St Cuthbert's House was built in 1810 as a Presbyterian Church. We have a fascinating book, written in 1910 by the (then) Minister, detailing the ‘first 100 years’. It’s a charming and important historical document, and it’s available for you to browse during your stay.
We bought the church, and the adjoining manse next door, which became our family home in 1998, when the church closed its doors. The small congregation which was meeting there up to that point still meets together in the Parish church, just a few strides down the road. They will give you a very warm welcome if you visit them, especially if you tell them where you’re staying!
The old manse has been a beautiful and happy place to bring up our family of four children - who have now all become young adults!
The church building was in poor condition, quite dilapidated. We wanted to bring it to life so that it might continue to ‘tell the story’ which it had become part of over 200 years. It remains the most prominent building in the village of North Sunderland (which is now really a part of Seahouses, rather than a distinct community), and we wanted it to continue to welcome visitors, whether they be casual passers-by, pilgrims, or searchers…
And so eventually we began the painstaking job of re-designing and renovating the church. There are too many episodes in the ‘planning permission’ saga, which took a couple of years to get through - but perhaps we can tell you some of those over a glass of wine...
Work began in summer of 2007, and was completed in time to welcome our first visitors in May 2008. With hindsight, the actual building job went remarkably smoothly. We attribute this to the team of local tradesmen who worked with us, almost every day for many months. It means a lot to us that those men had real connections to this place, and cared about what was happening here. David's family is mentioned in that history booklet as founder-members of the church in 1810, and Billy (who was 72 the year he worked with us here) had many stories about being here as a child in the village. So these men took a genuine pride in what we were re-building together.
Many guests have since suggested that it might have been a good project to feature on 'Grand Designs' but we think the relative absence of any tantrums and drama might have made for boring telly!
The bedrooms and the lounge/dining room have been named after some of the Celtic Christian men and women who first brought the gospel to Northumbria, and to Britain - Cuthbert, Bede, Oswald, Brigid, Hild, Aidan - and Columba, who never came here but who 'started it all' in some ways, from his monastery on the island of Iona...
We have retained as much of the charm and character as possible - like the pulpit - now a ‘balcony’ viewing area on the first floor - the communion table, and some of the original pillars and panelling. Loads of original timber, including the floorboards, were carefully removed and have been re-integrated into the new construction.
St Cuthbert's House sits prominently on the Main Street (which is a relative term -about a dozen cars per day pass our door...)
The old church didn’t have a lot of land, and so most of the outside area has needed to be given over to hard-standing, primarily for car parking, at the behest of the planners. This was one of their strange insistences. Parking is just not an issue up here, and we would have much rather created a garden area… but car park it is. Although, it is still possible to sit out and enjoy a glass of wine on a summer evening. It’s enclosed by a fence which provides some privacy.
Come in through the entrance vestibule, and you arrive in the beautiful main meeting and living room. It’s 13m by 5m, running the full width of the building, and was created from the main sanctuary of the church.
It provides an eating area and a lounging area, and can be easily laid out to become a ‘presentation’ space for larger groups. The room has been seriously insulated internally to meet modern Building Regulations, but also incorporates some original pillars, panelling and the original timber floor. We've also put back some original ventilation ducts.
Effectively we have built a new building inside the old stone shell. The insulation and damp-proof membrane is incorporated into a timber framework built inside the stone wall.
We were a bit disappointed to find that all our great intentions to use an eco-friendly heating system were dimmed and eventually extinguished by a combination of planning constraints and impractical expense. So, we have a serious oil-fired central heating system, which will probably cost an ever-spiralling amount to refill until one day we can convert it to run on bio-diesel. Bring it on. But it does keep the place toasty and snug…
There’s a ‘state-of-the-art’ technology installation in this room: high powered adsl router giving 12 (cat6) network access ports, 8Mbps fast internet access, with wireless access throughout; NEC 2500ansi lumen ceiling mounted digital projector; 2 metre-wide 4:3 electric screen; and sound system with integrated DVD, music and radio player.
The lighting system has been carefully designed to allow various ‘moods’ to be created in this multi-functional space. All the new construction elements give outstanding acoustic and thermal insulation. The artwork and photography around the house is by local artists, and is entirely in keeping with the setting and the story. It's also for sale!
The kitchen opens off the Cuthbert Room, and is in the former church vestry.
We opened up t he old chimney breast to accommodate the Rangemaster Elan dual-fuelled cooking range, and some original heavy timbers have been incorporated as lintols over the window and chimney breast. David rebuilt the original sliding-sash window casement in here.
