Through the keyhole of a dream converted chapel in Chalford
PUBLISHED: 11:34 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:29 14 September 2018
Sometimes it can seem like destiny plays a hand at where we end up living, as Fiona and John Owen discovered when they found their dream converted chapel in Chalford
When, years ago, teenager Fiona Owen consulted a fortune teller she was told she would marry a man from the Brecon in Wales and live in a place with many stained glass windows.
Sure enough, this came to pass. Fiona married John, a fellow artist who indeed came from the Brecon, and 31 years ago – in the autumn of 1986 - they bought an old converted Wesleyan chapel in Chalford. “It had stained glass windows galore,” says John.
“The owner was an artist and would only sell to fellow artists,” says Fiona. “As it happens another artist was also interested but, possibly because we had a small child, our son Laurie, then aged two, he chose us.”
The couple loved the 1857 chapel on sight. To reach it they had to walk a small way up a steep hill and then turn off to ascend an also-steep winding path to the chapel front door. “We’re told Charles Wesley preached on this spot and the chapel was built to commemorate it,” says John.
“It’s built against a cliff and came with an acre of land on several levels,” says Fiona. “But the place was almost bare. In the sitting room, for instance, was just a rocking horse and two chairs. The kitchen consisted of ginger pine cupboards which the owner had made himself. But we loved the mullioned windows and the hand-carved roof corbels, some of which had not been quite finished.”
“What really impressed us was the enormous open space on the top floor which we could see would be wonderful for our studio exhibitions,” says John. “Originally it had been the top half of the open-to-the-roof chapel so it had a huge arched stained glass window facing east across the valley.” This valley is known as the Arts & Crafts valley as it has become quite a hub for artists and craftsmen.
“The previous owner had put in the studio floor which was made up of old RAF packing cases,” says Fiona. “Also a fibreboard ceiling which, when we removed it, revealed the original beautiful vaulted roof. We used the beams from the ceiling supports to make the steps in the garden.”
The couple were told that many years before an old lady had kept her goats in the chapel and lived in the goat shed in the garden. “She also gave a cottage on the land to an Irish nun,” says Fiona. But by the time the Owens arrived the shed had almost fallen down and the cottage was on land now sold on.
The first thing the Owens did was to apply to have two Velux windows put into the gallery roof. “We were very fortunate that the planning officer agreed, as he said we would have been refused if we’d delayed by just six weeks. That’s because the chapel was due to be given a Grade 2 listing then.”
The Owens needed the Velux windows to increase the light as the gallery is also where they paint. “It had to be tackled first as we needed to hold our very first exhibition up there,” says John. “We have one every year and hundreds of people come along.”
They also changed the frosted glass in the huge arched window to clear glass so as to enjoy the amazing green views.
Soon after moving in the Owens had a daughter Meredith (now an artist in her own right as is Laurie) and over the years they continued to make changes to the chapel. “We’ve done just about all the work ourselves, employing only a plumber and electrician,” says John. “That’s because we work from home and have the time.”
“Plus John is very practical and has done nearly all the woodwork, both in the chapel and in the garden,” says Fiona.
In the old shed (once occupied by the goat-owner) John found several pew ends and made them into book shelves for the sitting room, then added a faux-marbling effect. He also made the window shutters and installed a wood burning stove, replacing a “horrible little gas fire.” They then painted the rather plain wooden partitions the previous owner had put in to separate the sitting room from the kitchen.
“We were told two brothers had built the chapel and had given it double-skinned walls which was quite innovative then,” says Fiona. “So the place is warmer than maybe most chapels, but still needs help.”
In the kitchen they kept the hand-built cabinetry but painted it, first yellow (“inspired by Monet’s house at Giverny”) and then in a soft grey. They changed the worktops to ones of marble, embedded with tiny shells which seem to sparkle, and installed an Aga. “We exchanged a painting for a hand-made table and chairs which we then painted to resemble a vegetable garden,” explains Fiona. “And, as I have started training as a herbalist, John built me a set of shelves for my lotions and potions. Our utility room now doubles up as my apothecary. And I’ve replanted our vegetable patch as a box-walled herb garden.”
In the two bathrooms they added tongue and grooving and new tiles and John even converted an old boiler room into a sauna, having much enjoyed one while on holiday.
However, the garden is what has given the Owens and their many visitors enormous pleasure, and it is indeed spectacular, from the moondial designed by Fiona to the wonderful waterfall designed by John.
“He made it too,” says Fiona. “It meant drilling through four feet of stone but it looks as if there really is a natural spring which comes out of the cliff, then falls two storeys in a series of waterfalls and pools. It’s so soothing listening to the sound of water all day long, especially on a hot sunny day with the scent of roses wafting in.”
There is also a pond house inspired by the stables at Snowshill Manor and a small Gothic tower built (again) by John for the children more than 25 years ago.
Inspired by her garden Fiona has also produced the paintings for her book ‘A Five Valleys Herbal’ written by Nathaniel Hughes.