Meet an Ambassador: Charlie Parkes

I retired from Derbyshire Police in 2000 to a part-time role. In December 2016 I was invited to a Christmas fuddle at the home of Dorothy and Peter Whitaker who are Chief Executives of Valleycids, a local charity providing educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for young people. It is funded by a string of Lighthouse Charity Shops across Derbyshire and owns Charity Farm set up in 1740 to fund a school for the poor children of Swanwick.

Frank Seals had suggested to Dorothy that we should start a Men’s Shed, so on arrival and before I had a glass in my hand I was introduced to the Phil Pierce project manager for the farm with, “Charlie you need to speak to Phil about a Men’s shed.” There’s a moral there somewhere! 

A huge racking system recovered from the warehouse

The farm was a great location but had no real shed we could turn into a workshop. I know that finding premises is the biggest hurdle facing new sheds but Valleycids provided a new shed supplied by Eco Sheds of Ripley on a base provided by  JH Hill a local building company and Mark Broughton – Electrical Contractors wired it up. 

I had excellent early advice from Jo Phillips at the Royal Voluntary Society and visited several sheds in Nottinghamshire and in the Scottish Borders where my sister lives. It was clear we were all doing similar things, with the same philosophy but in varied locations. I realised how fortunate we were with our shed set in 48 acres and access to farm buildings.  

Chair made bt St Andrews Shed

It was a field of dreams – build it and they will come. So we launched in June 2017 with a huge response from the local community, aided by Rotary on the barbeque and Swanwick WI on tea and cakes. Even the sun shone. Chair of the Parish Council did the official opening by cutting a ribbon with a panel saw donated in a batch of tools by a local family, coining one of my favourite media sayings when asked where we get our tools from – “Dead men’s sheds!”

We needed new equipment as well and received a substantial grant from Rotary for a new table saw, planer and dust extractor and filter. It was conditional that the shed is open to men and women but this was already in our constitution. I am often challenged by ladies when I refer to a Men’s shed but I am quick to point out the barring of men from the WI! We also had initial funding from Parish and Local Councils. 

New warehouse racking

We started making lamps, picture and mirror frames from weathered oak fence posts found on the farm. Plus the usual sort of shed items, nest boxes and Tea lights. Being part of a charity shop chain we are often asked to “work our magic” on a hopeless piece of furniture, Or a call from a local saying she has a dresser that is not good enough for the charity shop. We seldom refuse offers of tools and materials as we have had a fantastic amount of machinery donated, especially now that we are well known. I was persuaded to buy a Record morticer but a week later a man turned up with a boot full of Dad’s equipment including a Record morticer. We pass tools on to a youth enterprise unit in the charity or sell it on or give it away. What we cannot use is burnt on the log burner or sent to the scrap yard.

Stefan was an early member who became profoundly deaf as a young man and worked as a wood machinist for many years. His talents and qualifications were soon recognised and is now employed by the charity as shed supervisor. He has brought a professionalism to shed projects. We are also indebted to John The Farmer and his range of big boys’ toys for shifting and lifting.

Ian – one of our obelisk experts

The Parish Council was quick to use our services repairing benches and suppling new planters for the village. Two unusual requests were to repair a croquet mallet and the hymn number board for the Methodist Church. This was followed by a request to build a memorial bench for the church and a local care home. It is a fact of life that there is a good trade in memorial benches in care homes and we were asked to supply several large planters in a new residents’ garden. 

The charity was expanding and took over a large warehouse unit used for storing 4m lengths of plastic pipe. “Could the shedders help out by stripping the racking out and making storage bins for clothing?” It was a remarkable achievement by a load of old codgers to strip the decking, build the bins, reinforce the mezzanine floor, and erect a wooden staircase. The shop was refitted and decorated during which I learned a valuable lesson. One shedder pointed out that he could have refitted a strip light to the ceiling. I did not know he had been a works manager for many years and was qualified. His final words were, “And now I am a nobody.”  He is a valued member of the shed.

animals can be therapeutic

We had a good opening interview with the local media with a sensible pre-recorded piece. Thereafter we had a young female reporter who did a live “fun piece” for the morning show. It was more about her playing with the machinery than making useful social commentary about the benefits of the Shed. A third session was better with the show host doing a pre-recorded piece using his Apple phone fitted with a large microphone. I was used to police media interviews and wanted to get my message across so did my best to brief him. I appreciate the reporter was trying to make it entertaining but I had to stop him in mid-flow as he was on the wrong track. Don’t be frightened by the pressure of the microphone in your face.

One thing I regret about managing the shed is that I seldom make anything! I seem to run around finding bits and keeping shedders supplied. We have several female members renovating oak nests of tables. Other personal projects include refurbishing wooden tool chests and garden furniture. Some shedders come just to be at the shed and do whatever is needed. The farm is an educational unit for young people so there are plenty of projects mending animal houses. One major problem is finding safe tasks for those who have lost their skills to dementia. It is terribly sad to see a once-skilled craftsman no longer able to recognise a lathe let alone use it.  We try to reclaim as much as we can but we make garden trellis and obelisks from new wood to sell. We are now self-funding and have bought new lathes. A lot goes on consumables, blade sharpening, abrasives, fixings etc.

GJs display board

I am often asked what a Shed is all about. My reply is that it is an “old codgers youth club” keeping people young, active and socially connected. The biggest reward of the shed is fellowship or companionship, just being with a friendly group once or twice a week. This is especially beneficial for those recently widowed or otherwise isolated at home or in society. The effect of Covid closures has been particularly noticeable on all the shedders but especially the dementia sufferers who struggle to understand. We opened up in early August by keeping the shed almost closed off. We allow only two in the shed and have a tea garden with as much sanitiser as you can drink and several outside work areas so we can socially distance. Seems to be working OK but overall numbers are down due to health grounds and shielding.

I am often asked what a Shed is all about. My reply is that it is an “old codgers youth club” keeping people young, active and socially connected.

We were recently approached by a large privately owned hardware retailer to have a display board in the store and they have installed collection buckets on the tills for change and buy our trellis. When Rebecca from GJs visited our shed she asked what I did. “Oh he just keeps us all happy.” I said it was like herding cats!

I am the UKMSA ambassador for Derbyshire and fully realise the difficulty of getting new sheds started without considerable funding and suitable premises. There is but a handful of sheds lining the M1 north to south but nothing in the rural areas of Derbyshire. One of my early shed visits was to a farm-based shed and I feel there is great potential for the NFU or Young Farmers to utilise the corner of a barn for a symbiotic relationship doing jobs for the farm in return for their lodgings. Otherwise it is a case of ferreting around dormant buildings, schools, churches, industrial areas and then persuading the owners to release them. It can be excellent publicity for them and resurrect an old building cheaply. Pester all your local councilors who may have their own personal community fund. Pester each parish and local council – you can find a list on the county council website of clerks to councils. Likewise with MPs but you need to contact the MP for each of the areas covered by your shed. 

We hope than next Spring, Covid permitting, to hold a shed open day at the farm and look forward to seeing you there.

 Charlie Parkes



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