10 February 2012
The Chapels Society seeks to encourage interest in the architectural and historical importance of all places of worship that might loosely described as Nonconformist. These primarily comprise the buildings of Christian bodies (Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox) outside the Established Church. As part of our role of promoting the survival of Nonconformist places of worship we offer advice and encouragement to those responsible for their upkeep. In some cases this means that we get involved with discussions about the conversion of redundant chapels to other uses.
At present there are around 8,500 places of worship belonging to the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union in England alone. The large number of Nonconformist churches and chapels is partly the result of the many schisms that characterise the history of Nonconformity in the UK and means that some of these buildings are now surplus to requirements. Converting chapels into other uses can be a considerable challenge so the Chapels Society is always pleased when we see good examples. Two recent conversions that have managed to achieve the balance between preserving the character and significance of the building whilst meeting modern needs are the Caistor Heritage Centre and the Brasserie Blanc in Bristol.
Caistor Heritage Centre was created from the former Primitive Methodist Westgate Chapel in the centre of Caistor by Jonathan Hendry Architects. The chapel was originally constructed in 1838 and was rebuilt in 1869. When the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists congregations came together in the 1950s, the chapel became redundant and eventually it was transferred to Lincolnshire County Council and used as a youth centre for a number of years. The project to convert the chapel into a library, heritage centre and café began in earnest in 2010 with a grant of £433,000 from the Big Lottery Fund and the building re-opened in the spring of 2011. The chapel has been transformed and the light, airy modern design of the new fittings sits very comfortably against the historic fabric. The building is popular with locals and visitors alike and the café, which features the best of local Lincolnshire produce, does a roaring trade.
The conversion of the Quakers Friars Meeting House, a Grade I listed building built between 1747 and 1749 to the designs of George Tully, is also remarkable. The Meeting House sits in the heart of the £500 million Cabot Circus shopping development in Bristol, but despite the modern commercial surroundings, its interest and charm has not been lost. It has been sensitively repaired and converted into a restaurant by the Brasserie Blanc chain. New services and seating have been carefully placed so that diners can still appreciate the lofty proportions of this important building.
Although it is always sad to hear of a chapel no longer being needed for worship it seems that there can be a bright future for these buildings after all.
Post by Sara Crofts, Hon. Secretary of The Chapels Society.
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