Former art historian converts 200-year-old church where she married into booming holiday let

by Francesca
  • Anne Monroe, a former art historian and curator, decided to buy the church next to her home in Tarset, near Kielder Water, when there was talk of it being sold – after all, it had played a significant role in her family’s life 
  • The Greystead Church, St Lukes, which dates back to 1818, – it was where Anne and her husband married, where they christened all four of their children and where Anne visited as a child with her parents. 
  • It took the Monroe family 4 years to get the church commissioners and LPAs on board, but in 2012 they were able to buy the church for a nominal sum as it was hardly worth anything after being deconsecrated in the 1990s. 
  • Anne and her husband have completely overhauled the property, turning it into a popular holiday let and have had it valued at £400,000, as well as earning them over £35k a year. 
  1. When did you buy the property?

We bought the property from the Church of England in 1998 after it had been closed as a church and deconsecrated.

  1. Did you know it was listed?

Yes, I grew up at the Old Rectory next door, and then my husband Bill and I moved back here with our own family in 1989. So, we’d always known that both the church and rectory were Grade 2 listed.

When the church was put up for sale, we were able to buy it for a relatively small amount due to a number of restrictive covenants placed on the building by the Church of England, which meant that it could be used only for household storage.

  1. Are there any interesting stories relating to the history of the property?

Yes, there are tons!

The Old Church and Old Rectory form one of a group of churches in the North Tyne valley that were originally built by Greenwich Hospital, which owned much of the land in the area that had formerly belonged to the leading Jacobite James, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater. He was executed after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, and his lands were confiscated by the crown.

Later, the churches and rectories were used by the Royal Naval College to accommodate former naval chaplains who had served on battleships in the Napoleonic wars, but who were surplus to requirements after the victories at the battles of Trafalgar and then Waterloo. However, Greenwich Hospital had built these churches in remote and sparsely populated rural areas about as far from the sea as possible, and the first rector of Greystead ended his days in an asylum. A neighbouring rector suffered a similar fate. It seems likely that they had found the solitude difficult to cope with after a life on busy British warships. The first rector of Greystead’s memorial still stands in Greystead Old Church.  

We also have a special personal history with Greystead Old Church, as we were married there 1987. Our four children were all christened at the church, and I have fond memories of going to church there with my parents when I was a child.

We live in the Old Rectory, next door to the church, and our family own and run two other holiday lets on the same site, Greystead Coach House, the original Coach House and stables for the Rectory, and Greystead Institute, a Victorian church hall built in 1895 to provide religious education for the children of Greystead parish.

We purchased this in 2017 after it had lain redundant for over 40 years and restored and converted it during 2018-2019 in a heritage project similar to the one at the Old Church, opening it as a holiday let in May 2019.

  1. What condition was it in when you bought it?

When we bought the church, it needed extensive renovations, and by the time we were able to begin the restoration, several of the lancet windows had become very damaged, with cracked and broken panes of glass. There were even birds nesting inside some of them! And areas of damp.

The renovations were extensive, involving a complete restoration of the exterior and interior of the building, including the tower crenellations and roof, the neo-Gothic windows, and the original hair plaster ceiling.

A key aspect of the project was to give the building a proper, eco-friendly heating system via a biomass boiler, and to provide proper lighting for the first time (the converted gas lamps were kept and converted to electricity). All of this was in addition to the works to convert the church into a holiday let, and we worked with our architect and heritage specialists to restore its historic charm for holiday guests. The works began in 2013 after a long period of consultations with heritage bodies and took a total of six months to complete.

  1. Did you have to do any structural alterations?

In terms of structural alterations, we tried to keep as many of the original features as possible, as we wanted to showcase the church’s historic past. The conversion’s project’s key principle was therefore that everything we did would be reversible, so our architect designed a new mezzanine floor, with bedrooms below, which would fit inside the original space, retaining as much of the original spatial flow as possible, but which could be reversed without any damage to the building if a new use was ever found for the church in the future. 

The east end altar area, and west end of the church around the entrance door, retained their full-height, and we preserved the axial view of the stained-glass window from the west end entrance via a newly created central corridor. Other original features we’ve kept include a fully-restored Victorian stained glass window, all the other lancet windows (we obtained Listed Building Consent to replace some of the frosted panes with clear glass so as to allow light into the building, and provide views of the very picturesque churchyard), the Gothic archway, as well as the Georgian stonework and original panelling, and Victorian tiling. 

None of this would have been possible without a major grant towards the restoration and conversion from Northumberland Uplands Leader, as well as a grant from the Northumberland National Park’s Sustainable Development Fund towards the restoration of the stained glass and other lancet windows.

