John: Many hands were responsible for the eventual result. Supplies of timber was also a big factor, many friends and family members especially Paul Inns who often arranged timber pallet drops from lorries, also my grandparents who allowed the debacle to be completed in their garden! (maybe we should have asked first?).
Reece: John did the bulk of the work. I concentrated on impractical things such as the spinning mill. Paul helped out and the occasional contribution from family. John was in charge of the burning with the aid of anyone who dared to get close. The heat was immense!
Who came to see it?
John: Many people popped over to visit the shack during its construction, even friends and family of friends probably due to the shack being such an unusual talking point and a curiosity. Night of the big ignition was also witnessed by quite a few people in surrounding towns and villages! The heat was immense! Even the nearby trees suffered badly with heat stroke and permanent stunted growth.
Reece: We had some pre-event visits from friends and family to take a tour and the main event was quite a turn out, including the local fire brigade who saw our flaming structure from afar and rushed to investigate. I seem to recall they stopped for a barbecued sausage.
Why did you build it?
Reece: Initially for Guy Fawkes Bonfire night but I don’t think it was particularly planned out, and our reasons probably rapidly drifted into self indulgence. Basically, I think we just got very carried away.
John: I really cant remember when the first nail was struck, but I do remember it being a labour of love that was inspired by every other bonfire instigated for fun and enjoyment in previous years. Each consecutive build had to be better than the last of course! The main problem with the construction process was procurement of the right wood for what we needed, and to some extent it guided the actual finished style of the Shack.
Why did you burn it? Did you regret it?
Reece: It served no purpose and although we may have flirted with keeping what we affectionately became attached to, it felt destined for our favourite traditional annual event. It was too exciting for regrets.
John: It was built to burn! That’s the clue. I think back now at how great that moment was with all the flames ripping though that structure, seems such a graceful thought now. BUT!.. had we not burnt the Shack, it would probably be just a pile of rotting timber and a forgotten project by now.
Were there any health & safety concerns at the event?
Reece: Ahem… John?
John: Haha! I love this question, I can honestly say “Yup!”. Lets face it, here we have a thing made out of old rotting dry timber almost nine meters high, with a foundation of a decade of ash with no added support of any kind! And that’s before you consider the gravity defining design. Also, there were conifer trees set about three meters from the rear of the Shack. Conifer trees have a habit of catching fire and staying alight due to the copious amounts of sap they contain. Another concern was that we really didn’t know which way the fire would collapse! Lucky for the spectators they survived for another year.
Reece: Don’t try this at home kids.
What came from doing the project?
John: Well apart from the marvellous sepia toned memories, I suppose we learnt how to thoroughly de-nail timber.
Reece: Three of us camped in it the night before it burned. Just so we could justify having installed curtains in one of the windows. That night we got drunk and recorded several cacophonies in the main room with guitars, bongos and biscuits. Some of this made it into an unpublished concept album by the name of Buit To Burn. One track was recorded live in the farm next door to the property around this time with all the animals. We also made shoe string budget short films under the name of Shack Films in honour, some of which are featured here.
What were your fondest memories from The Shack?
John: One early evening Reece had been dedicating his time to building the mill wheel, (a good few days work off and on). Everything had to be just right! Reece was inside the shack and ready to give it a nice big trial spin, My Granddad had just popped up to see if we wanted a cup of tea, and so was also lucky enough to witness this groundbreaking event that was to take place! We waited patiently for Reece to add any last tweaks before spinning the wheel at breakneck speed! Granddad and I watched on in awe.
But suddenly, BANG, CRASH!. . . . . . . SILENCE. The Mill wheel had Exploded on its axis in mid rotation, aghast! Then more silence, I may have sniggered for a short moment before calling on Reece. He didn’t reply (I think he was in shock). It was too much for my Granddad, he waddled off nonplused to make his tea . Reece was fine, and soon had the wheel rebuilt to NASA specification.
Another good memory was the night before the burning, Reece, Paul and myself decided to camp in the shack itself. Reece was inspired to make some drunk recordings. It was very cold. The next morning a heavy frost layered everything outside.
Reece: The finishing touches; the over zealous spin of the mill wheel; the tours and watching it burn. Oh and witnessing a large firework misfiring and flying into the crowd and right through the back of a chair, what a night!
Did you or would you do it again?
Reece: We did try, but failed soon after the foundations went in. I think it lost momentum pretty quick because it was built to not burn. All of a sudden, things had to be done properly to ensure longevity and I was totally out of my depth not having any experience in carpentry. I did many sketches/ideas but they must have all been pies in the sky.
John: My life now would probably never allow it, but yes if I had an extra pile of wood and the spare time… and it would have to be bigger!
In retrospect, what did it all mean to you? What are your thoughts on the concept of ‘building to burn’?
John: It gave me great memories, and people always mention the shack in conversation so I feel its not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. I really do believe memories are far less taintable, so being able to provide ways to improve. I really do like the idea of what the shack was. It had absolutely no physical value what so ever, and now doesn’t even exist! But the memory it creates in my mind shines like a gem, and im sure Reece and everyone who encountered it would agree.
Reece: Its one of those projects that was done for the sheer enthusiasm for it. It was a simple concept with a lot of creative freedom to act spontaneously in. Importantly we had a deadline and an event/ celebration to give it a sense of purpose. People talked about it a lot, even the local papers took an interest. I think building something as elaborate and habitable as the shack for the sake of burning it down really did create a strange sense of fascination and futility. Provoking reactions like that always put a smile on our faces.