Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new ongoing semi-regular series about the conversion of a deconsecrated church in Wales into a family home. This is something a bit new for us, but since shows like Grand Designs and Restoration Home are our favorites, we thought it would be cool to bring something similar to Anglotopia. If you like this article, please consider subscribing to the Anglotopia Print Magazine, as that helps fund new articles series like this. We hope you like this! Please leave any questions in the comments below.
When I told Jonathan, the Anglotopia Publisher, that I had friends buying a deconsecrated church to convert into a family home we knew this would be something to share with you all. We’ve patiently waited for the sale to complete and Deb and Andy are now the proud owners of a church in Wales. This introductory article will give background and history and some insight into the plans that Deb and Andy have for the church.
Deb and Andy have been living in south Wales but their house has become too small for their large family. They have eight children: a lively toddler, a preschooler, two in primary school, two teenagers in secondary school and a couple of grown-ups. The two eldest no longer live at home but there are six children and two adults trying to fit into a small four bedroom house. They’ve raised all of their children in this house so it’s a big upheaval to try something new.
There are not many larger homes in the UK (that aren’t extortionate prices) so late in 2017 the search started for a plot of land to build their dream home. They knew they needed more bedrooms and wanted the children to have the opportunity to spend more time outdoors.
In south Wales, they regularly head out to the local woods or spend the day at a beach. All of the children are used to climbing mountains and have no fear of getting dirty. The family have always embraced the opportunity to enjoy their home country so they wanted to find a location in beautiful Pembrokeshire in west Wales.
While searching online estate agents, Andy spotted the church and the couple started to think about the possibilities.
The Former St Thomas a Becket Church
The former St Thomas a Becket Church is in Haverfordwest, the county town of Pembrokeshire. Haverfordwest may well be one of the most populous towns in the area but that still only means about 13,000 people. (London has a population of nearly 9 million by comparison.)
Haverfordwest has a few famous names associated with the town as Christian Bale (Batman trilogy) was born here in 1974, and Rhys Ifans, who played Hugh Grant’s delusional flatmate in Notting Hill, was born here in 1968. Chelsea Manning lived in Haverfordwest with her mother for her teenage years before returning to the US in 2005 when 17.
The last church service was held at St Thomas a Becket Church on 19 August 2012 and the congregation then joined with the nearby St Mary’s Church. The local residents have watched the empty building and wondered what would become of a church so many grew up with.
The Church of Wales put the church up for sale along with the footpaths leading from the entrance railings to the front of the church, plus a small piece of land surrounding the western section of the building. The remainder of the churchyard – which is a large graveyard! – would be sold subject to a 999-year lease.
The graveyard remains in use and more can be added. (The newest graves are by the front door.) Public access must be given to the graveyard so Deb and Andy are intending to open the gates from dawn to dusk.
There has been a church here since the early 12th century but it has been rebuilt a few times. The bell tower is the oldest part of the building and dates back to the 15th century (rebuilt with 12th-century stones) The main bell has 1585 on it so we’ll find out soon if that’s a manufacture or commemorative date. The rest of the building was rebuilt and added to in the 1800s. You can read more about the history on the British Listed Building website.
The bell needs to come down so the floors of the tower can be used as rooms. I can confirm, Deb and Andy are keeping the amazing stained glass windows and the church organ.
The Buying Process
Deb and Andy discovered the church in March 2018 and went to see it last April. They put in an offer to buy it in early May and, once they could prove they were serious about the purchase, the Church of Wales accepted their offer. Yet it’s taken until February 2019 for the full sale to complete.
Let’s have a look at the house buying process in England and Wales.
Everything starts with the search for the property. We have online estate agents and some estate agent shops too. You register with all to get information about what’s for sale in your target area.
When you want to visit a property you contact the estate agent and they arrange an appointment time to meet you there. While the estate agent does take the photos to advertise the property, they do not have any other access so just show the property when convenient for the seller.
If you feel you’ve found the one you want to buy, you tell the estate agent you want to make an offer. You specify the amount you want to pay and they contact the seller. You don’t often get direct contact with the seller as both parties prefer to use the estate agent to negotiate. In the end, the estate agent receives a percentage of the sale price so they will work for the seller to get the highest price.
Once your offer is accepted, you need to arrange your finances (usually a mortgage) and have all the official checks done on the property and the land.
At this stage, a buyer appoints a conveyancing solicitor to handle the legal work for the property purchase. They submit searches to the local council to check whether there are any local planning issues that might affect the property’s value.
