Where it's Christmas all year round

If you like stained glass and high vaulted ceilings, why not live in a church, says Anne Spackman
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The Independent Online
If you are the type who loathes carols, holly and traditional festivities, a church would seem like the last place to spend Christmas. Yet Susan Corbett is about to welcome, for the second year running, a group of 12 Christmas exiles to her conver ted church in Northumberland. "Please, as last year, no decorations," they wrote in their booking letter. It is a pity, as former churches have a head-start when it comes to Christmas, and the reds and greens of the stained glass, the arches and high vau lted ceilings provide a spectacular setting.

The first Christmas the Corbetts spent in their old Presbyterian church, just outside the village of Otterburn, they really went to town. "We put a very big Christmas tree at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the large stained-glass window," Susan Corbett said. "We decorated the whole place with holly and streamers and made it feel really cosy."

But doesn't it feel a bit irreverent cracking open bottles in a place where people once came to worship? "Not at all,'' says Mrs Corbett. "There's a lovely feeling of peace. It is a feeling you have all the time, not just at Christmas."

Otterburn House had been lying empty for five years behind the Corbetts' farm when they bought it in 1992. Susan Corbett's husband, Frank, was one of many villagers who could point out the pew he had sat in for services. A lot of people call in and ask if they can see inside the building they all still call "the church". Now the church is being sold as a four-bedroom, three living-room house. George White of Alnwick is asking £112,000.

Buying from the Presbyterians is simpler than buying from the Church of England. In fact, the Corbetts found the local council was more particular than the church about how the conversion was carried out.

The Church of England started selling off its redundant churches 25 years ago. It prefers them to be used by other Christian or community groups rather than be converted into residential developments. Out of 1,387 declared redundant, only 160 have becomehomes.

The procedure begins with the local diocesan board and goes all the way to the Privy Council, which has to pass a measure for each individual church. The building will be deconsecrated and covenants imposed on the sale. If the new owners want to change anything later, they must apply for written consent.

Most of the churches on the market tend to belong to smaller religious groups. Winkworth is currently selling the most spectacular of the 16 homes created from the former United Reform Church in Highgate, north London. Its top floor is dominated by a 14ft-high arched stained-glass window. When Jennifer and Edward Freedman moved in seven years ago it looked as though the church had not been touched since 1883, when it was built.

"It was filthy," says Jennifer Freedman. "We had specialists in to clean and restore it.

"The window used to be above the altar when this was a church. You get a very peaceful feeling sitting beneath it."

Mrs Freedman, an interior designer, bases her Christmas decorations on the reds in the stained glass, using red candles, Christmas roses, and tall white lilies to emphasise the vertical space. Her house is on three open-plan floors, with a spiral staircase leading out of one corner into the belfry.

By contrast, Paula Piglia's apartment near Vauxhall Bridge in London is part of an old church school, built across the courtyard from St Oswald's Church. With its arched and rosette windows it certainly looks and feels like a church, although the Pigliasdo not behave as if they were living in one.

Ms Piglia is an artist who treats her ecclesiastical surroundings as the perfect backdrop for dramatic Christmas creativity. She will buy the tallest Christmas tree she can find to go in her 20ft-high vaulted living space and allow her collection of finches to fly among the branches. "I used to live in a New York loft, and the birds loved it when I bought the Christmas tree," she says.

Her apartment is between St Oswald's and a gospel church. Her neighbour, Stephen Fulford, says the area feels very ecclesiastical on Sundays. "It certainly creates a feeling of community spirit."

The flat he rents, which has huge loft-style spaces but no churchy trimmings, is for sale with Foxtons for £320,000. It seems a good spot for the season of peace and parties.

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