Press Coverage - The Sunday Times

Fiona McGoran from The Sunday Times wrote about Bookeen Hall and other church conversions. Bookeen Hall was the inspiration for this website and is now Former Glory headquarters.

The Neighbours Are Quiet

If you don't mind living next to a graveyard and the cost of conversion doesn't put you off, a former church makes a stunning home, discovers Fiona McGoran.

Chris Deakin got used to the routine: delivery men would arrive, take one look at his renovation and flee - as fast as possible. Deakin and his girlfriend, Orla McCluskey, were refurbishing a 200-year-old church, near Loughrea, in Co. Galway - and even grown men were spooked by its location.

"There are four graves in the graveyard to the rear of the house," says Deakin. "One belongs to the former reverend, the other to his mother, a six-year-old girl was buried in another and we don't know who lies in the last one. The graves don't bother us but there were a few occasions when workmen would pull up in their vans, take one look at the graves, drop the goods and head for the hills as fast as possible."

Church conversions are not for the faint-hearted. Apart from the fact that they are both costly and time-consuming, the land around the buildings is often home to deceased parishioners. Using his experience, Deakin founded Formerglory.ie, a website dedicated to the restoration of old buildings. He says even if you are not easily spooked, others will be.

Apart from the supernatural element, graves can pose a significant problem when extending a church. "You are not allowed to disturb any graves and this means that some churches find it difficult to secure buyers. For example, Feighcullen church, in Co. Kildare, is a beautiful gothic building in good condition, but you can't walk 5ft without stepping on a grave."

Feighcullen church was bought by Sean and Liz Hovenden, in 2005, for €200,000 and it is now back on the market at €375,000. Originally designed by the 19th-century church architect John Semple, it was built with finely cut limestone and has an impressive gothic-style entrance door and an imposing belfry, complete with steeple. There are four matching smaller steeples on each corner of the building and 10 lancet-arch gothic windows. The Hovendens have already restored the roof with blue Bangor slate and the windows have also been replaced using double-glazing and hardwood frames. According to Maurice Craig, the architectural historian, Feighcullen is the most accomplished and attractive church of its kind.

Deakin says it was love at first sight when he saw Bookeen Hall in 2005. The building was deconsecrated in 1920 and was later used as an army billet, a dance and sports hall and a workshop. Deakin snapped it up in 2005 and spent the next two and a half years converting it into a comfortable and stylish three-bedroom family home. The result caught the eye of Upstairs Downstairs magazine, which features it on the cover of its February/March issue.

He is not alone in his passion for old churches. A recent survey by Propertyfinder.com revealed they are the most popular buildings chosen for conversion to homes. Also, 60% of people prefer to live in a converted building rather than purpose-built accommodation. The survey also revealed some of the disadvantages. One is that, in terms of value for moneyand layout, church conversions rank among the worst buildings. Most are listed buildings with building restrictions. It can prove expensive to change the configuration of the space, while the walls often need added insulation. These old buildings are difficult and costly to heat too.

There are ways to overcome such problems. In 1993, Bernadette O'Shea bought the 150-year-old Ballintogher church, Co. Sligo, on the village's main street. Fortunately, the previous owner was a builder who had replaced the roof and repaired the limestonewalls. "I had always loved old stone buildings and when I saw the church I fell in love with the building and location," she says. Although the church was in good condition, it needed a sophisticated heating system. O'Shea installed underfloor heating and an Aga. She also bought a multi-fuel stove with pipes that reach from the floor to the ceiling. A mezzanine and large gothic doors were added and the crypt was converted into an office, utility room and wine cellar. "I never found the idea of the crypt a spooky one," says O’Shea. "It's actually a gorgeous place to spend time, as there are steps up to a little door that leads out onto the patio." O'Shea plans to move to Dublin and has put the church on the market for €730,000. She is also open to carrying out a house swap.

O'Shea managed to stay within her budget, but most people considering restoring an old building can expect to spend much more than was originally planned. Deakin and Howard set a figure of €250,000 to restore Bookeen Hall, but it wasn't long before that began to rise. The building was essentially dry, thanks to the galvanised-steel roof, which needed to be replaced with slate, but there was some damp inside. There were no serious structural problems, however. The biggest restriction was that the planning rules stated that the building had to feel like a chapel.

Deakin was adamant from the outset that the building materials and furnishings should be of the highest quality. "We ended up spending about 20% more on the project than we had planned, but this was largely by choice," he says. "We splashed out on an old claw-footed bath and a door from a salvage yard in Belfast, for instance." The gothic windows were also costly, but, says Deakin, "They are worth every cent, as the stained glass is stunning."

You might think that carrying out a church conversion would mean tackling a minefield of planning restrictions. However, according to Howard and Deakin, as long as you work with conservation officers, they will often be flexible. "Our conservation officer wanted as many photos as possible and he told us clearly what we could and couldn't do," says Deakin. "He was willing to be as flexible as possible, when it came to the inside of the building, and he allowed us to extend themain window by a foot and a half, which meant that the bottom of thewindow was at eye level. Naturally, the outside appearance couldn't be altered, but because the church already had two vestries we were allowed to build on to one of them."

Church conversions are eligible for a grant of up to 50% of the cost of a piece of work, up to a maximum of €13,000. In 2006, Deakin received €13,000 to help finance the new roof. The following year, the conservation officer advised him to apply for another grant to fund the new windows. His application was successful and he received €10,000. Many would-be restorers fail to capitalise on grants.

According to both Deakin and O'Shea, one of the greatest pleasures in restoring an old church is the surprises that lie in store. Deakin discovered the original fireplaces hidden behind the walls, while, behind the old pulpit, O'Shea found a corridor that leads to her walled garden.

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