Pods and Pews

Extending the Use of Churches

Wendy Coombey and Tim Bridges

St. Mary Magdalene Church in the Herefordshire parish of Turnastone
St. Mary Magdalene Church in the Herefordshire parish of Turnastone is one of many churches in England with a declining congregation coupled with mounting maintenance and repair costs. This Grade II* listed church dates from the late 12th/early 13th century. (Photo: Tim Bridges)

IF YOU ever venture to the far west of England, into the glorious county of Herefordshire to drive, cycle or walk through the ancient landscape, you could not fail to notice the numerous sandstone churches scattered about the countryside. However, sometimes people simply take church buildings for granted. After all, they have been there for many hundreds of years and their permanence, their visibility or their place in our landscape can seem to be beyond doubt. Nevertheless, we need to wake up to the fact that there is a gentle but slowly creeping crisis that is bringing their future into question across the whole country.

The Diocese of Hereford is one of the most rural in the Church of England with 406 open churches within a 1,650 square mile area. It employs a community partnership and funding officer and a church buildings support officer (funded by Historic England) who are well aware of both local and wider challenges faced by many church communities in caring for their listed buildings, and so are continually looking for ways to support these communities to move towards a secure future for their churches.

Many of the reasons for growing levels of anxiety around the future of church buildings are well known and documented: decreasing church attendance, elderly congregations as well as significant changes to life in rural communities. When these are combined with declining revenue streams, lack of capacity to manage basic maintenance and perhaps most importantly that, for the first time since the 1970s, there is no dedicated or adequate funding program to support parishes to carry out major repairs on their church buildings, the challenge can seem huge.

Nevertheless, our church buildings are still here, still open (Covid-19 restrictions aside) and still being used as much loved places of worship at the heart of our parishes, villages, towns and cities. The question asked in Hereford Diocese is what else, besides regular repairs and maintenance, will give church buildings a more secure future? Maintenance alone won’t guarantee sustainable future use, it won’t always give a church purpose, attract more worshipers or encourage local community activity in the building, and if no one is using it, is there any point in carrying out maintenance? Should we just let these buildings slip into gradual ruinous decline?

Church buildings have always been designed for use by people, firstly as places of worship, but also as places to meet, congregate and provide a spiritual, social and cultural focus for a community. There is a fluidity in the way churches have been used over the centuries, which has changed regularly with time.

Hereford Diocese adopts a community development approach to the sustainability of a church building; working with local people and combining a pragmatic mix of community use with heritage conservation and development. This encourages parishes to engage in the widest community involvement, advocate strong project development and where possible, involve local people in project management and delivery. It works with the Parochial Church Council (PCC) and others locally to consider and identify opportunities for diversification and new ways of thinking about how to use their church building.

Sam Hine of Communities Can, a local community development and social enterprise specialist, has supported several of Hereford Diocese’s parishes. When asked about the importance of community development in making changes to parish churches and building uses, she said,

As with any community-based initiatives, if they are to succeed there needs to be local ownership. People need to feel engaged and involved, to discuss options, consider challenges and obstacles and develop shared solutions. By getting more people interested you can share the workload and any anxieties as well as coming up with innovative ideas and suggestions. There may well be people in the local community with wide ranging skills – people that may not be regular church goers but have a genuine interest in the building and its long term future within the landscape. For projects to be successful you should try to identify and address a local need or create a new social enterprise opportunity that people will invest time and energy into for the long term. Parishes often need support in this early development work, to build their confidence and capacity, working together to turn their ideas into feasible proposals that they can seek funding to develop further and implement.

Over the years, this community development approach has meant that the Diocese has been able to bring forward a number of projects to create new uses within its churches, all of which sit alongside their primary role as places of worship. These include shops, post offices, heritage centres, performance spaces, cafes, libraries, meeting places, digital hubs, community hubs and more, in an effort to help parishes to develop their assets for wider use and enjoyment. The Diocese supports a spirit of entrepreneurial development; and in that spirit has been working on creating a new use for one of its churches.


Virtuous Circles master plan
Virtuous Circles is a new project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which aims to help maintain open churches and contribute towards their long term financial viability through tourism.

Virtuous Circles is a sustainable tourism project exploring an intriguing new use for churches currently open for worship. The aim is to create a revenue-generating social enterprise initiative, capable of providing income to help maintain open churches and contribute towards their financial sustainability, by installing high quality, well designed holiday accommodation into ecclesiastical buildings. A key element of Virtuous Circles is the exploration of how best to involve the PCC and the wider community in this endeavour.

