In the face of our throwaway society, a new movement is rapidly gaining momentum: repairing, repurposing and upcycling, Julie Lucas discovers one of Hertfordshire’s thriving repair cafes

When I was young, if the television didn’t work my father would bash the top of it and, nine times out of ten, the fuzzy picture would come back to life. Broken vacuum cleaners would be taken apart and reassembled, revealing the odd sock and shattered pottery would be painstakingly glued back together. While I’m not advocating the extreme measures that my father took with the television, there’s a growing movement for repairing, upcycling and giving items a new lease of life.

BBC One’s The Repair Shop is testament to this. What began as an afternoon filler on BBC Two has acquired a legion of viewers – 7 million of them for some episodes. In October 2022, King Charles III (then still the Prince of Wales) even starred in an episode, bringing along treasured items of his own for repair.

Chris Lee, 67, founder of Royston Repair Cafe is a fan of the popular series, although he admits he would like to see less weeping on the show. 'I applaud The Repair Shop for bringing the concept of repair into our front rooms,' he says, 'albeit for emotional, rather than environmental reasons.'

Chris co-founded the Royston Repair Cafe in February 2014, three years before The Repair Shop was first broadcast. The cafe, which holds repair sessions quarterly, has just held its 30th community event. 'When we started, we were the first in Hertfordshire and there were only 12 repair cafes across the whole country [there are now nearly 300]. There are now six repair cafes around the county, with four more in development.'

The original idea for repair cafes was the brainchild of Martine Postma from the Netherlands, who, frustrated with the world’s increasing throwaway culture, wanted to make her local area more sustainable. She organised the repair café in 2009 in Amsterdam and it wasn’t long before the idea spread. There are currently 2,631 across the world, including those in Réunion Island, South Korea and India.

Great British Life: Chris (bottom left) with members of Royston Repair Cafe. Photo: Chris LeeChris (bottom left) with members of Royston Repair Cafe. Photo: Chris Lee

Royston's rule of thumb is, 'if you can carry it, you can bring it in to be repaired'. So it couldn’t be a fridge – please don’t think of carrying one of those in on your back. But it could be something like a lawnmower, bike, computer, sewing machine, an item of clothing or a clock. Chris explains that electrical items are their 'bread and butter'. 'Generally speaking, it’s household items we see, but really there isn’t any limit on what we will look at,' he says.

On average 30 items are brought in each session. While not all can be repaired, Chris estimates that around 550 items have been given a new lease of life at Royston. 'I describe us as a clinic not a hospital. We are enthusiastic amateurs, not full-time professionals; we don’t want to put professional repairers out of business. Many repairers have just acquired knowledge as they’ve grown up. It’s usually people like retired engineers, people who have that enquiring brain, who think through problems. But we do make sure that the people doing the repairs know what they're doing.

'There's a lot of collaboration between repairers, a lot of camaraderie and a lot of tea drinking,' laughs Chris. 'It's really rewarding for them, because they've kept all this stuff out of landfill.'

Services are free, but donations are invited to help with the cost of renting a hall and insurance. And, unlike the professionals on The Repair Shop who spend hours on items, repairers have only around 30 to 45 minutes to work on items.

'Where possible, owners will learn how to mend their broken items themselves,' explains Chris. 'The good thing about repair cafes is that someone goes away knowing more about their problem and their item than they did when they arrived with it. The owner sits while the repairer explains what they’re doing, so that, hopefully, the next time round that owner might do their own troubleshooting or help someone else. It’s about exchanging ideas - and sometimes what’s obvious to one person is not obvious to another.'

Great British Life: Repairer John Scott at Royston Repair Cafe (Chris Lee)Repairer John Scott at Royston Repair Cafe (Chris Lee)

All it took to mend a flat screen television, for instance, was a £2 part from Ebay. 'The owner just needed the instructions, information on what part they needed to buy and where they needed to put it. I subsequently got an email from the owner saying that the TV now works!'

One of the first items Chris repaired was a coffee grinder. A bit of peanut was stuck in its back, he discovered, and after getting a pen and poking it out, the grinder worked perfectly. 'Often there are very simple solutions to problems, and cleaning something is halfway to solving that problem,' he says.

Although volunteers don’t have to have a specialism the Royston team includes experts in clock repairs, an expert bike repairer and 'a brilliant seamstress who can fix anything'.

'Broken time pieces are a relatively new trend. We have a horologist in our team of volunteers who went the extra mile to fix a 400-day anniversary clock, bringing it to life after more than 20 years. Another of our repairers went beyond the call of duty to fix a moving musical Christmas ornament that had entertained three generations.

Great British Life: Clothes can be repaired too. Seamstress Helen Wilkes works her magic. Photo: Chris LeeClothes can be repaired too. Seamstress Helen Wilkes works her magic. Photo: Chris Lee

'One repair stands out in my memory and sums up perfectly what the repair cafe concept is all about. Before setting up the Royston Repair Cafe, I arranged a visit to one in London and the manager suggested I just 'get stuck in', buddying me up with the owner of a broken piano stool. This was lucky because, if I have a repair specialism, it’s furniture. I soon learnt that the stool had been broken by the lady’s16-year-old-son. After a bit of instruction, she was able to dismantle the stool, glue and clamp the leg, and reconnect it. The proud smile on her face made it all worthwhile.'

At a time when both the cost of living and climate change are going in the wrong direction, Chris is understandably proud that Royston’s Repair Café is making a difference. 'We’re playing a small part in changing our throwaway society.'

For dates of repair events go to