Converting a chapel into a unique family home: two years hard labour!

Picture of Paul Travers

Paul Travers

Peggy Prendeville’s epic tale of turning a Victorian converted chapel into a unique family home.

 

When we first met Peggy Prendeville in 1999, she was living in London’s very first loft development at the former Spratt’s dog food factory on Limehouse Cut. We’d just sold her neighbour’s apartment in three days, which began our long-term relationship with the building.

At that first meeting, little did either of us know of the journey that lay ahead, taking Peggy from an edgy East End loft to a converted chapel in a leafy Camberwell enclave. And while she might have just won London’s Most Client-Focused International Interior Architect and Designer at the House And Garden Awards 2023, her life was very different back then.

 

What followed is an epic tale of renovation, determination, scraping around for cash and dealing with English Heritage, all while juggling the demands of two children and a full-time career.

 

And who better to tell the story than Peggy herself?

 

 

“It was perfect timing.”

When our next-door neighbour knocked on our door to tell us they’d found a great agent to sell their place, it turned out to be Unique Property Company. It was perfect timing because we’d just sold our warehouse flat and were going to start looking for somewhere new to buy that week.

We talked about where I wanted to move to. Even though Unique had a factory space in Clapton that sounded just right, they recommended, quite rightly, that we didn’t go, because we’d said we wanted trees.

 

They thought Clapton was still too urban for us at that point, but they did have something else in mind…

 

 

“The place was flooded with viewers.”

Unique showed us two homes in one day. The first was an awful church conversion, and the second was a converted chapel in Camberwell, this place, which was perfect.

 

The place was flooded with viewers, and I was the first to say “yes”. I shook on a deal with the owner, but then it transpired that everyone else wanted it too. A week later, he received an offer of £50k more than the price we’d agreed.

 

Luckily, he was an old-school lawyer, and I think he saw our handshake as legally binding. Then he spoke to his mum about it, and she said: “You have to sell it to the lady with whom you shook hands.”

Converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

Although he wasn’t in a hurry to move out, his one condition was to exchange contracts within two weeks. We’d just exchanged on our sale in Limehouse, and the buyers wanted a long completion, which gave me the time to save up more cash as I couldn’t get a large enough mortgage.

 

It was a big financial stretch, so I had to say no when the owner asked if I wanted to buy the fridge and washing machine. It was so tight that I couldn’t even afford those!

 

 

“I’d heard a lot of grumblings about English heritage.”

After living in an art gallery-style warehouse, moving into a converted chapel with so many carvings and panels was very odd. I felt like Mrs Modern in a very old building – not at all in my comfort zone!

 

It was, therefore, very heartening that English Heritage wanted me to go modern. They wanted to see a distinct contrast between the original features and anything new. I took note and used stainless steel, lots of glass and modern lighting. The final outcome was an eclectic mix which has actually gone on to influence my work.

The kitchen at a converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

Because the building is Grade 2 listed with a star, it gets treated a bit like Grade 1. Anything you do has to be reversible. So apart from the large holes in the brickwork to support all the structural beams, I haven’t screwed or nailed anything to the fabric of the building. I didn’t want to chase wiring into walls, so we hid it inside cupboards and ran it behind boxing in.

 

I’d heard a lot of grumblings about English Heritage. I expected them to be difficult to work with, but I was pleasantly surprised by their attitude. They don’t expect you to live like it’s the 18th century.

 

 

‘We managed to do it without the usual stud partitions.’

The previous owner lived here alone and hadn’t done that much, besides hinging all the stained-glass windows’ lower sections to create natural light with double glazing. He’d also added some space by moving the wooden chancel screen forward and creating a mezzanine above.

 

We needed a family home where I could also work, which meant fitting in multiple new rooms. It seems mad when you have a big converted chapel, but the available area to fit in three bedrooms and two workrooms was quite small.

