Growing numbers feel at home in the church

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 October, 1999, 12:00am

Church attendance may be falling but a growing number of people are calling a church home, with about 75 church buildings being sold off each year in Britain.

Some are put to commercial use - the old Nottingham Central Methodist Mission is now a nightclub, and St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Bradford is an Indian restaurant - but many are converted into residential housing.

They offer scope for distinctive developments with plenty of space, and optimum prices in the market, yet developers and agents do not always share the enthusiasm of buyers for snapping up former chapels, vicarages and rectories.

The problem with converted church property was that local planners usually were keen to keep the building as true to its original form as possible, according to James Lawrie, a senior negotiator in the country home department of estate agency Strutt and Parker.

Since many church buildings were listed, the scope for substantial internal refurbishment was limited, he said. And a graveyard could be a turn-off.

In any case, churches have enormous spacial dimensions, he said. These created difficulties when converting into conventional-shaped living areas.

But the rich were willing to pay for individuality, Mr Lawrie said.

St John the Divine church in Leicester was turned into more than 30 apartments, from one-bedroom to three-bedroom, including some with stained-glass windows and a few with original wooden carvings from the church.

In Manchester, ambitious developer, Burke Developments, is hoping to convert the Grade II listed St George's Church in Hulme, empty for more than 20 years after large falls in the local population.

It is submitting plans to convert the space into 25 luxury apartments, although the proposals avoid significant changes to the nearby graveyard, which contains up to 3,000 graves.

Church conversions are not new. Since 1973, Eileen Smith has lived in what was the old Methodist chapel at Hollingbourne, near Maidstone in Kent. It was built in 1885 and converted into a house in 1956.

She said the building attracted visitors, who were disappointed when they came inside.

'It still has something of its domed roof, and some windows which are roughly shaped as they used to be in the chapel. But otherwise, once inside, it's quite like a normal bungalow,' she said.

'Outside, it's quite attractive and looks like what it was - an old chapel. There's a stone plaque on the wall and it's something of a tourist attraction for people visiting the village.

'The conversion was not that good, really,' Ms Smith said. 'There is a lot of wasted storage space. Ideally, I would scrap it all and start again.'