Villagers, volunteers and local businesses in Wheathampstead have helped convert a disused Victorian church into one of the county's most picturesque gyms.

The Chapel Gym, a £125,000 restoration project, officially opens in the former United Reformed Church building on September 5, together with a meeting hall that is also being used as a monthly community kitchen for those struggling with rising food and fuel costs.

The gym will run as not-for-profit, aiming to attract all abilities and fitness levels and especially to support those unused to exercising or with medical conditions or disabilities.

“Having the gym here is great for me because as a blind person I cannot drive,” says Ed Marwood, who has already signed up as a member. “It has the right safety and support for me – squat rack, benches and, importantly, helpful and knowledgeable staff.”

Chapel Gym manager Stuart Grey lives in the village and has worked in the fitness industry for over five years: “My goal is to make it the people’s gym at the heart of Wheathampstead. After COVID-19 and three lockdowns we realise the importance of both good physical and mental health for everyone."

Herts Advertiser: The amazing surroundings of the Chapel Gym.The amazing surroundings of the Chapel Gym. (Image: Supplied)

The idea to convert the 1876 church into a gym began as a chance conversation in 2017 between resident Karl Fenwick and Jane Deller, a church Elder, outside the empty building. Karl has 25 years experience in the fitness industry and Jane, a retired teacher, wanted somewhere local to keep fit.

Karl said: “I told Jane the church would be a wonderful space for a community gym. She agreed and a seed was sown."

A survey showed that residents thought the same and this led to the creation of an action group chaired by Julie Bell, who also chairs the Wheathampstead and District Preservation Society.

The renovation began in April 2020 during the pandemic. Since then more than 50 volunteers have played a role with many professionals and businesses either working for free, at cost or providing donations. Substantial help was received from Jarvis Homes and Jarvis Construction, and care was taken to keep the wooden features, beautiful stained glass windows and layout of the church.

Julie said: “This has been an amazing project with wholehearted support from our village. We’ve achieved so much and the community has found answers to all the challenges along the way.”

In November 2021 Wheathampstead Chapel Community Hub was officially accepted as a charity to manage both the Chapel Gym and the 1970s hall at the back of the church, now renamed The Chapel Halls. Jarvis generously expanded the galley kitchen and installed a second-hand kitchen donated by a supporter. Other businesses and donors donated an oven, dishwasher and microwave. Volunteers painted and laid a new floor.

As the number of people using food banks is rising, charity trustee Maria Azcona then set up a community kitchen in June to complement the charity’s aim of helping people live healthier lives. Volunteer chefs help villagers wanting to improve their skills to cook a nutritious meal from food donated by local shops, restaurants and growers, on the last Tuesday of each month. The meal is then eaten together with members of the community.

“We chose this date because it is often the one before a pay date when people may be struggling most to put food on the table,” said Maria, a trained chef who ran her own catering business.

The halls will also be used for fitness classes and other activities, such as Musical Memories, a group for people with dementia who make music together. Two rooms at the back of the hall have been restored for worship. However, it is the Chapel Gym that is taking centre stage at the heart of the village.

"I could not be more delighted that Wheathampstead finally has its own gym,” said Cllr Annie Brewster, Chairman of Herts County Council, who will be attending a launch celebration at the Chapel Gym on September 8 with the cutting of a ribbon.

“I would like to thank our friends at the United Reformed Church for their commitment, passion and vision for the project,” said Cllr Brewster, who also lives in the village, “and I look forward to pumping a little bit of iron with everyone!”