Home of the Week: St John’s Church, Lettys Green

St John's church

St John's church - Credit: Archant

This stunning church renovation is a prime example of transferring a traditional, protected and listed building into a residence fit for contemporary living. And it’s up for sale too...

The original entrance to the church which now on the back of the house

The original entrance to the church which now on the back of the house - Credit: Archant

In April 2001 the Victorian Gothic Grade II church of St John in Letty Green went up for sale with planning permission for conversion. At the time it was only the second church in the St Albans diocese to be put on the market in 15 years. Since 1969 the Church of England has made 1,500 churches redundant with approximately 30 per year becoming available. Of these, only 20 to 30 percent are suitable to live in.

200 people stated their interest in it but it was finally taken under the wing of its current owners nine years ago, when it was transformed into the undoubtedly celestial-looking conversion it is now. It’s a little unclear what precisely went on between 2001 and 2004, but it stood idle. Most likely the offers that were made didn’t take off due to the plans that buyers were suggesting for it. Several proposals were floated for turning it into three separate units – a row of ecclesiastical cottages. Another wanted to make it a boutique hotel. But the planning permission was clear – one single family home or nothing at all.

With this kind of purchase, red tape is a problem. At the time it went to market property expert Alastair Woodgate said: “When a church has been the focal point of a community it is a big step to acknowledge that it has become redundant. We should respect it.”

The living area inside

The living area inside - Credit: Archant

After its dormant three years – during which the building was home to squatters and had its bell, handles and locks thieved by opportunistic metal mongers – St John’s Church was sold to a couple who wanted to gut it and improve it, convert it yet retain it. Nine years later it’s up for sale again – and the particulars prove that the residents have done what they set out to do.

The majesty of this building has essentially been utilized as a basis for its re-design. Thank God (literally) that no-one allowed it to be split into thirds - the structure would have been utterly compromised and the allure of the building essentially ruined. And along with it, it’s history would have crumbled.

Built in 1849 the Queen and Princess Anne attended St John’s when they were staying at Hatfield house. This might appear odd given that the church at Hertingfordbury – 10 minutes away – was known more as a church for the gentry. Some theories state that the royals wanted to attend services under a low profile. And you couldn’t get lower given that it was literally a church for paupers. The benefit to St John’s low-key backstory is that there was never a churchyard in the grounds. The rich would see to it that their families were buried in the marble crypt at Hertingfordbury. And the poor couldn’t afford burials. Fast forward to 2001 and St John’s Church was a prime location with its manageable size and lack of human remains to worry about.

The main living area in St John's church

The main living area in St John's church - Credit: Archant

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Location aside, the place was still living in Victorian times with its out-of-date draining, lack of foundations, rot, mushrooms and a colony of bats (which had to be re-housed by the local bat expert).

But the owners insist that the whole experience was actually rather hassle-free. The council, English Heritage and the region’s conservation officer all signed off on the plans and the build eventually began.

It’s clear from looking around this property that the design was very sympathetically erred toward the aspect of light. Often dark dwellings, small churches aren’t always the most homely of buildings. But St John’s is far from cold, dank or austere. It still looks churchy from the exterior – but that’s okay. That’s what it’s all about, after all. Inside though it is positively homely, with its open-plan design. It is the epitome of spacial with its 32ft high ceilings, vaulted roof, gallery level and spectacularly high reaching stained glass windows that, in the sunlight, give this home a warmly colourful glow.

The confessional booths in St John's church which now house the downstairs toilet

The confessional booths in St John's church which now house the downstairs toilet - Credit: Archant

Ingeniously, the design has used methods to ensure that even the inner recesses of the property are lit well. Between two of the three stories is a glass floor, allowing the upper-most skylight to beam daylight downwards, trickling and consequently illuminating parts of the house that would otherwise be gloomy.

Features of the church’s heritage have remained, including a pulpit in the dining room and the confession boxes (which now pose as the downstairs lavatory).

The style of the era has been preserved with oak and limestone and the building itself has been spun around – the front now the back, the back now the front. But this is still a home for the 21st Century. With all good listed conversions, no-one is expected to live in the Dark Ages. The lounge features a James Bond style television, there’s under-floor heating, a system for air ventilation, heat recovery and surround-sound. This is a paragon of innovation.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Channel 4’s Grand Designs were at one point banging on the door, asking to catalog the re-build on their show. But the owners, understandably, didn’t want a TV crew to contend with, potentially splitting focus from the project. And this tact is beautifully reflected in the final product, as a carefully thought-out, one-of-a-kind home.

Several Best Home awards later, St John’s Church is now on the market and waits expectantly at the altar for whomever might reside in it next.

Hamptons – 01727 789717/hamptons.co.uk