Although she’s in her 80s, Mollie Parsons found herself roped into project managing the refurbishment of a Cornish village hall, complete with the full horrors of dealing with funders, bureaucrats and builders.
Mollie Parsons shows visitors around her village’s refurbished hall and its new kitchen extension with pride in a job well done. She points out the newly painted wooden beams and the extension’s concrete external finish – perhaps not as pretty as local Cornish stone, she concedes, but economical and space-saving. “The builder’s done ever such a good job,” she says loyally.

But it is not only the builder who has lavished care and attention on Jacobstow Parish Hall, near Bude. Parsons has rounded off a 42-year career as clerk of the parish council with the role of official project manager of the village’s own lottery-funded millennium project. It was Parsons who drove to the site to make daily inspection visits, helped make design decisions on the ceiling and finishes and ran the bulky files of correspondence that come with every construction project.

Eighteen months and £27 368 later, the 81-year-old grandmother is looking forward to celebrating the hall’s grand opening in November. But although Parsons says she enjoyed her role, it is clear she is a reluctant recruit to the ranks of project managers. “I said to begin with, ‘I’m not doing it’,” she recalls. “I should have given it up but having taken it on, I couldn’t really stop mid-stream.”

Judging by her careful minutes of parish council meetings, the venture took on an unstoppable momentum. The initial suggestion from a fellow councillor last March led to a round of grant applications and parish fundraising, followed by haggles over VAT, Building Regulations and planning permission. Fortunately, the project had an £11 000 award and technical back-up from the Millennium Commission, which has channelled funds into hundreds of similar projects across the country.

All the paperwork meant Parsons had to turn the second bedroom of her compact bungalow into an office, where she kept up a flow of correspondence in her old-fashioned looped handwriting. Every incoming piece of mail is filed, every outgoing letter or telephone call is logged. Parsons says she found the daily arrival of the post demanding. “Everyone on the parish council offered to help. But if you’ve got something in the post, you’re the one that’s got to reply to it,” she says.

There are letters from the builder, electrical contractor and technical adviser, all speaking the familiar language of budget revisions, deadline extensions and retention money. Guidance from the Millennium Commission on settling invoices and drawing down grant funds – designed to simplify a standard leaflet that Parsons admits she did not understand – consists of three complex flow charts.

I should have given it up but having taken it on, I couldn’t really stop mid-stream

Pride of place in Parsons’ file belongs to “forms one to five” – the forms she used to detail the project’s expenditure, income and variations. “I finally got forms one [outgoings] and two [income] to tally in June,” she says proudly, “even if they have gone astray since then.” That was when the builder uncovered defects in the existing lintels, ceiling panels and wiring, leading to an £800 overrun.

Despite this hitch, Parsons has a high regard for her architect, Richard Wellby, and local builder, Terry Sargent. However, she reveals that Sargent was perhaps not so dedicated to his trade as others in the industry. “He’s also an undertaker,” she says matter-of-factly. “We kept saying, ‘I hope nobody dies’ while he was working on the extension.”

Parsons describes her management style as “working with people, not against them”, taking care “not to make any decisions on my own” without consulting her fellow parish councillors. She may espouse the latest conciliatory management technique, but it is clear that she is as sharp as any old-school project manager, with a keen understanding of the ways of the construction industry, bureaucrats and funding bodies.

Her well-honed commercial instincts are also demonstrated by her recent purchase of a vital component of the refurbishment, a new cooker. Shopping trips to Bude and Launceston to collect the three quotes required by the Millennium Commission uncovered a special £40 reduction. But Parsons isn’t impressed by sales promotions: “I don’t know if you save anything. They just put it on to begin with.”

The refurbishment, complete with bargain cooker, smartly painted ceiling, utilitarian concrete exterior and smart magnolia interior, should provide a new lease of life for Jacobstow Parish Hall. The original building bears a plaque with the date 1868, although Parsons believes the building is older. But thanks to lottery funding and a remarkable project manager, the hall should be going strong for a long time to come. “I don’t see they’ll need to do anything else to it,” says Parsons with satisfaction.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? My son Gilbert and daughter-in-law Jackie live in Surrey. I have three granddaughters: Victoria, 15; Charlotte, 12; and Elizabeth, 9. What do you do when you are not busy with the project? I play the organ at the church. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I’m self-taught – there was no money for music lessons when I was young. Do you watch soap operas about village life? I like Ballykissangel and Emmerdale, because they’re a bit about farming. And I like listening to Radio Cornwall. Where were you for the eclipse? I stood out in my back garden. There was no cloud here at all. It was quite impressive but a bit creepy. Will you be going to visit the Millennium Dome in London? I don’t know. I might think about it.