Here on Anglotopia, we have been following the progress of A Church in Wales as it becomes a family home. The story (for us) started in spring 2019, but for the family who is making this their home, the story began back in late 2017 when they started looking for a plot of land to build their dream home. They have a large family (eight children, although the older ones have moved out) and needed more space.
That search brought them to Pembrokeshire in west Wales – for me a long way from London for visiting but for the family, the chance of an outdoor lifestyle just a few miles from beautiful beaches.
Instead of buying land, they found a disused church in Haverfordwest, the county town of Pembrokeshire. They now own the former St Thomas a Becket Church and have a 999-year lease on the surrounding graveyard. It’s a large graveyard with 560 graves yet over 4,000 bodies as burials were stacked.
As a reminder, the church is a Grade II listed building which means it has to be preserved. The 75ft bell tower is the oldest part of the building and dates back to the 15th century (rebuilt with 12th-century stones). The rest of the building was rebuilt and added to in the 1800s.
Our last update was in spring 2020 when we shared the news that they had planning permission to build their home inside the church building. So, what has happened since?
No Build Yet
Although full planning permission has been granted, there are still more steps that stand in the way of the building getting started. In June 2020, the local council planning team emailed to say they need to come for a site visit to see the foundations before ‘the pod’ (see below) can be built. But due to reduced staffing during the pandemic that is unlikely to happen until October 2020.
But, this family always know how to find the positives in a difficult situation. The extraordinary time we are living through has meant the whole family has been at home (Andy was furloughed from work). The Welsh lockdown meant everyone had to stay close to home but could use their own garden, so the family have been able to continue working inside the church and in the graveyard.
A lot of the jobs they have been doing would usually come after your home is built, such as adding plants, tree felling and painting the window grilles. But some jobs had to be done such as moving the ornate marble font as it was in the way for the pod delivery. The font is so heavy a heavy-duty winch used to remove car engines was needed.
The hole young Jude is standing by was the drain under the font.
Bats are a protected species, so a long survey had to be done on the building to assess where the bats were roosting and to find a solution for the bats to be cared for and the family to be able to build their home. Fortunately, it was found that bats were not using the main body of the building so a ‘bat cave’ has been created in the old boiler room (the preferred lair of horseshoe bats) and a ‘bat loft’ has been built in the roof space over the old vestry (behind the organ).
The new roof also has special bat tiles so they can have access. And some pointing repairs in the stonework on the tower has been left so the smaller pipistrelle bats can rest there.
The family can’t start internal building work until a bat licence is issued by Natural Resources Wales. NWR cannot take away the council-approved planning permission, but the licence is needed to have the right to potentially disturb the bats.
To get the licence you have to understand your obligations towards the bats, and if you might potentially disturb them, you have to offset (which is why the bat cave, attic and special roof tiles have all been done already).
An ecologist was appointed to complete the licence application, and the licence should be issued in about a month. NWR may offer further advice, and they will come to visit in a year to ensure everything is done that was asked.
The church is so large that the family home is going to be another building constructed inside the main area of the church. ‘The pod’ will be a simple two-storey box with the bedrooms and living space. The kitchen will be along the north wall, outside of the pod, and the tower ground floor will have a large bathroom. (You can see some design plans here.)
The pod supplier has been out for a site visit, but until those foundations are signed off, the family can’t place the order. When they do, it will be a relatively quick process with the supplier building it off-site, then taking it down and delivering to rebuild in the church.
Let’s have a look at some plans with annotations to try and understand the space better. The pod will be a freestanding, insulated, timber-framed two-storey box.
It will sit in the centre aisle taking up around two-thirds of the main body of the church.
This is some of the view from the pod. The altar area and the organ will be staying.
The open-plan kitchen will be along the north side of the building, outside of the pod. Some of the pews will be saved for dining ‘booths’.
The tower will have a large wet room/bathroom on the ground floor with multiple showers and toilets. The next floor above will have a freestanding bath in front of the stunning stained glass window.
