Care village that could banish cries of “don’t put me in a home”

The market square with shops, a pub, coffee shop and bistro.

The Chocolate Works care village in York has revived a derelict Art Deco building while enhancing quality of life with a pub, cinema and thoughtful design. Sharon Dale reports

Growing up in a retirement home gave Graeme Lee a remarkable perspective on elder care and he’s used it to great effect.

The Chocolate Works Care Village in York

In 1967 his parents turned a large house in Garforth into the first care home for the elderly in Leeds. They and their children lived alongside the residents.

“I’d watch TV with the old ladies in the lounge and chat to them. At the weekend I’d make them breakfast so my mum he could have a lie-in,” he says. “Living with older people gave me a natural empathy with them and made me very aware of their needs and of how vulnerable they are.”

Graeme, 52, a former senior manager with Marks & Spencer, took over the running of the home in 1994 when his mother passed away. He has since grown it into Springfield Healthcare Group, one of the most pioneering companies in the retirement property sector.

It has three care homes in Leeds and is also a domiciliary care provider. Its latest project and Graeme’s pride and joy is the recently completed Chocolate Works care village in York.

The Art Deco-style cinema at the care village

The village is all under the roof of the former Terry’s chocolate factory head office, which lay derelict for 10 years before Springfield bought it.

The £10m conversion included extensive restoration of damaged Art Deco features, including the magnificent stained glass cupola, sweeping staircase and internal atrium.

The grade II listed property is now in the running for a Royal Institute of British Architects award thanks to the facilities and the design, which are aimed at maximising the well-being of those who live there.

The feelgood factor starts in the grand entrance, which looks and smells like a five-star hotel. There’s no hint of mustiness or disinfectant.

The grand entrance to the Chocolate Works, which was once the HQ of the Terry's chocolate factory in York. Springfield Healthcare has restored the original features.

In the centre of the building beneath the restored glazed atrium, there’s a communal area that is as far away from the traditional shared lounge as it’s possible to get. It’s a replica of a traditional market square with its own shops, salon, gym, coffee shop, bistro and a licensed pub, The Duke.

The directors of Terry’s made the atrium so they could look down through the glass to see what the office workers were doing but it now provides light and views for residents.

Maximising the amount light was top of Graeme’s “must-have” list as studies show that it slows cognitive deterioration and alleviates depression.

Orientation was another vital consideration. “In a lot of care facilities, the corridors all look the same and that’s very confusing, especially for people who have dementia,” says Graeme. “Here they come out of their room and look into the market square and that helps them to orientate. It also means they can see life going on. There’s something to look at.”

Graeme Lee with Margaret, one of the residents at the Chocolate Works

In the centre of the square is an enormous, fake oak tree. It cost a profit-munching £30,000 but Graeme believes it is worth every penny.

“It’s the tree of life and it symbolises the ageing process in a positive way because trees get better as they get older,” he says. “A lot of effort went into the square because I wanted it to feel real rather than a pastiche. The idea is that it facilitates great experiences within a care environment. You can have a coffee and go ‘out’ to the pub.” There’s also a cinema on the ground floor.

The decor is inspired by the building’s Art Deco architecture and the en-suite bedrooms average 24 square metres, double the minimum standard. There are also self-contained studio flats.

To make the village commercially viable, an extra floor and a rooftop terrace was added to the 1920s building, so it can accommodate 102 people.

Living here comes at a price, of course. Rooms start at £875 a week and the state will only fund an average of £550 a week, though Springfield is in talks with York City Council about a contract that would involve setting some rooms aside for state-funded residents.

His company continues to expand and his ambition is to rid society of the phrase “don’t put me in a home”.

One of the studio apartments at the Chocolate Works care village

“We are breaking new ground in our approach as to how care should be delivered and you can see that at Chocolate Works. I hope it is copied because then it raises the bar and I’ll feel I’ve succeeded in some way.”

*The Chocolate Works Care Village,

*Graeme Lee’s Springfield Healthcare Group is forging ahead with expansion helped by the government’s Business Growth Fund. This bucks the trend in an industry beset by care home closures caused by insufficient council funding and dated facilities in old building unfit for purpose.

It is building a care home in Ilkley that will open this summer and has two sites in Harrogate, the historic RAOB club off Skipton Road and land on Harcourt Road. It also plans to build in Beverley.

Its care homes are all in the heart of the community as Graeme shuns the idea of retirement homes and villages “in the middle of nowhere”.

The pub is a popular venue for residents and guests.

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