As well as restoring and renovating the interiors, we also created a new access and parking area in the churchyard, as well as forming a garden for the Old Church in a quiet area of the Old Rectory garden next door. We’ve also installed a stargazing platform in the grounds for guests, who also have the use of the tennis court in the original Rectory Walled Garden.

We currently have plans to open the interior of the tower (the only part of the building that was not converted in 2013), via a spiral staircase. This will enable visitors to see the original bell, which dates back to 1817, and enjoy the panoramic views looking out from across the bell tower.  As we live in a Dark Skies area, we also hope our guests will have a star-gaze from the top of the tower!

  1. Did you do much in the way of DIY?

Bill and I have no skills at all in DIY! However, we are both art historians, and I worked as a museum curator, including for English Heritage, for many years, so we do have considerable experience of working with architects and other experts on historic buildings.

We were lucky enough to be supported brilliantly by our architect Tristan Spicer of Kevin Doonan architects in nearby Hexham, and we had a fantastic team of builders from the Northumbrian firm, Historic Property Restoration Ltd, who work on a large number of English Heritage buildings, including churches and abbeys, and have huge expertise in this area.

  1. Did any works require planning permission and how did you find the process?

Yes, this part of the project was by far the longest and most complex, taking around four years of discussions. The stakeholders were not only Northumberland National Park Planning and Listed Building Officers, but the Church Commissioners, the Diocese of Newcastle, and the Rector and Parish Church Council, as well as, most importantly, our local community.

Our first discussions were with the Church Commissioners, to ask them to release some of the restrictive covenants placed on the church when it was sold, so as to enable a use to be found for the building that would provide enough ongoing income to enable it to be restored. Also, because we live in a national park, we were governed by rules relating to redundant buildings that would not permit the church to be converted into a house, and that allowed business use only.

A holiday let therefore seemed an ideal solution, acceptable to both the Church Commissioners, and to the planners. As we already ran one holiday let at Greystead Coach House, we felt enthusiastic about this use of the building.

The Diocese of Newcastle and the Rector and PCC were involved as owners of the churchyard, and we needed a Church of England ‘Faculty’ to allow us to route service pipes for heating, lighting etc through the churchyard. We also negotiated to rent, on a long lease, an area of the churchyard near the entrance gates to provide essential car parking and access to the church itself, since, when we purchased the church in 1998, the sale had included only the footprint of the building itself, and no accompanying land.

So, the process was both time-consuming and lengthy, but we were fortunate to be able to reach agreement with all the stakeholders involved in a constructive and positive way. The release of the covenants, however, meant that we had to pay for the uplift in value that would result from the fact that the church could now be used for holiday lets, not just storage, so all of this took time to negotiate. The legal agreements at the end of the process were highly convoluted and took months to complete!

  1. What restrictions were imposed on any improvements, if any, and how did you cope with them?

As we were keen to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible, there were no real issues here, as we were very much in agreement with what the Listed Building Office proposed. The only thing I remember regretting was that, in the east end altar area, we had to raise the floor to avoid a change in level where the original altar rail had been, and, because of this, we were required to leave the very beautiful Georgian flagstones buried beneath the new floor level in their original position, whereas we’d have liked to raise them to the new level so that visitors could enjoy them. However, they are still there for future generations, we hope, to enjoy!

We also found a good solution to this problem by extending the original Victorian tiling under the stained-glass window into the newly raised floor area, sourcing an exact match of tiles, so we were very pleased with the result.

  1. Is there anything you regret and would you have done anything differently?

Apart from the issue with the flagstones (see 9 above), I don’t think we have any major regrets. We wish we’d been able to leave a bit more space for storage – especially given the building’s use as a holiday let, not least during Covid-19, when we need extra cleaning equipment – but we wanted to give as much space as we could to the new bedrooms and bathrooms/en suites, so this really wasn’t practicable.  

  1. Have you lived in the property or was it always intended as a holiday home?

Because of the planning restrictions, the Old Church was always intended as a holiday home, and residential use would not have been possible. As we live next door, we already have a home on the same site – although we did hold a party there for our twins on the occasion of their 21st  a few years ago by booking the holiday let out to ourselves for a few days!

  1. Finally, could you please confirm your profession?

Prior to managing our holiday lets, I worked as an art historian, lecturer and museum curator for over 25 years, and my area of expertise is the Georgian period, so moving into heritage management projects felt very much like a natural progression. 

To book a stay at Greystead Old Church, visit or call 01244 617683.

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