Derelict to delightful: a rundown Newport church transformed

PUBLISHED: 00:24 28 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:07 20 February 2013

Derelict to delightful: a rundown Newport church transformed

Derelict to delightful: a rundown Newport church transformed

Engineer Geoff Doughty and his teacher wife Hilary have put heart and soul into turning an historic derelict church into a comfortable and impressive home with soaring Gothic interiors

Engineer Geoff Doughty and his teacher wife Hilary have put heart and soul into turning an historic derelict church into a comfortable and impressive home with soaring Gothic interiors

Recycle, reuse and reclaim have been the guiding principles for Geoff and Hilary Doughty as they set about their mission to transform St Marys Church in Longford, near Newport.

Geoff took early retirement to devote himself to the project and has completed most of the work himself, keeping costs down by using recycled materials wherever he could; for example, using reclaimed wood from a gym floor and redundant benches from an old school changing room.

His passion for recycling, reclaiming and re-using extends right down to the furniture If its not from an auction its hand-made! he says. With the renovation being on such a grand scale, he also made the most of his budget by sticking to his maxim: Think smart, buy clever.

So the Farrow and Ball paint, required in vast quantities for the never ending expanse of walls, was bought direct from the manufacturer. With an enormous area of floor to carpet, he decided to buy a complete roll for the whole of the downstairs and he did likewise with the fabric for the curtains, which he then had made up locally.

With his seemingly endless skills and patience and a keen an eye to detail, he has succeeded in transforming the building, making the most of its glorious features and idyllic setting. I retired in order to do it, although I have returned to working part time since, he said. It was a joy for me to do it took probably five years to get it liveable and another five years to finish the outside and the garage.

He and Hilary came across St Marys Church in Longford, south west of Newport, when it was put on the market back in 1997 and he says they were the only people to show a real interest in it: It was just a shell, but we were drawn to it by the light and the 14ft high windows. The picture in the details was awful; it was surrounded by trees and probably everyone else would have avoided it but when we came and looked at it we saw the potential and made an offer.

Neglected and vandalised as it was, the church nevertheless suited the couples purposes. We were looking for a place to do up and we love barns and old houses. We had never thought about a church, but they are really well built and this one has an interesting history.

St Marys Church dates back to 1804 and it was built over a five year period for Ralph Leeke, a political agent for the British East India Company. On returning to the UK in 1789, Leeke invested some of the fortune he made in India by buying and rebuilding neighbouring Longford Hall, which is now used as a boarding house for Adams Grammar School. The beautiful Georgian residence, designed by the Italian architect Joseph Bonomi, was built on the site of the original Talbot family home which was destroyed in the Civil war.

Leeke needed a church as a place of worship for himself and his employees, so he knocked down the original church which had been on this site and used the old red sandstone for the new one. The transept of the original church still remains nearby and it is a church property owned by the Churches Conservation Trust, explains Geoff.

The surviving part of the demolished medieval church is now known as the Talbot Chapel and contains a fine 17th-century monument to Thomas Talbot. Meanwhile, next door, the new church continued to be used for worship until 1979.

It then stood cold and empty for many years before Geoff and Hilary decided to breathe new life into it, turning it into a warm and welcoming home with a unique and special ambience. Their sympathetic restoration celebrates the grandeur of the ecclesiastical architecture, the high ceilings and the light flooding in from the massive windows yet still manages to create some intimate, cosy living spaces.

We designed it to feel homely, said Hilary. We used plush dcor for warmth and we chose churchy colours. The couples use of William Morris wallpaper and the distinct Arts and Crafts feel they have achieved was influenced by a visit to Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton.

Downstairs there is an open plan arrangement to the main living areas, but the vast space is broken up by subtle changes in floor levels. The vestibule entrance ascends to a living area which leads round to a dining area, cosily tucked away under the upstairs gallery landing. Two steps lead up from the other side of the living area to the lounge enclosure, in the nave of the church. This stunning living space is bathed in natural light from the Gothic mullion window to the eastern gable.

All the windows had to be replaced with hand made metal windows and every window was different so Geoff had to make templates of each one for the manufacturer to follow. He is delighted with the result and also with the fact that he managed to find a company to complete the work for 19,000 less than the original quote! He also counts himself lucky to have found a talented craftsman in Rod Gower, of Ludlow, who was able to repair the free floating arches above the windows.

Geoff came up with his own solutions to renovating some of the other features of the church from the ground you would never guess, but the authentic-looking dentillated frieze around the ceiling in the main living area is skirting board with two inch blocks of wood stuck to it. It took Geoff forever to complete!

The couples innovative ideas and handiwork are also much in evidence in the kitchen, which leads off from the vestibule. They have placed the floor tiles on an angle and recessed the grout to give an ecclesiastical appearance to the kitchen floor. Geoff has hand built the kitchen units, using an arched design to give them a Gothic appearance. We havent gone over the top and put Gothic everywhere, but there is usually something in each room which looks Gothic, he says.

The furniture in the kitchen also includes a butchers block (for which the timber that Geoff had salvaged from the changing room benches came in handy) and two wall shelves made from old bed headboards, where Hilary displays her collection of china. Downstairs there is also a roomy study and music room, with built-in furniture. Alongside this room, which doubles up as a guest room, the couple have created a shower room in the former vestry.

Upstairs the gallery landing gives a wonderful view of the room below. We have used it as a minstrels gallery, says Geoff. We have had lovely parties here.

A door leads through to three bedrooms, with hand built cupboards, which Geoff made using the wood reclaimed from the gym floor. The bedroom doors were rescued from a modern church that was being demolished. I had to strip them down but they were all free, he says, gleefully. He has also made stylish Gothic screens for the windows out of MDF. Two of the bedrooms have ensuite bathrooms one fits neatly into the church tower.

Geoff and Hilary have taken just as much care with the outside of the property as with the interior. The design of the garden, with its shaped lawns and stone edged beds is influenced by the gardens at Versailles and deliberately incorporates yew trees. Geoff also turned his skills to making the electric gates which open to the long tree-lined driveway to the property.

Although the couple are full of praise for the church for the chance it gave them to give full rein to their talents and for the lifestyle it has afforded their family since they have decided the time has come to say Amen to it, to move on, and to spend more time at a property they also own in France. The church is now on the market with Foden Property in Newport and for anyone looking for a distinctive and unusual residence it could be the answer to your prayers.

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