Three beds. All mod cons. And spire

Large, airy, beautifully crafted - Victorian churches are ripe for residential conversion. Serena Mackesy visits one in Preston
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The Independent Online
In St Mark's Square, Preston, Lancs, an oasis of turn-of-the-century terraces close to the city centre, stands a fine square-cut Victorian Gothic church, with rose windows and an imposing tower. But it has no vicar and no congregation; the church, whose foundation stone was laid on its saint's day, 25 April, in 1862, has been standing empty since 1983. No longer. The formerly hallowed walls of St Mark's now play host to 25 flats, designed by the Fletcher Smith partnership.

Churches, like people, get made redundant from time to time. This is not necessarily a reflection of the times. There are many reasons: amalgamation of parishes, alterations in the local population or character, or simply that the cost of upkeep becomes greater than that of making and maintaining a whole new building. It happens less often than one would think: only 25 churches were declared redundant in 1996; the Church of England still has nearly 16,000 parish buildings in regular use, and a new congregation starts up in the Church of England every fortnight. The picture of a Britain riddled with empty churches is far from accurate. Nonetheless, the buildings exist, and finding a new use for them is preferable to dereliction.

Conversion is not a simple matter, though: ask any Evangelist. Michael Catterall, managing director of Park View Homes, the company responsible for the St Mark's development, has gone through a good deal to bring his plans to fruition. Planning permission was just the start. "I suspect that one or two planning applications had been submitted before ours," he says, "but they never seemed to get off the ground. The whole thing at the end of the day has to be viable for somebody to take it on. I think that's probably why there are so many churches left standing without anybody doing anything to them: there are so many restrictions put on by the ancient monuments societies and English Heritage and the other bodies that have to be consulted."

He obtained consent and bought St Mark's in August 1993, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. In November that year, his bank got cold feet and withdrew its support. "I bought the church for pounds 40,000 originally, but after the problems with the bank, I had to buy it back for pounds 200,000," he says. In 1995, after raising the money from other sources, work restarted.

It's been worth it, though. The final product is light and characterful with a host of detail: curved hammer beams in yellow pine with a fabulous grain; arts-and-crafts embellishments, warm natural stone. The tower contains a three-bedroom flat with roughly 1,500 square feet of floor area. An apse apartment is graced by a ceiling, said to be Italian in design, whose curved rib beams are covered, where they interconnect, with carved acorns and oak apples, vine leaves and grape clusters. Flats radiate off a central atrium at the point where the transepts spread out and the nave starts. This atrium runs all the way up through the building, and natural light comes in through skylights in the roof. All mod cons, but you never forget the building's origins.

The locals are, apparently, happy about the development. A derelict church, of course, can't be a great asset to an area, and the Church Commissioners' strictures on declaring a church redundant ("deconsecration" is not, apparently, a C of E term), include considerable parochial and public consultation. Not all churches, of course, are appropriate for residential use. "I've looked at one or two others, but they've not really been suitable for conversion because of the location of the windows," says Michael Catterall. "We have skylights in the roof, and put in more for the ground floor: eight in the nave, another two in the transepts, and three more in the apse. The nave windows started two-and-a-half metres above ground, with string courses; we slotted the windows in underneath that."

Another advantage of St Mark's was that it had no graveyard. One of the more lurid images of church conversion is the idea of graveyards being ripped open, but according to the Church Commissioners this does not happen. Mostly, graveyards are kept out of the sale, though occasionally part of one may be included, usually simply to provide access to the building. But this is certainly never done in ground with new burials, and existing graves have to be tended and respected, though occasionally the stones are moved. The land itself remains consecrated. If someone is buried in consecrated ground they remain in consecrated ground.

On the anniversary of the laying of St Mark's foundation stone (25 April), the final 18 flats in the development go on sale. They vary from one to three bedrooms, and cost between pounds 40,000 and pounds 100,000. And thrown in with the price is a slice of history and all the care taken by craftsmen who were originally building for the glory of God.

For details call Michael or Ve Catterall on 01772 200602

Three on view

Church conversions

Church House, at Caldecote, near Peterborough, formerly the church of St Mary Magdalene, was last used for church services in the Sixties. It was converted into a home in 1988. The house is Grade II* listed, and is now a four-bedroom house with stone mullioned windows. A timber spiral staircase leads to the first floor and to a galleried bedroom, and most rooms have exposed roof beams. A garden of almost half an acre is included. pounds 240,000 through Savills (01780 766222)

The former Methodist church in Peasmarsh, near Rye in East Sussex, has planning consent to turn it into a three- or four-bedroom home with two enormous reception rooms. It is being sold with restrictive covenants - these are common to most ex-ecclesiastical buildings - which forbids use for the sale of alcohol, as a dance hall, for gambling or for religious purposes. There is an enclosed courtyard garden, and room to build a garage. Agent Phillips & Stubbs is asking pounds 68,000. (01797 227338)

The Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels was built by French and American prisoners of war between 1810 and 1814. The stained glass in the east window is in memory of them, especially the 218 who died. Conversion of the Grade II* listed building is subject to a number of restraints, partly because of its historical importance - it was an appendage to the nearby Dartmoor Prison - and because access will have to be sought from the Duchy of Cornwall. It is in disrepair and will, says the agent, need a skilled architect and expert builders. The fittings will be removed, but some furnishings can be bought separately. Offers around pounds 40,000, to Michelmore Hughes (01803 865116).