I’ve been back to Wales so can bring you part two in our ongoing series about a deconsecrated Grade II listed church in Wales being converted to a family home. If you missed the first part of the series, you can get the background about the property here.
I had the pleasure of opening up on a sunny day. Just listen to that bird song!
Since the first blog post, the family have moved to a rental property in west Wales to be nearer to the church. Their temporary home has five very large bedrooms and is also Grade II listed. The children are amazed at the space and are loving have three floors to get lost indoors. Their house in south Wales is almost sold.
The family have eight children with six still living at home. Primary school places have been found for the 6-year-old and 10-year-old, and they started at their new school with just one week off. The 3-year-old has started at the school nursery too. For now, secondary school places are proving more of a challenge, but the family are following up the official process regularly so, hopefully, the two teenagers can soon get settled at a new school as well. And their adorable toddler is at home for a few more years.
It was a major move as this was the first time they had moved home since having children. So when it all felt overwhelming at the start, they headed to the beach as it’s now just 10 minutes away.
There’s a long process even before submitting plans for approval so here’s what’s been happening recently.
Deb and Andy knew the water had been turned off at the church, but everything had led them to believe it could be turned back on by the local water company. When the date came to have the water sorted it was discovered a section of pipework had been removed, and the church is no longer connected to the mains water. There certainly had been mains water reaching the building (there is a kitchen area inside), so at this stage, we don’t know why a section of pipework was removed.
The family are amazing at finding the positives in every situation so while it looks like there may be a hefty cost to reconnect the underground pipes just outside of the graveyard boundary, it could also be the time to get the building connected to the sewers as that wasn’t there before.
At the moment the electricity connection isn’t there, but there’s no reason to expect any problems on this front. An appointment has been made with the local electricity company, and they will be out in a few weeks to switch on the power supply safely.
Currently, the family only visit the church during daylight hours. Electricity will give them longer hours to be inside once the lights are working and the opportunity to use power tools too.
This would seem like a good moment to mention that the family are not super wealthy. They are a normal family who needed a larger home but found the cost of buying a home with enough bedrooms was beyond their budget. This project may seem crazy but that doesn’t mean they have an overflowing bank balance to complete it. They needed to provide a larger family home, and this project should come in at around the same cost as buying a plot of land and building a house which was their other idea. But this will give them a much more unique home.
They will do as much work as possible themselves, and they are grateful for the local community’s support. They are hoping people will help them care for the church building. Many are already suggesting charging for climbing up the tower as it is the highest point in the town.
I can confirm, even with her fear of heights, Deb has now made it to the top of the tower more than once.
There is a 75 ft medieval bell tower and the Conservation Officer, and Ecologist from the local council have given permission for the guano (aka pigeon poop!) to be cleared. It’s many inches thick in places, so this is a huge job, and they need to use decent face masks as no-one wants to breathe that in.
The tower is the highest point in the town, so it was one of the locations that lit a beacon for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
It has been confirmed that there are bats in the main body of the church, but it’s not likely to be permanent roosts. Bats are a protected species so nothing can happen inside that could disrupt these tiny winged mammals. Whether it’s one bat or hundreds, it’s the same expense and official procedures to follow.
Bat surveys have to be done, and I met the surveyor when he came for his first visit. He initially thinks the bats are only using the alter end of the building and may not be nesting inside. He showed me how to check the cobwebs on the ceiling for any missing sections and then to look for tiny holes (he had a powerful torch to help). He also pointed out the spots on the pews that are bat urine drops. He left a bat monitor to check activity between his visits.
Outside, he found evidence of pipistrelle bats nesting in a nearby building, so he was confident they were in the area. These are small, common bats in the UK. They are nocturnal and are more likely to be seen at dusk when they come out for feeding.
As the plan for the family home is essentially a large box (pod) within the church – so not actually affecting the current walls and roof – it does mean they can minimize any disturbance and ensure they can live alongside the bats in harmony. Disturbance is definitely preferable to habitat destruction when applying for planning permission.
The bat surveyor will return two more times to get a clearer understanding of the bats’ movements at different times of the day and during different seasons.
We heard that when the church was still in full use, the 6 pm service at dusk would sometimes have bats flying around inside. We also heard from local residents that a peregrine falcon has been using the top of the tower (it is the highest point in the area).
Is there ever a church that doesn’t need a new roof? Thankfully ‘Holly House’ doesn’t need a completely new roof but it does need some patch repairs, so roofer quotes are being obtained at the moment. This will take up a large amount of the budget but securing and ensuring the building is watertight is, obviously, vital.
The plan is to get the roof sorted before the winter, so leaks do not get any worse. The roof work cannot start until the bat surveys are completed. As the bat surveys are likely to take three months that takes us to September before the roof can be dealt with.
The family has had the OK to lower the two bells from the tower. They want to do this for general safety – it doesn’t feel good building living space underneath them! – and also to be able to create three floors (ground, first and second floor) in the tower for different rooms.
It’s a specialist job, but an initial survey and quote has been booked and a company is traveling to Wales from Dorset in a few weeks to explain the costs of what’s involved.
I’ve also had confirmation that the date I saw on the large bell (1585) does refer to when it was made and not a commemoration date. So the bell is over 400 years old!
The Conservation Officer has also given initial approval (pending submitting listed building consent) to start on the removal of the pews (there are three rows). While I was visiting in April, we had a look at how the pews are fitted.
