Magazine article The Spectator

Religious Conversions

Magazine article The Spectator

Religious Conversions

Article excerpt

With half the kingdom now designated by New Labour as a grey Lego baseboard to press soulless plastic bricks into, there is an ever-growing demand for properties of age and character. Homes made from redundant churches or chapels are blessed with both. One of the prayers that used to be recited in the most ancient of them was 'Domine, dilexi decorum damus tuae': 'I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house.' It could be said by many house-hunters today.

FPD Savills' Cambridge office is selling one of the most striking examples of contemporary religious conversion: 'A magnificent Grade II*-listed former parish church arranged in the traditional chancel and nave configuration, believed to date from the mid-13th and later 14th century. Hall, kitchen/dining room, magnificent vaulted lounge with vaulted chancel arch and stained-glass windows, four bedrooms, each with en-suite facilities.'

I wonder what those mediaeval parishioners would say if they were to sec the nave of their Huntingdonshire church now, after it has been 'fitted with an extensive range of oak wall and base units with under-pelmet lighting, roll-top work surfaces with tiled splash-backs, and an inset six-ring Smeg stainless steel gas hob'. I don't imagine they ever thought that one day crème brulées would be blow-torched where their votive candles once burned. But they have long since gone to their reward, and the church they went to Mass in is up for sale for the best part of half a million pounds. Indeed, at the time of writing, it is under offer.

Rather lighter on gothic detail - rather lighter altogether, in fact - is one of the most beautiful church conversions now on the market. Church House, Sharpstone, is six miles from Bath. It is an award-winning adaptation of an 18th-century chapel and meeting-house in which the saintly John Wesley once preached. The interior space has been airily used, and there is no sense of a home being forced into a space that was really meant for something else. The great high central pulpit has become part of a galleried landing that overlooks a room that is now the dining-hall, lit by tall windows. Outside, the views are delightful. The setting is a tad pinched, perhaps, but then nothing is perfect this side of Heaven, where the virtuous are given houses only slightly better than this for free. If you can't wait (or don't fancy your chances of getting there), Church House will set you back £895,000. Savills of Bath are the selling agents.

Sharpstone is in an area that we can still call the countryside, where redundant churches and chapels tend to be turned into houses. In cities, dead churches tend to be bigger, and get turned into flats. Foxtons' Muswell Hill office is offering a fine three-bed apartment in a Victorian ex-church in Cromwell Avenue, N6, for £599,950. The reception room has a handsome floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window. The same firm's Islington Green office has a two-bed duplex in another redundant 19th-century church in Dartmouth Park Hill, N19, for £100,000 less. No stained-glass in this one, for the flat fills the space where hymns once resonated under the roof, though there are plenty of exposed beams that are hugely impressive seen close-up.

That said, I wouldn't live in any of these places for all the stained glass in Chartres. It would feel wrong. To me, to live in a once-church would be to offer disrespect to the people who built it, prayed in it and were buried beside it. …

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