Private view: A religious renovation

Exclusive, extraordinary and for sale. There are the homes that just have to be seen - so we've hunted them down for a fascinating and very private view.

St Johns church conversion exterior This week: St John's Church, Chapel Lane, Letty Green, Hertfordshire

What: A Grade II listed 19th century church that has been converted into an award winning four-bedroom home complete with state of the art technology.

We say: Making the holy homely can be a tall order in a lofty former church, but that was exactly the brief for the former parish church of St John.

In the beginning

So how exactly does one become the owner of an abandoned 19th century parish church?

"We were up for the weekend to buy a sports car for my other half, Tony, when we got a call from the agent asking us to see the building," says owner Carmen Redondo. "As soon as we saw the property the sports car was forgotten.

Stain glass windows in converted church"It just captured our imagination. A lot of churches aren't very pretty architecturally. But this was lovely. It had a sense of history and calm. I don't think you will ever get another property like this so near to London."

As well as its beauty, Carmen had spotted that the building had a couple of major advantages over a lot of abandoned churches. Firstly, there was no graveyard, or tombs within the church or grounds.

This is because, although the Queen and Princess Anne were said to have attended St John's when they were staying at Hatfield house, it was actually a paupers' church, and the parishioners had to go to the posh church round the corner to be married and buried.

And secondly, the former owner had wisely managed to buy the paddock next door, so Carmen knew that as a family home it would have plenty of space for parking and a large garden too.

But the 'lovely' building also had subsidence, no foundations or drainage, dry rot, wet rot, squatters, bats and a fine crop of mushrooms growing inside. And it was so damp that within five minutes the architectural drawings would be sodden, says Carmen. "We soon realised that the Victorian gutters were actually just going into the ground and there were no foundations."

Converted church vaulted ceilingThe agony and the ecstasy

Carmen knew that, as well as being very costly, converting St John's into a family home was going to involve jumping through a fair number of hoops. Getting planning permission for the Grade II listed building had proven such a headache for the previous owner that he had given up and decided to sell it.

Fortunately the couple's design, which was deemed sensitive to the building's history, met with approval from both the council and English Heritage, though the whole process still took up most of their first year of ownership.

But there was plenty to do before building could start. Carmen now looks back fondly on the days she spent with the local bat expert, finding out how and where to build the bat hotels necessary to re-house the unwanted guests.

Finally they were ready to start work. First they needed to shore up the building with 230 tonnes of concrete, then they had two major objectives. Firstly to get as much light as possible into the building. Obviously they would not be permitted to put new windows in where none existed before, but the couple were allowed to install conservation Veluxes.

Secondly they built a stunning glass ceiling over the bedroom. And a lucky find added further light; the triple stained-glass window that had been hidden from view. "The windows had been meshed from the outside and no one knew they were there, which was lucky or they would've been broken," says Carmen.

In converting the building from ecclesiastical to residential its origins were not forgotten and other original features were made the most of in the new design. A pulpit remains in the vast sitting/dining room, there is a vaulted ceiling, stained glass, a few crucifixes, and even a spot-lit cherub on a pedestal. And the tongue was completely in cheek when the downstairs loo was built – within the confessional box, presumably for the purging of body and soul.

But though the historical grandeur remains, this is very much a house of the 21st century with enviably highly-spec technology to match. The huge antique mirror over the fireplace hides a concealed television. And the list goes on: Cat 5, under-floor heating, Ventaxia air ventilation and heat recovery system, and a Bose surround-sound system in the living rooms.

And it all turned out so well that the builder, Trevor Hyatt of Linley Developments, was presented with a Gold Award for the building by David Bellamy in the International Green Apple Awards 2007.

The new testament

Kitchen in st johns churchSo, what's it like now to live in the former Parish Church of St John?

"It's wonderful," says Carmen. "The house has got so many little features, you just keep discovering things you haven't noticed before. Because it's on such a large plot you get 360 degrees of daylight. It's a different type of light in different parts of the house at different times of the day and night.

"And it has the most fantastic acoustics. When we watch movies with surround sound it's like being in a cinema."

For the couple's three-year-old son, it is, of course, just home. "When we go to the local park and he gets tired he heads over to the village church. He associates churches with comfort!

"It's got a nice feeling to it. It's very quiet and peaceful. When you come in after a bad day at work you get in and it's just such a different environment that you can really switch off."

And, for those of you who were wondering, this story has a happy ending for the whole family. He had to wait, but Tony did eventually get his sports car too.

The former parish church of St John is for sale through Savills in Barnet.

    • Nikki Sheehan
      24 June 2010
    A lot of churches aren't very pretty architecturally. But this was lovely. It had a sense of history and calm. I don't think you will ever get another property like this so near to London.