They are clearly very heavy but to ensure they stayed in place; dovetail joints were used on the ends to hold them in the floor. Very few nails were used so even though these were a mass produced item, there was real craftsmanship involved.
We tried an experimental removal on the front pew in the middle so we could learn more. A car jack helped but in the end we found the pew split so we saved all of the pieces and it’s rather like a flat pack version now.
As the dovetail joints would need to be removed anyway, Andy will look at using a circular saw to see if that would help preserve the pews more. They are also going to contact some architectural salvage companies as they do not need to keep all of the pews so many can be sold on. Hopefully, these companies also do removal too.
We stacked up the prayer cushions to one side and piled up the kneelers. The prayer cushions can hopefully be reused in the family home. The kneelers could be sold off as the wood would be excellent for flooring.
And while all of this grown-up stuff is happening, the kids have the best indoor playground. They have a box of toy cars kept at the church, so they dash to play with them when the adults are talking to specialists and visitors.
They also enjoy riding their scooters and bikes indoors along the aisles too. The wheelbarrow has also caused a lot of hilarity (and a few arguments) with races and turn-taking.
It’s still a messy playground, but the kids make their own fun and are enjoying having the church as their own. A class from their new primary school may be coming on a school visit to the church soon to help with their historic buildings topic.
Change of Layout
The family home within the church is being referred to as the ‘pod’ as it’s a timber frame building within the existing building to minimize disturbance of the heritage structure. The pod will be made up of two sections: the main pod which will be the living quarters and a second section in the tower will house the sanitary facilities. The ground floor of the tower will have a shower room with two showers and three sinks to make mornings easier.
The family has decided to increase the room sizes so have reduced the number of bedrooms from 7 to 6. This is fine as the children always end up sharing their space anyway. And the master bedroom will have a walk-in wardrobe – a clever way of adding some sound-proofing between rooms!
A biomass boiler is the plan to heat the new home. It will use sustainably sourced wood pellets rather than gas or oil.
Prior to a formal planning and building control application, initial design plans have been shared with all interested parties for their comments and advice. Soon the planning application with a design and access statement, ecology report and a heritage report will be officially submitted to gain listed building consent concurrently with the planning application.
It may not surprise you to hear a TV company have approached the family about the project. Researchers from a Channel 4 production company who work with George Clarke, architect and TV presenter, have been in touch and the possibility of being featured is being considered.
Wherever I go, I look for connections to London, and the church has some memorials that were made in London.
Deb had told me about a lovely local lady who knows the church well, so I was delighted to meet her on this visit. Brenda has been researching the church and all buried in the graveyard for many years. She was a member of the congregation right up to the closure in 2012.
She kindly walked around the church with me to point out things of note. She also pointed out what was missing as the Church of Wales made the decision to move a lot of items to another nearby church.
She explained that there was a boys grammar school in the tower. Above the tower doorway, there’s a stone rampant lion, and that is still the symbol of the local grammar school. We also saw another stone carving further up the tower. This is of the crucifixion and it’s believed to come from the local 13th century Augustine priory after the English Reformation.
Removing the ivy growing on the tower is an important job for the summer months. A lot has been cut back, but there are areas where damp within the building is giving the plant enough moisture to keep growing (there is a tree growing in a damp patch at the top of the tower too!)
We had to come back inside for a better look at the tower’s stained glass window. Above the main window, there are four unusual stained glass windows that represent the crucifixion.
And as we walked down the aisle, she told me there are 50 bodies buried under the tiles with a further vault under the pulpit.
The church has many memorials on the walls, and I learned that the more important people got theirs put up nearer to the altar. A local young man who died while away on a ship has his memorial above the door in the tower to the stairs. And there’s a plaque for a man involved in the slave trade too.
Behind this beautiful statue, there is a small window which was for lepers to be able to hear the sermon.
The large memorial from the 1700s that is next to the organ and very close to the altar has a connection to the royal family (although that’s not mentioned). I heard the memorial is for someone who married a king. But when the royal family requested the register of weddings, it was returned with one certificate missing. I don’t know this area of history so, please do comment if you’ve heard about this before. (Update: Lucy Walter is who this is referring to.)
And right by the altar, there’s a memorial for a one-year-old boy who died in a house fire while his parents were away (he was being cared for by his nanny).
There are 560 graves in the graveyard with over 4,000 bodies (as burials were stacked). There’s one near the graveyard entrance for a family who lost eight children, possibly to typhoid.
It was Brenda who arranged for a memorial to be added to the graveyard to mark the final church service (held on 19 August 2012). She also added a memorial to mark those buried in the graveyard from the workhouse who have no gravestones.
The church could seat 600 people, and Brenda remembered the days when you had to arrive early to get a seat. But by the time of the closure, there were only 45 in the congregation. They wanted the church to remain open, but they could not convince the Church of Wales. The nearest church is available to them, but Brenda explained she can have her faith wherever she is, so she hasn’t attended services there (although she did tell me the organ concerts are very good).
I left Wales on a gloriously sunny day letting us know how wonderful it will be to be here this summer. While things may seem slow at this stage, everything that needs to be done is happening. Every day they’re there they meet another person with connections to the church either as the place they were Christened, where they got married or where family members are buried. Deb and Andy know they have a building that is important to the local community and always invite people inside.
They have the lease on the graveyard so are getting advice in where the adder nests are (snakes!) and the best way to cut the grass. I wonder if the teenagers will get that gardening job.