The hinterland of a Leeds industrial estate in Holbeck might not be the first place you would expect to find a former freelance set builder and designer but that’s exactly where ‘chippie’ Charlotte Stanley has put down roots.
In a previous life, she worked as a touring set designer-builder-cum-stage manager, working for theatre groups including Mind The Gap and Red Ladder. She’s also done time with West Yorkshire Playhouse and was part of the team that made the mesmerising sets on Northern Ballet’s captivating Casanova.
Born in Gloucestershire, Charlotte studied for a degree in theatre design and technology at Bretton Hall, Wakefield.
“I was a touring technical stage manager,” says the chipper 36-year-old, who dubs herself ‘Charlie the Chippie’ and who can clearly turn her hand to a lot of things. “I would tour around the UK as a TSM, so that meant sorting out the lighting, logistics, the stage set, you have to be an all rounder for that. When I worked with Northern Ballet on Casanova, it was more a case of them instructing me in what they wanted and then me chopping out the columns to go on the stage and so on.”
As if her career wasn’t varied enough, it was whilst touring with Red Ladder she took lodgings in The Chemic Tavern, Woodhouse, which she then went on to run with two friends for four years between 2013 and 2017.
“It can be a bit lonely when you are touring all the time,” she explains. “I moved into the Chemic just as the landlady was giving it up. I’ve always been a ‘people person’ and so me and two friends decided to take it on, which we did for four years, putting on community, arts and music events.”
Since last year, however, she has put her energy into a new Leeds recycling project - Leeds Wood Recycling - whose aim is to divert wood from landfill and get long-term unemployed people back into work.
Based in Holbeck on Croydon St, Leeds - just behind Salford Van Hire and a short way down from Dunelm Mill - it is billed as a ‘community interest company’, a not-for-profit social enterprise which currently works with dozens of people from all ages and backgrounds. Collecting waste wood from local companies – functioning in a similar way to a skip hire company and then, repurposing the used wood by selling it to the public at affordable prices. All aspects of the wood collection and de-nailing processing ‘skills up’ its workers giving them a springboard back into the workplace.
Charlotte explains: “We have been running courses with Leeds Community Foundation to do a series of woodwork classes to help combat isolation and loneliness in Leeds. That’s 12 people over a 12 week course, all of mixed ability but a lot of people have never done anything like this before. The idea is to train them, to give them the skills and confidence to be in a position to gain employment, or volunteer with the company. We are after all an organisation that’s run largely with the support of volunteers.”
From the outside, Leeds Wood Recycling looks like the back of a builder’s yard, with umpteen lengths of mismatched wooden planks, piles of pallets and sawdust on the floor. Step inside and you must walk along an aisle lined with sorted recycled wood, with everything from bags of firewood and kindling to bits of 3 by 2, planks and numerous off-cuts, all at ridiculously low prices.
“All the wood we have in here has been sorted, de-nailed and any rotten bits chopped out, we then re-sell it but typically at 30 per cent less than you would find high street shops. At the same time, what we’re doing is offering an ethical, sustainable waste service to builders, local companies and households and we’re competitive on that too. So, from a company’s point of view, we enable them to work with a project which is benefiting the community, divert waste wood away from landfill and save money in the process, because we aim to be cheaper than hiring a skip. In addition to that, we’re able to give them an annual report, displaying how much wood waste they have diverted from landfill, alongside testimonials showing the peoples lives they have helped to change, helping with the companies corporate responsibility.”
The project, which began as a pilot in Brighton and is part of the National Community Wood Recycling Project, is backed by sponsors the National Lottery, Timberpak Ltd, Key Fund and Leeds Community Foundation. Any wood which is left over is sent to Leeds-based Timberpak to me made into a composite board.
Francesca Bottone, assistant shop manager, who has worked since it began, says the project has a number of benefits for those seeking to get back into work. “Working with wood is very tactile, you can see the results quickly and it is therapeutic in that sense but at the same time, you also have to concentrate on what you’re doing, not just from a safety point of view but also so that the finished product is what you want.”
Leeds Wood Recycling do not just sell recycled bits of wood. Venture toward the back of the unit and you will discover an array of objects which have been made by the volunteers. They range from pub-style benches made entirely from pallet wood to a more elaborate ‘blanket box’ which when stood on its end doubles up as a drinks stand. Another project is a bench which turns into a set of step ladders. There are planters for gardens, candle holders and even iPad holders, a kind of low-tech meets hi-tech for anyone looking to reconnect with nature. The business is open to taking orders.
Charlotte adds: “There’s a real interest now in re-using materials which have already had a life. This project does that and helps people gain new skills at the same time, while offering businesses a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way of getting rid of their unwanted wood.”