 

To avoid wasting space, I designed it all without any stud partitions. Instead, all the room divisions were created with back-to-back shelving.

Triple-height living space at a converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

To achieve more floor space, we built another level above the mezzanine. The ceiling was easily high enough to take three floors, and we used glass balustrading to keep the sightlines clear. This is where all the bedrooms are, with the main bedroom occupying the entire top floor.

 

At the other end of the chapel, we created another mezzanine. This gave us a second sitting room to have the TV away from the main living space downstairs.

 

For the bathrooms, we made one out of the area where the organ used to be, and a second secret bathroom through a wardrobe door. Then, as a personal luxury, I put a freestanding bath in the corner of my bedroom.

 

 

“It was a bit of a slog.”

Back then, I had no money for a contractor, which meant employing the builders and buying materials myself.

 

All the tradesmen were excellent, apart from my first set of carpenters, who turned out to be alcoholics. Whenever I wasn’t on site, they’d disappear to the local pub and not come back. Once I found them out, I replaced them with a wonderful, newly graduated sculptor from The Royal College of Art. He took over all the carpentry work and was also brilliant at plastering and decorating. And with nowhere to live at the time, he moved into my building site!

Bedroom at a converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

The chapel was no place for a family during the initial heavy building works, so we moved in with my mum in Highgate. I’d drive my son to school in Victoria every morning, then come here to supervise the builders. In the afternoon, I’d repeat the process in reverse. This went on for nine months and was a bit of a slog!

 

We then became desperate to get back into our own place. So we swapped with the sculptor – he moved in with my mum and made the daily commute instead. My daughter didn’t want to come until her room was complete, so she stayed at granny’s and got the tube to school. My son was more game and moved into a bedroom with just two completed walls!

 

It took a further 15 months – two years of hard labour in all – for the place to be finally finished.

 

 

“I can’t believe I live in a converted chapel.”

For many years, I’d wake up and think, “I can’t believe I live in a converted chapel.” It feels like I’m a caretaker of history, rather than an owner of a property.

 

One of the nicest things is having a freestanding bath. I love starting the day with a bubble bath and looking across the length of the chapel to the triple stained-glass window at the opposite altar end. Depending on the time of year, you get these amazing shafts of morning colour streaming in as the sun comes out.

Freestanding bath at a converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

It’s been a very comfortable place to raise a family, with plenty of space for everyone. It was also a great place to live during the Covid lockdowns. The Chapel and the park across the road became our entire world.

 

Over the years, several friends have asked if they can throw their parties here. I’ve hosted charity events, concerts, and a wedding reception! The Chapel was also used as a film location in A Private War with Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan. This involved hundreds of people and full-time security, along with production and catering vans parked all the way down the road for three days. Alas, most of the footage wound up on the cutting room floor.

 

Even though I’ve lived here long enough to have enjoyed it over the past 24 years, I know I’ll be very sad when we sell.

 

 

“I don’t want to live in the countryside.”

I’m a city person, and the plan is to live more and more centrally. My priority has always been about space rather than location, and I don’t want to live in the countryside. I discovered the Thames when living in Limehouse Cut, and then realised how near Camberwell is to the centre of town and the river too.

The piano lounge at a converted chapel for sale in Camberwell

So our aim is to find an apartment in a modern development in the middle of London. Somewhere with a gym and pool, as my partner loves swimming, and a smaller place that still has high ceilings. Somewhere really comfortable with a service charge and managing agent, so I’m not responsible for any maintenance!

 

Peggy’s converted chapel is for sale at £2,950,000. Would you like to know more? Click here to view the video tour, image gallery and floor plans.

 

And if you’d like to see more of Peggy’s work, click here for her website, or follow her on Instagram.

Do you have a unique home to
sell or let?

Everything begins with a conversation.

Would you like to get our newsletter?

Or, receive regular property alerts.

You can sign up here for property alerts and for our fortnightly newsletter on property, lifestyle and design.