Former Leeds methodist church born again as arts space

The building opened in early October but has already has a packed calendar of events from poetry to rock bands.
The building opened in early October but has already has a packed calendar of events from poetry to rock bands.
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A former methodist church left to ruin has been given a new lease of life as a community arts centre. Neil Hudson and ryan baulk found out why it’s a godsend for east Leeds.

Head out of the city toward York but turn off before you hit the outer ring road and you’ll be in the vicinity of Chapel FM, a former Methodist chapel which had been left to the tide of time.

Although rebuilt in 1821, some of the walls date back to 1751, which is when the original Wesleyan chapel was erected - the renowned preacher John Wesley visited the building in 1761.

But it had been empty and unused for several years before it was given a new lease of life.

It was taken on, thanks to a generous 99-year-lease from the Methodists, by the Heads Together charity, which aims to improve communities through arts-based projects..

That was in 2008, when the country was in the very trough of recession, and it gave the charity a mountain to climb because it meant they had to raise nigh on a million pounds to not only rescue the building but then create the facility they wanted.

But let’s just clear one thing up - despite its name, Chapel FM is not a radio station (although, confusingly, it does house one - that’s called East Leeds FM, one of two FM stations run by Heads Together, the other being Two Valleys Radio, based in Huddersfield.

Chapel FM is the name of the building and it is intended to be a space for all, from young people to graduates and even those in work who want to try gain new qualifications or train for a career.

It means to help anyone who needs help in setting up some kind of arts-based project or is seeking training.

Development director Linda Strudwick said: “The Methodists approached us at a community meeting and told us about the chapel. They’d had several people look at it but none of them thought it was right for them but when we went to see it, we saw the potential straight away.

“We started looking for funding to raise £900,000 and we approached the Jimi Heselden’s trust - it was around that time he had his accident [and later died] but after a period of time the trustees made it clear they wanted to continue supporting local projects and so we were fortunate to be awarded £100,000.

“That made all the difference for us because it allowed us to go for other pots of money.”

The story of Chapel FM dates back to 2003 when the project was started as a way of engaging students at John Smeaton High School.

It moved from there into a stationary cupboard at the newly built Tesco in Seacroft the following year - one story being it was one of the hottest summers on record and they were forced to use ice from the fish counter to keep their air-con unit going, which meant everything and everyone ended up smelling of fish.

Still, it was a stepping stone to greater things. By the time they were offered use of the Methodist chapel, they were operating from a rental office on Ramshead Hill. The renovation of the former Methodist chapel represented a turning point for the organisation.

The finished product, opened in October, is nothing short of remarkable.

The old church has been transformed into a two-tier state-of-the art theatre-cum-multimedia production centre, with a fully functioning radio studio and facilities to stage plays, live bands and podcasts.

On the first floor, where before rows of pews peered down at the pulpit, there’s a new floor with a 70-seater theatre-in-the-round for performances, behind which looms the fully functioning organ, which has been salvaged and restored.

As if that wasn’t enough, with the click of a button, electronic blinds slowly sink to cover the windows - which reminds one of a Bond villain’s lair - and a huge movie screen scrolls from the ceiling to create a movie theatre like no other.

East Leeds residents have been deeply involved throughout the restoration process, as evident in the 140 ‘audio signatures’ of ELFM participants and which have been etched into the newly designed stained glass windows by West Yorkshire-based glass artist Zoé Eady.

It’s the kind of facility you might expect to find in the city centre but this is on the outskirts in the middle of suburbia and a short leap from the outer ring road, a point Linda is keen to pick up on.

“It’s not the sort of thing you would expect to find outside the city centre, so in terms of offering a space where young people can come and learn, it’s fantastic.

“We have about sixty young people come to us every week and we work with all schools in the area. We are able to run various accredited courses. In addition to that, our location means the surrounding communities have access to a whole range of arts, music and drama.”

A quick look at their packed calendar - www.elfm.co.uk - proves they’re already having an impact on the area, offering all kinds of performers, from poets and rapperrs to bands, festivals and awards nights.

On Friday last The Carnabells, who have headlined Leeds and Reading festivals and Glastonbury, returned to their roots to play at Chapel FM.

Heads Together was the organisation which helped them find their feet and gave them support in terms of being able to work with band managers and music mentors.

The level of support even extended to guidance on negotiating recording contracts.

Adrian Sinclair, creative director, Heads Together Productions, said: “We’ve listened hard to residents and our volunteers and taken on board their ideas and suggestions. As a result we have a broad and adventurous programme of performances, broadcasts, films, training and events to support local groups of all ages. Plus we’re enticing artists from across Yorkshire and beyond to this unique venue. There are next generation courses for teenagers, a new ‘Have a Go’ team for aspiring broadcasters of any age and ‘Live at the Chapel’ every Friday night.

The Carnabells lead singer and guitarist, Luke Thompson, who started volunteering with ELFM while still at school said: “We’ve had fantastic support from the ELFM team over the last three years – from making music videos, to putting on gigs, building a fan base and looking after them and keeping them engaged. “The work we’ve done with ELFM played a huge part in us playing Glastonbury and Leeds/Reading Festivals this summer.

“So, it’s absolutely brilliant to see their dream new building come to life. Chapel FM has such amazing facilities and offers so many different artists, from storytellers, poets, musicians and budding presenters of all ages, the chance to develop their skills in a really friendly and supportive atmosphere.”

Linda added: “We’ve had everything from organ recitals to hip hop and poetry. As part of the Leeds Film Festival (Nov 5-20), we are showing four films, including Fighting down in Bethlehem, which is based in East End Park. Whatever we do here, we have the ability to record it and either put it out on the radio or stream it live on the internet.

“When we started this project, the country was in recession and everyone said we must be mad but ironically, there was never a better time to start it. It’s about offering young people hope and giving them aspirations. We’ve always said if you can break that cycle and get through to young people, they’ve all got talent but sometimes lack aspiration. We want them to aim high.”

CHAPEL FM FACTFILE

From December 7-14, ELFM has a broadcast licence, which will end with a 24-hour ‘all local, all live’ music-athon.

The next Find Your Frequency Course starts with a Taster Day on Tuesday November 18.

Chapel FM is housed in the Old Seacroft Chapel, York Road, Leeds, LS14 6AE

Events planned with Leeds Film Festival (this week) and Opera North

See their website -www.elfm.co.uk - for further details.

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