Through the keyhole of a converted Victorian chapel near Welwyn Garden City
PUBLISHED: 13:16 02 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:16 02 January 2018
It's a tale of love, both for a building and a builder - Pat Bramley met the family who converted a Victorian church near Welwyn GC into a unique family home
Who knows where it will lead when you’re in the middle of a major construction project and your daughter falls for the builder. Could it be a disaster for the build if the relationship hits the rocks before the job is finished?
Fortunately for Tony and Carmen Redondo, their daughter, also Carmen, and builder Trevor Hyatt turned out to be a great match. As proof of the positive effect their blossoming romance had on the quality of the construction project, Trevor’s St Albans company Linley Developments went on to beat top names in the building industry when his conversion of the Redondos’ Grade II listed Victorian church in the village of Letty Green near Welwyn GC won Best Medium Renovation Project in Britain in the Master Builder of the Year Awards in 2007.
Carmen’s parents were first aware of the potential to create a beautiful home at St John’s church when it came up for sale after its deconsecration by the local diocese in 2001.
‘It was being sold because of falling congregations,’ explains their daughter. ‘The proceeds from the sale were used to fund the restoration of the mother church in the next village.’
Initially there were several drawbacks stopping the Redondos putting in a bid. ‘There was no land with it, which was good in a way because there were no graves, but it meant there was no garage or drive, nowhere to park other than in the road and no garden although there was a field on the other side of the fence on one boundary. My parents decided it wasn’t viable as a family house.’
In 2004, they noticed St John’s was up for sale again. And this time there were two important differences, Carmen says.
‘It came with planning permission and the neighbouring paddock was included in the price. The church had been bought by a developer who wanted to split it up into flats. He’d persuaded the neighbouring landowner to sell him the paddock for a double garage and a garden but he had such a lot of hassle getting planning permission because the church is listed that in the end he’d had enough and decided to sell it. My parents didn’t hesitate. Having the garden made all the difference.’
Not having been used in three years, the church ‘was in a bad state – dark and damp’, Carmen recalls.
Tony and Carmen were in no doubt about the builder they wanted to fix things.
‘Trevor had done some work on my parents’ previous house in Welwyn so they rang him up and said, “How about converting a church?”’
Carmen thinks the council was pleased her parents bought it because they planned to turn it into a family home.
‘We tweaked the original planning consent to make four bedrooms and also put in a new gallery but overall we didn’t have any serious problems with the conservation officer or the planners. The main stipulation was that the church would still look like a church from the outside and 50 per cent of the interior should be open space.’
The family’s main concern was that the living area should be light and warm and feel homely.
‘We wanted to keep the church element but not to the extent we’d finish up with Walt Disney,’ Carmen says. ‘Above all, it had to be a comfortable home.’
Converting and restoring the building took 15 months.
‘We dug down below the original floor level to maximise head height below the roof trusses which couldn’t be removed,’ builder Trevor explains. ‘We chose chunky ornate staircases. We had beautiful oak arched doors and stained glass windows made to match the gothic arched windows that were here. We installed underfloor heating, made replacement stone parapets as well as taking the whole roof off to reinstate and re-slate it.’
Pretty well all the extra materials used were reclaimed from other old buildings.
‘On the outside where we put in new openings for windows and doors, we reused the flints and bricks in other places. Everything had to be custom made.’
A third of the roof tiles needed to be replaced. ‘They are Welsh purple slate,’ Carmen says, ‘longer and wider than normal slates. We looked all over the UK for some to match ours and eventually found them in Wales. You can’t see the join.’
The bell at the top of the steeple is not original but it is authentic. They found it in a reclamation yard in Romsey, Southampton. It’s not easy finding church bells – they have to be the right dimension to fit the housing. Most of the other fixtures and fittings came from an ecclesiastical salvage yard in Bristol. That’s where they discovered the pulpit – a much admired feature in a corner of the vaulted drawing room.
Keeping a balance between modernity and the Victorian architecture led to one of the cleverest innovations – the disguise of a wide screen plasma TV in what was once the main body of the church. It is concealed behind a French gilded mirror above the handsome stone fireplace. At the touch of a button the mirror glides towards the heavens to reveal the telly. ‘It took us a year to find a firm that could supply the lifting mechanism and when they found it, it was a company a few miles up the road,’ Carmen laughs.
The confessional in the hall with purple velvet drapes either side of the heavily carved oak door previously concealed sinners asking for divine forgiveness, today it conceals the downstairs cloakroom.
The former entrance to the church with a lobby where the congregation would have shaken hands with the vicar at the end of services eventually became a nursery and en-suite bathroom for Trevor and Carmen’s angelic baby son Harry. The main entrance is now at the back of the former church but the door is the same pattern as the original at the front.
Harry is now 10. Is he still angelic? His mum laughs. ‘He has lovely eyes and lovely long eyelashes.’ Other than that, you gather, he’s a typical 10-year-old.
In her early career Carmen was a production and quality controller for the likes of Jaeger, House of Fraser, River Island and Vyella. That all changed after she fell in love with Trevor. She packed in the fashion industry to help Trevor develop his award-winning business.
The three generations of the Redondos lived as an extended family at St John’s but as with all families, circumstances change with the passing years. Carmen’s parents now live in Welwyn GC, while their daughter and son-in-law are still in the building business but their work takes them further afield. It’s for this reason they are looking for a tenant for St John’s.
The Grade II listed converted church with five bedrooms and three bathrooms (two en-suite), three reception rooms, garage and landscaped garden of almost three-quarters of an acre is available to rent for £7,950 a month.
Joint letting agents are Savills on 01582 465020 and Best Residential, 01462 713713