Devon’s poshest town where nothing gets thrown away

Chagford has a reputation – it’s the posh village where TV celebs like Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmonson and Simon Reeve live. But it is now becoming better known as the town where almost NOTHING gets thrown away.

It’s all down to Proper Job, a recycle and reuse centre which has grown and grown over the last 25 years into an incredible Aladdin’s Cave of treasures.

It all started with a few allotment holders who wanted to make compost by collecting garden green waste to stop it going into landfill.

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That was back in 1993 and now Proper Job has evolved into something almost unique, employing 10 highly-motivated, dedicated, hard working local people. Some of them have been on the Proper Job journey from day one.

Not only is it an inspirational zero waste model – but it’s also the place for bargain hunters (who doesn’t love a bargain) to have a proper old root through rich people’s cast-offs. Looking for a polo mallet? Proper Job’s the place to go.

One of the reasons it works so well is that the market town of Chagford and its surrounding moorland villages has long been a haven for the well-to-do. It’s not just the celebs who love this tucked away corner of Devon – there’s plenty of old money and landed gentry in the area too.

That means the staff at Proper Job are constantly delighted by the quality of some of their donations. The clothes are more likely to be designer than Primark.

It takes three year' work to turn old green garden cuttings into this compost
It takes three year’ work to turn old green garden waste into crumbly black compost
(Image: Frankie Mills)

As she sorts through today’s donations, volunteer Tish says expensive women’s labels regularly include Oska, White Company, Mint Velvet, Hobbs and Ralph Lauren. Tish’s job is to make sure they make the maximum profit out of the clothes, which are the biggest earner for the charity.

Recently a local woman brought along two of her holidaying friends to show off the delights of Proper Job. And one of them came running out of the clothing shop clutching a dress on a hanger, laughing with delight: “This cost me £8 – and you just paid £80 for the same dress!”

Miriam is one of the staff at Uptown in Chagford town square
Miriam is one of the staff at Uptown in Chagford town square

It’s not all about the expensive clothes. The main aim is to conserve the planet’s resources. There’s a new-in rail and a £1 rail. Tish tries everything to stop anything ending up in landfill.

There are two halves to Proper Job – the Uptown shop and the downtown yard.

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Proper Job's Uptown shop in Chagford
Proper Job’s Uptown shop in Chagford

In the centre of Chagford near the octagonal market house is Uptown, where you are likely to find designer clothes, antique garden tools and beautiful bone china. Basically all the best and most expensive items are sorted and sold in the shop.

But the beating heart of Proper Job is the courtyard. You will find it after the turn off from the A382 Moretonhampstead road – be careful not to drive past this hidden treasure trove, halfway up the lane on your left.

It feels like stepping back in time to a place where everything was handmade and original and higgledy piggledy (in a good way).

Around the charming courtyard is a selection of eco-buildings selling everything from compost to paint, garden tools to building materials, bathtubs to children’s games.

Donation bins for mobile phones, pens, bubble wrap and LDPE (Low-density polyethylene)
(Image: Frankie Mills)

And there are bins for recycling the kind of stuff that can’t be reused: old mobile phones, pens, bubble wrap and hard plastic.

There are recycled plant tubs overflowing with home-grown herbs and flowers displayed prettily beside handmade benches to sit and enjoy the sunshine.

One of Proper Jobs other roles is providing a meeting place for people in the community who are lonely or socially excluded. They just pop in to hang out with others.

The furniture store in the two-storey straw bale building
The furniture store in the two-storey straw bale building
(Image: Frankie Mills)

At one end is one of the country’s tallest straw bale barns. It looks like something out of the Wild West.

The two-storey building was originally designed to be big enough to drive a tractor through the middle. The ingenious circular roof made of a spiralling telegraph poles is held up by downward pressure.

The timber-framed office building has a turf roof, ’thermafleece’ sheeps-wool insulation, and a dry composting toilet (be warned – if you want to use the facilities they are not open to the public and you will have to drive Uptown).

You can tell this is Chagford when you notice that along with the usual selection of old tennis rackets are wooden croquet mallets, a big collection of ski equipment and what looks like a polo mallet.

Sports equipment includes skis and croquet mallets
Sports equipment includes skis and croquet mallets

Also in the vibrant yard where people love a rummage is the toy shop where the shelves groan with games and puzzles.

To make sure the puzzles have no annoying missing pieces, Proper Job has its own puzzle maker who assembles every one to make sure they are complete before they go on sale.

Browsing in the book store
Browsing in the book store
(Image: Frankie Mills)

The book shop is a vision of order – and the selection would put many town libraries to shame with its rows and rows of impeccably well organised second-hand books priced from 95p for a paperback to £4 for a glossy, coffee table tome.

Craig, who looks after the compost and books and helped built the straw bale barn, admits that there was a stage when he became almost obsessive about keeping the book shop spotless.

Now he’s just happy to see people coming out with a huge stack of books. They sell up to 10,000 a year and half a ton of books go to World of Books for resale or recycling

Andy, site manager of The Proper Job
Andy, site manager of The Proper Job
(Image: Frankie Mills)

I asked yard manager Andy if he could remember any examples of expensive or amazing donations, and his answer surprised me at first.

For him the most special thing about Proper Job is the compost. He said he loves to see people bringing in their old garden waste, and then watch the slow cycle of life as it is turned and moved over three years.

And then at the end of that three years it is bagged into old farm sacks – and the same people come and buy the finished compost back for £5.

“It’s the cycle of life,” Andy said.

Volunteer Issi said: “Unfortunately everything isn’t recyclable or reusable and there will always be something that goes into the rubbish bins – but in Chagford it’s closer than it was by a long, long way.”

Issi also takes old items home and spends hours artistically upcycling things like old coal scuttles and Lloyd Loom furniture, finding the hidden patina of old wood beneath years of paint and varnish.

Local artists and craftspeople contribute their skills, lovingly restoring some of the more valuable items for sale.

20-year-old Issi Man who takes charge of the toy room and tool space
Issi Man, 20, who takes charge of the toy room and tool space
(Image: Frankie Mills)

Sarah, who has stepped out of retirement an an interim CEO, said: “I would love to see Proper Jobs everywhere around the country – people who come in when they are in Devon constantly ask us why they don’t have something like this near them.

“I remember the first time I walked into Uptown, I was questioning whether things were new or not because everything was such beautiful quality.”

BBC travel documentary presenter and writer Simon Reeve lives in Chagford. He said Proper Job is an essential part of the community: “We need places like Proper Job at the absolute heart of the community.

“Proper Job reminds us and shows us the importance of reducing the amount we consume, re-using what we’ve got, and recycling. Its a place that really shows us there can be a place in the future for humans, it is as absolutely fundamental as that.”

Simon Reeve in Cornwall
Simon Reeve lives in Chagford
(Image: BBC)

Proper Job is run as Charitable Incorporated Organisation and is one of the largest employers in Chagford. It also runs courses, fights period poverty and supports asylum seeking families from Syria.

It donates clothing and sleeping bags to the homeless at St Petrocs and funds are currently being raised for a defibrillator on site.

Dartmoor National Park has recently granted planning permission for a £2million, 1,000 sq metre eco building which would house and replace the existing courtyard and house all under one roof.

At the moment the new building is a bit of a long-term pipe dream – and there are those in the community who quietly hope it will never happen.

No new building could ever replace the special atmosphere in the Proper Job yard.

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