A COUPLE’S commitment to an old church has paid off. Sharon Dale reports.
Sprightly 70-year-old David Greenwood stands on the apex of his new home putting the finishing touches to a sedum living roof. “The best thing is you can’t hear the rain hammering on a green roof,” says David.
It is the topping on the Little House, a tiny, eco-friendly structure built on the site of an outside toilet. It marks a victory after an epic planning battle and is the latest chapter in a Biblical-style saga that spans 18 years.
In the beginning David, an architect specialising in historic buildings, was asked by the Diocese of Wakefield to look at potential uses for a grade two listed Anglican church dating from 1865. He found Westwood mission church high on a hill above Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield, in the Yorkshire Pennines with breathtaking views and suggested it be adapted as a residential centre.
“I did a few sketches, told them it would cost £250,000 and all went quiet. They weren’t interested in doing that themselves and the cost was high, but it made us think. My wife Glenys had said for years that she’d like a place where Christians and non-Christians could come for an hour or two or for a longer break to get away from it all.”
So in 1993 David and Glenys sold their home in York and bought Westwood.
“Our third and youngest child had just left home and we felt sure that’s what God wanted us to do, as crazy as it may seem,” says David. “Our friends were planning retirement and considering buying bungalows and we bought this. We did it in faith that something would happen. Finding finance for the conversion was the most pressing need.”
They’d had the money to buy but couldn’t afford to do anything with the place. So they camped in the old church hall and prayed for help.
“We got a very deep bath we filled with hot water so we could warm up before going to bed – the hall was freezing,” adds David, who shared the makeshift home with 10 members of the former congregation who continued to worship at Westwood.
He was based at home with his architecture practice and Glenys worked as a special needs teacher in a local school. Their spare time was spent planning and hoping. A trust was formed and a generous interest-free loan was given by a Christian benefactor from Sheffield.
“We managed to refurbish the lower ground floor flat so we had somewhere to live and that left us with two big spaces, the church bit and the hall. The idea was to create a happy, peaceful and joyful place where people could stay and visit, rather than somewhere you have to creep around and whisper.” David says he subscribes to the Celtic tradition that identifies with nature and simplicity – the opposite of formal worship.
The Westwood Christian Centre opened in 2003 as a work in progress. An 18-month battle with the planners was followed by a ferocious storm. “We had builders in and they’d opened up one gable end but they hadn’t protected or secured it. The storm came and almost dislodged the main beam. It was high drama and we were up half the night. When the builders arrived next morning I told them to leave.
“We felt absolutely desperate but you can’t believe the world is against you. You have to see it as part of the struggle for the body of Christ and think that you are bringing something good into a world that needs it. We sent letters to friends and supporters and they prayed and sent money. Bad times can produce a lot of good.”
Today things look much the same from the outside but the metamorphosis inside is testament to David’s design skills, which created clever partitions and compartments, differing levels and as much natural light as possible.
The church was given a first floor and upstairs and downstairs were artfully sub-divided into five apartments plus communal spaces, an office and a kitchen. The hall remains largely as was, but now the balcony doubles as a sleeping area and there are showers and toilets for groups.
The opaque glass in the windows has also been replaced with clear to make the most of the views and glazed doors give access to the garden. David also installed the room’s most compelling feature: a swing strung from the ceiling.
“My daughter Lucy is albino and very short-sighted, but she is very adventurous and I set up a hang glider in here for her once when she was practising. When I took it down I thought we’d use the ropes for a swing. People walk in and expect to find a cross and they find a swing. They love having a go on it and even prompted one lady to write a poem about it.”
The pews are gone, the wood panelling too, although some was re-cycled as for a headboard, and the organ is now in Slaithwaite chuch. “I didn’t want it to be a place that was off-putting or brought back memories of hard pews and long sermons. We kept one stained glass window from the 1920s in an apartment because it is beautiful and worth keeping but the other was from the 1940s and was rubbish and so we took it out. I found the original cast iron window frame under the floorboards. It must have been too heavy for the builders to carry up the hill so they put it under there.”
That arch window is in the sanctuary room, where people can meet for prayer or sit alone in contemplation, and light streams through the glazing bars creating a replica shadow. There’s a simple wooden cross above the radiator and the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Haven Heaven are painted on the walls.
Another reminder of the past is the collection of 100-year-old lightbulbs that were found in the church and now hang as an artistic installation on the stairs. The building is a beautiful blend of past and present, and a physical reflection of David and Glenys’ quiet, under-stated faith. Peace and tranquillity is guaranteed. There are no TVs and the Greenwoods don’t mention that there is wi-fi.
The centre hosts everyone from those who want a short, self-catering break to church parties and inner-city youth groups. It is also a venue for everything from meetings, training days, NCT classes, luncheon clubs and conferences.
“We get non-Christians and Christians from different denominations and they all find common ground. Staying here can be life-changing for some people,” says David.
The latest project, the Little House, is another triumph they were forced to fight the planners for.
“They said it would dominate the church. But it’s so small. How can a mouse dominate an elephant?” asks David.
This new annexe has freed their old flat for full-time wardens, which means the Greenwoods don’t have to be on hand 24/7 and have cut back to part-time hours. They have never taken a salary, having lived on their earnings and now on their pensions.
One day they may even retire to a little cottage by sea, if the trust can afford to pay them for their share in the centre. Though maybe not.
“As long as I am useful I’d like to stay here,” says David. “I relate to Caleb in the Bible. He’s worked hard and is getting old and Moses offers him a reward of the most fertile land but he asks for a mountain instead. It’s about having something useful to do, something, interesting and exciting.
“What we have here is an incredibly fulfilling life. And for me as an architect to have an old building that you can do amazing things to with love and care, that’s amazing. I remember Glenys and I sat in that hall in the beginning. It was gloomy and cold and we were worried about dry rot. Now, this place is buzzing with life,” says David.
* Westwood Christian Centre: 01484 845042, www.westwood-centre.org.uk
* Green Building Co, Huddersfield, www.greenbuildingco.co.uk
HOW TOILET BLOCK BECAME AN ANNEXE
* Work on the Little House annexe started last September and is on the site of an old toilet block. The design was by David and the construction by the Golcar-based Green Building Company. The build cost was £120,000. The annexe has a timber frame clad in stone, 90 per cent of which was reclaimed from the privy.
* Green Building Company used Passivhaus techniques to seal the building, making it draught-proof and energy efficient. With high levels of insulation and air tightness, care was also taken to avoid condensation and vapour permeable materials were used. NBT’s Pavatherm woodchip sarking insulating board was used externally, which also help cut down on thermal bridging. They also installed a Japanese-inspired rainwater harvesting system, where water trickles down a metal chain into a soakaway.
* The windows are western red cedar that requires no maintenance and fades to a silver grey colour.
* The green roof is timber joists with an old telegraph pole from the Lapa Company as the main supporting beam. These are covered with plywood and felt topped with a root inhibiting layer and a drainage mat. A timber frame keeps gravel and compost in place and David and Glenys plan to plant sedum and herbs.