There was previously no water supply into the church at all (what, no tea after the service?) and so this was a real challenge. We had a new 32mm alkathene pipe threaded under the road (really - amazing!) and so we now have a super supply with good pressure.
Drainage was something we had to be very careful over. I can honstly say it was the only thing which I lost sleep over throughout the whole job. The problem was that the main sewer is fairly shallow, but we had a long run to get into it. So we had to be very careful to calculate the fall correctly, because we had absolutely no margin for error. I woke one night with the realisation that the calculations were wrong; we might summon the Water Authority to connect our pipe, and find we had arrived lower than the sewer. Thankfully we were able to correct the calculations, and I was mightily relieved when we finally had everything connected.
An oak kitchen was chosen to complement the communion table, which had long been earmarked as the serving island in the kitchen’s design.
A new opening, with a traditional hardwood door, gives access to the utility area outside. David created a very neat closed-off area to house the high-tech and very efficient condensing boiler (which provides the heating and hot water throughout this large house) and the laundry equipment.
The stairwell didn’t formerly exist. Access to the old upstairs balcony was via two very steep and scary stairways, one at each end of the building. This had to be completely redesigned in the new layout. The stairwell now gives light, spacious and airy access to the first floor. The window on the half-landing is a brand new one, made by local craftsmen in timber, with traditional lead-weighted sash openings, and set into the two-foot thick wall - a particularly fun job! Some of the external stone is original, but new pieces had to be incorporated. We were advised to coat the new stone in yogurt to make the moss and algi grow on it quickly, but we think it's doing just fine without that.
All the window openings have new sills made from some of the original timbers. Jill insisted on those lights up the stairs at floor level, even when the going got difficult, and we’re really glad she did.
The landing gives access to the four upstairs bedrooms, but before we go there, let’s pause to enjoy the view from the fantastic ‘viewing gallery’.
On the landing, the double doors are held open and you step through them into the relocated pulpit, which overhangs into the living area below. Ahead are the splendid long windows, with their green and yellow-brown tints, seen best in the sunlight which streams into this south-facing aspect. Below is the Cuthbert Room, and this gallery preserves and mimics the original first-floor balcony. It’s wonderful. We've hung an enormous print of our favourite painting so that it can be enjoyed from this fantastic vantage point.…
Two of the bedrooms each have a beautiful original arched window. Watching Billy score and form the new plasterboard linings into these openings was a treat. He's a great raconteur, and he told us many hilarious stories about his 57 years in the trade. He brought plastering techniques to these curves which are not readily available any more.
All other window openings are brand new, but I don’t think you’d know that if I hadn’t told you. They aer beautiful sliding sash casements made by craftsmen joiners in Berwick, and because they were modeled on the originals they look like they've been there for 200 years.
We built a 9-inch thick wall down the centre-line of the house, in order to provide excellent acoustic insulation between all the rooms - then the internal partitions are formed from timber framework. Those acoustic blocks weigh about three times as much as a standard breeze-block, and as the wall grew taller, we came to dread the evening hours. After the brickies went home, we would put tomorrow's stacks of blocks ready for them up on the scaffold, and we had to carry a whole day's supply up three ladders two at a time. Makes me shudder to think of it now.
The ensuite bathrooms in the two front rooms each have a 1200mm shower tray, so there’s plenty of room to turn around and enjoy the full, invigorating shower. Three of the others have a bath, with a cleverly-designed shower area at one end, and the Bede room has a fully-accessible walk-in wetroom which was difficult to get right - plumbing, drainage, underfloor heating and tiling jobs all vexed us - but it was worth it.
The brand new plumbing system is Rolls-Royce. Stop me if this is too much detail... but there are two stainless steel cylinders in the loft, each holding several hundred litres of hot water, which is fed at mains pressure to the traditional fixed shower heads. So showering is a very satisfying experience. Our spec for the plumbing system was written around the worst-case scenario, where twelve guests might arrive home at the same time cold and wet, and all want a bath or a shower immediately. No problem.
The old stone walls at ground-floor level were very rough and wonky, but they've now been straightened up in the process of insulating the walls within that new internal wooden framework. The new coving around the ceilings (an exact match to the original) restores the traditional finish.
We had to find a way to handle drainage, fan extraction, electrical installation and a plumbing system which needed to meet several criteria - including things like not being visible externally (so no new downpipes), not being audible inside when the next room flushes the loo, and getting fan extraction out through the roof from these downstairs bedrooms. Not easy - but all achieved.