The buyer also appoints a surveyor to assess the property. They do a valuation survey for the lender (mortgage company/bank) to ensure the property is worth the purchase price.
Buyers usually ask the surveyor for a further report on the condition of the property in case any costly work is needed.
The buyer can renegotiate the sale price with the seller if needed. For example, if the survey reveals expensive issues that need resolving before moving in or if the valuation survey shows the property is worth less than the previously agreed price.
At this stage of the buying process, the buyer can still walk away as nothing has been signed. They will be liable for the legal and surveyor costs but they are still not committed to the purchase.
If both sides are ready to go ahead, contracts are signed and this is called the exchange date. At this point, the sale has to proceed and the buyer has to pay a deposit (usually non-refundable).
Both parties agree to a date for completion which is when the balance is paid. Occasionally this can be the same day as the exchange date but it’s usually about 4 weeks later.
Upon completion, and the full balance payment, the buyer pays all their solicitor fees and the seller pays the estate agent fees and their legal costs.
It hasn’t been a totally standard buying process to acquire the church but Deb and Andy were given the keys just a few weeks ago and can now start applying to transform the building.
What Does Grade II Listed Mean?
Heritage buildings that should be preserved are given a listed status. There are three types of listed status for buildings in England and Wales:
- Grade I: buildings of exceptional interest.
- Grade II*: particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
- Grade II: buildings that are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.
The former St Thomas a Beckett Church in Haverfordwest is Grade II listed. It is also in a conservation area which means other buildings nearby have to keep to certain heritage styles too.
It’s been listed for its special historic interest as a town church with a late medieval tower and with good monuments from the 14-15th centuries to the 19th century.
One notable monument is a 13th-century coffin lid bearing testimony to a pilgrim who died almost eight hundred years ago either going to or returning from a pilgrimage to St David’s (Haverfordwest). Two pilgrimages to St David’s being equal to one to Rome.
Deb and Andy are keen to respect the heritage building they now own and have already approached the local community to discuss how important the building is to many residents. They heard stories from families who had been married at the church, Christened their children there and their grandparents are buried in the graveyard.
Local historians have been in touch and would like to help research the building. The team who have maintained the graveyard are willing to offer guidance on where the snakes are (only grass snakes). And the local college is hoping to work with the renovation team so their students can get experience at a heritage building.
Making the Church Into a Home
The first major expense has been for a Laser Survey. This is because there are no detailed drawing plans of the church.
The survey will be sent to their appointed architect who has the basic idea of what the family want to achieve: 2 floors, 7 bedrooms, where they’d like the kitchen, etc. The architect knows about the legality of room sizes, how thick dividing walls need to be, etc. so has to then draw up plans to current building regulations.
The home transformation is not going to affect the external structure of the building as it will be a ‘box’ inside the church.
The local council has a Conservation Officer who has met with the couple at the church a few times and is supportive of their plans. He too wants to see the building looked after. The Conservation Officer will conduct a Historical Survey to confirm what the family is allowed to alter inside the church. The survey will include the historical value of items such as the pews.
As long as the Conservation Officer does the Historical Survey the family can go ahead without CADW involvement (the English Heritage equivalent in Wales).
With this extra information, the architect will finalise plans and they can then be sent to the Conservation Officer as an application for the change of use (to become residential) and planning permission to gain approval on the architect’s plans. This process is proposed to take 6-8 weeks. Notices will be put up near the building to inform the local community and time has to be available for any objections.
So, for now. Deb and Andy own a deconsecrated church but it’s not yet a home. It is a truly beautiful building with a 75 foot medieval bell tower. There can’t be many homes with that! There are pigeons living in the church and for now, they can stay.
Deb and Andy have sold their south Wales home and will be moving to a rental property near the church in the next few weeks. The children will be moving to new schools and Deb and Andy will be starting new jobs. And from their temporary home, they can look out of the window and see their forever home coming to life.
They aren’t building experts and haven’t done anything like this before. But they are willing to research to get things right. Their eternal optimism is infectious and should bring lots of local support. And in the not too distant future their family will have their dream home.
I left them with a housewarming present as every church needs a church mouse.
(Note, the working name has been Holly House, to honour the daughter they lost, but there is a local business with the same name so it will be changed. The council are currently calling the church “Number 7” as it’s a no.7 Church Lane until the final name is chosen.)