Northern Ireland couple transform derelict church into luxury Airbnb holiday let
Melanie and Martin Hamill tell Stephanie Bell about their extensive three-year project to rescue a disused Presbyterian Church in Strangford - and how former parishioners were delighted to help with the restoration
It was one of Strangford's most historic landmark church buildings which had been left to rot and fall into ruin until its new neighbours decided to rescue it. Melanie and Martin Hamill were disturbed by the sorry state of the 19th century listed Presbyterian Church when they moved into the house next door in 2016.
The church on Quarry Hill at the entrance to the village coming in from Downpatrick dates back to 1846.
It had served its congregation for 150 years and had been on the 'Buildings at Risk' register since 2003, after suffering the fate of many churches in modern times - declining congregations, eventual closure and then lying vacant for many years.
The building had been such a beauty in its day that it received Category A status from the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1969 and then became listed as a building of architectural and historic interest in 1978.
Determined to restore its original beauty as much as possible, Melanie and Martin went to great lengths to source and use local craftsmen to save and restore many original features such as cornicing, windows and doors.
A painstaking process, they even imported special paint from Germany to bring the beautiful facade of the building back to its original glory.
Melanie (42) is an architect who runs her own practice, Melanie O'Reilly Architects in her home town of Strangford, and her husband Martin (44), who grew up in nearby Saul, is an engineer. The couple have three children - Percy (9), Rose (6) and Thomas (3).
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Now telling the full story of the restoration of the church which took three long years, the Hamills admit the project became a labour of love for them.
And former members of the congregation were also delighted to see the church being brought back to life and were regular visitors during the restoration work.
Recalling how the project came about, Melanie says: "When we moved house we quickly realised that our new neighbour was in a very perilous condition. It had lain derelict for many years and it was clear that the continued neglect of this iconic building would very soon render it irreparable.
"Like many people in Strangford, Marty and I grew up with the sight of this church at the entrance of the village, and we were very much drawn to the building's historical significance.
"We approached the owners in 2016 and the acquisition took some time because they had bought it with plans to develop it but in the end did not do so.
"We were determined to rescue the church and so after much discussion they eventually agreed to sell. It was a real challenge, but an exciting one for us."
The church was missing slates and had broken windows which allowed water to get in causing part of the ceiling to collapse.
The first phase of the project was initial emergency repairs which took a year to complete and then another year was spent securing planning and listed building consent and approvals, with the final year focused on the conversion to a unique, modern holiday home.
There was no electric, heating or water in the church so everything had to be installed.
The couple used local tradesmen with the main contractor, KCL Contracts, based in nearby Downpatrick, and the new kitchen was made by Eamon Cultra from just three miles away in Kilclief.
"Given the deteriorating state of the church our priority was to make the building watertight even before we had fully decided what the future of the building was to be," explains Melanie.
"Missing slates, failing windows and missing rainwater goods had caused rain damage to the roof, ceiling and internal plaster.
"This first phase of repair involved the replacement of like-for-like materials and the renewal of the existing structure. A lot of research was carried out to ensure that the correct materials and traditional methods were used. Everyone had a sense of pride in the project, and took great care to do everything well.
"We have respectfully restored the church, retaining original features, with any new construction work occurring towards the back of the building and not in view from the main front facade.
"We used all natural products in terms of insulation and breathable paints on the existing stone walls and plaster and lath ceilings.
"Former congregation members are delighted to see it saved, with some visiting the site during the works, and providing us with the history of the building as well as some artefacts such as the pulpit Bible."
There were many challenges to overcome along the way. The first was the church's beautiful large arched windows which had to be removed so that the rotting timber could be repaired and the broken glass replaced.
Melanie says: "This was a nerve-wracking time as the huge windows had to be painstakingly removed to avoid any damage to the stone structure surrounding them.
"The windows were placed on trestles and as there was no electricity in the building arc lights were placed surrounding them so that they could be repaired by removing the rot and splicing with mahogany."
The next challenge was the architecturally beautiful facade. Again, the couple went to great lengths to remain true to the original.
Melanie explains: "The walls had to be repaired by lime rendering, in keeping with the original work. Lime render had to be applied, with each coat being allowed to slowly and fully dry out before the next application. The job was finished off by the use of a special Keim paint, imported from Germany. This allows the paint and wall to breathe.
"We were fortunate to be able to inspect peelings of the original paintwork and so could match the colour more accurately. A great job was done by the local team of workers, led by Declan McFall of Killard Contracts."
All that was needed now was the front door key. After much research and discussion on the whereabouts of the original key from remaining members of the congregation, the key could not be found.
Melanie's father Tom, who is a former science teacher and enjoys a challenge, suggested trying to make one.
She says: "My dad removed the lock from the door and made the large key to fit the lock mechanism and it has allowed us to keep the wonderful original front door."
Deciding on how to use the building was another challenge, as Melanie explains: "Much discussion then took place to decide what to do with this wonderful building. It is of vital importance for an historic building such as the church, that a sustainable use is found in order to preserve the building and to keep it maintained.
"Our preferred option was to have a public use for the church, but this option was not financially viable. It was suggested that we could turn the church into apartments but that did not appeal to us and would result in the loss of much of the character of the space.
"We decided in the end to convert it into a single dwelling for use as a holiday let. As an architect I worked on a plan which would make the most of the elevated position of the building and the unique windows offering views of the surrounding countryside and Castleward bay."
Three years later and the old church has taken on new life as a stunning holiday let which can be booked through Airbnb.
The couple have carried off a spectacular conversion by retaining the character and beauty of the original church inside and out and yet allowing it to be reborn as a modern and bright home.
As you enter through the front vestibule you are immediately struck by the sense of space in the double height living area.
Here the kitchen, dining and living area are situated in one bright open plan space with the original pulpit used to form part of the stairway up to a new mezzanine level.
Five double bedrooms are located at the back of the building, four with en suite and a family bathroom.
All the rooms have the feel of a luxury boutique hotel, each with its own smart TV, desk and ample storage.
Melanie says: "Four of the bedrooms were built within the church sanctuary space and have an internal window looking back into the living space, giving the occupant a continued connection back to the sanctuary.
"I didn't want people to wake up and not realise they were in a church! The windows have electric blinds for privacy and the fifth bedroom was the original 'session house' of the church."
Two of the bedrooms are on the first floor and in order to keep the beauty of the large windows from being hidden, Melanie installed glazing on part of the floor.
"The full length of the church window is still visible, and that retains a sense of connection with the original fabric of the building," she says.
Melanie is thrilled with the finished result and adds: "In homage to the history of the church and the great love and pride the successive congregations felt about it we have placed information on its history and photographs throughout the building so that visitors can be aware of the great devotion of the congregation of Strangford Presbyterian Church."