And then there are more floors above as it is a tall tower. An idea is to make one or two floors a holiday home for large families as Deb and Andy know how hard it can be to find accommodation when you have more than two children.
Here’s a view of the tower from the inside.
New Tower Doors
You will notice in the image above that the tower doors are open. These medieval doors weren’t in great condition, so once they got them open, Andy set about making new doors from the wood in the church. He isn’t a builder, but he is willing to try anything and enjoys the satisfaction of completing a job himself.
The new doors are fantastic, and they will give better access for the pod delivery later this year.
The old doors have been added as a feature in the graveyard along a path, so it’s rather like stepping into ‘wonderland’.
The intention was to have the bells down from the tower during winter 2019, but that hasn’t happened yet. The work is booked in for November 2020. Once the two bells are down safely, they will be taken away and cleaned before being returned to the church in December 2020. At that time, the smaller bell will be installed as the new doorbell for the entrance.
At one time, there was a boys grammar school in the tower. Above the tower doorway, there’s a rampant stone lion, and that is still the symbol of the local grammar school.
This was how the window above the tower doorway looked last year (seen in this earlier blog post). It’s now much easier to see as Andy has removed the ivy, repointed a lot of the stonework, repaired the sandstone, replaced the window sill and cleaned up the windows.
The tower also has small windows on the higher floors. The glass in these was damaged, so Andy did the replacement himself. The glass had been concreted in, so there was a lot more work than in a normal home, but he got them cleaned up and fitted with the proper lime mortar.
As they have had the time (and couldn’t start building the pod), the family have spent a lot of days repairing the church windows. They had a company in to replace the hoppers and lots of small leaded panes, but Andy has been working on the stone surrounds. The limestone was perishing in many places, so he has worked on stabilising the stone before filling and replacing as necessary.
The stained glass windows are protected by metal grilles, and these were removed so the windows could be cleaned and repaired. This was also the perfect time to repaint the grilles before reinstalling. Before they were a rusty red oxide colour and now, sprayed black, they blend in more so do not detract from the stunning windows.
After the family moved to a rental property nearby last year, to be close for the build, it was discovered that the water was not just turned off at the church but was actually disconnected from the mains. At last, they are now almost ready to dig the trenches for new water and sewerage pipes. As these will have to run through a graveyard, there were some permission’ hoops to jump through’ including needing a Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI). A WSI outlines known and potential archaeological features on a site. This was issued in early August 2020, so they now have the mini-digger booked for the end of August 2020 to dig trenches and lay the pipes. The route for the pipes will follow the path and then go close to the outside of the building so will not disturb any graves.
An exhumation licence is needed as if bones are found, they will then have permission to temporarily move them, fit the pipework and replace the bones in the same trench area. And an archaeologist has been booked to be on-site throughout the dig too.
In preparation for getting the sewerage connected, ‘Dr Poo’ (a sewage tank) was delivered in June. This is now installed at the bottom of the steps leading to the old furnace room (that is now a bat cave).
On the advice of a tree surgeon, a large ash tree needed to be cut down as it was so diseased. This was an almighty job that needed the tower scaffolding to be put up in the churchyard.
Remember those tales of grass snakes and adders in the graveyard? Only slow worms have been found, and one has been named Boris. (Deb shares a daily check on Boris – who we now know is a girl – on her Instagram stories.) You can see the slow worms on this blog post. Boris lives under an old slate from the roof that has been painted.
The pond now has fish, and even some baby fish have appeared recently. The pond has rainwater run into it to keep it topped up, and a ‘trough’ has been built next to it so the kids can collect water in their watering cans.
Deb has continued her amazing work at clearing and uncovering graves.
Some graves have full trees growing out of them!
Another addition is the new night-time wildlife camera fitted to see what wanders the graveyard after dark. We’ll have a look at that next time.
We’ll continue following the family’s progress here on Anglotopia and will have future updates. You can also see the Building Holly House Facebook Page for regular posts and photos, follow the family on Instagram and see more about ‘Holly House’ at www.familydaystriedandtested.com.