  Perspectives of the proposed pod at Turnastone during service use.  
  Perspectives of the proposed pod at Turnastone during service use.  
  Perspectives of the proposed pod at Turnaston at night when in use as visitor accommodation  
  Perspectives of the proposed pod at Turnaston at night when in use as visitor accommodation (Images: Connolly Wellingham)  

Virtuous Circles has been in development for several years; with a closed church in Herefordshire originally chosen as the pilot. Sadly, the church was in such a poor state of repair that the overall project was not able to offer sufficient value for money to the funders, due to the large cost of essential renovations and repairs. While this was initially a disappointing outcome it did establish one of the first fundamental principles of a future roll out; churches need to be in a reasonable state of repair if an accommodation pod project is to offer value for money.

Despite this original failure, a partnership was formed in 2018 with the Churches Conservation Trust, the National Churches Trust and the Herefordshire and Shropshire Churches Tourism Groups to try to bring forward Virtuous Circles II. In 2019 they were successful in their application to the All Churches Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Inspiring Ideas Programme, which is specifically focused on the sustainability of church buildings. The funding was granted to develop the model of overnight accommodation in churches, carry out the architectural and design work needed, test the business case and implement a pilot for others to learn from. As one of the main aims of the project is to explore how (if the pilot is successful) other churches can engage with the concept, a key outcome is the creation of a development guide. The guide will include different operational management models, options on how to develop and implement the concept and provide guidance for others who might be interested in providing overnight holiday accommodation in their churches.

St Mary Magdalene’s Church at Turnastone has been chosen as the building to test the accommodation pod concept. However, capital funding will need to be secured to implement the Turnastone project once the development work is complete and the necessary permissions secured.

Vowchurch and Turnastone PCC has appointed Connelly Wellingham as the project architects and Sam Hine as the project manager. Sam’s role is to provide the link between the project team, design team, national partners, the PCC and local stakeholders. Virtuous Circles operates at a number of levels: at the local level with the Turnastone pilot and at a more strategic level in designing and developing a replicable project concept that can be rolled out to other interested churches and parishes. .


  Sustainable timber pod - sketch  
  Fergus Connolly and Charlie Wellingham led the design team for Virtuous Circles with the goal of designing sustainable timber pods sympathetically positioned in under-used areas of the nave. These eco-pods are intended to be easily reproduced and almost completely reversible..  
  Sustainable timber pod - plan  

Over the past year, Fergus Connelly and Charlie Wellingham have spent their time working with the PCC and listening to their views to perfect and refine the design to meet local expectations in Turnastone. Sam has supported the PCC and worked on business planning, operational challenges, management structures and testing out ideas with the PCC and the project team.

When asked what they see as fundamental to the longterm future of the scheme, the architects responded:

Economy and cost are critical to the success of this project, and as we test the business case alongside design development, we are hopeful this becomes a real means of sustainable economic futures for churches.

The main cost efficiencies this scheme can offer will be through the time and material savings of off-site pre-fabrication, and the economies of scale of replicable details in the construction and fit-out. The more standardised the units become, the easier and cheaper they will be to duplicate in future schemes and roll out to help more churches across the United Kingdom.

However, it is clear to us as architects that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not be appropriate to the vastly varied interiors of these historically significant listed buildings. Striking the right balance is essential; between an economically efficient and standardised unit (that might be inappropriate to the variety of church interiors), and a bespoke unit crafted to reflect each individual church (that might be too expensive to offer a genuinely viable and affordable solution).

The Diocese of Hereford has spent many years supporting parishes with their church buildings, and this exciting project is yet another tool to go alongside others like Crossing the Threshold and Mission and Mortar; a new online resource platform specifically designed to share knowledge and information more widely and time efficiently. Hopefully these projects will give churches within Herefordshire and other rural areas a sustainable future, allowing them to continue as much loved places of worship and to remain open in the hearts of their communities.

Further Information

Diocese of Hereford, www.hereford.anglican.org/parish-support/community-partnership/crossing-the-threshold-toolkit and www.hereford.anglican.org/parish-support/community-partnership/mission-and-mortar

Herefordshire churches, www.visitherefordshirechurches.co.uk/

Communities Can, www.communities-can.co.uk/

Connolly Wellingham Architects, www.connollywellingham.com


BCD Special Report On Historic Churches 27th Annual Edition, 2020


WENDY COOMBEY and TIM BRIDGES work for the Diocese of Hereford. She is Community Partnership and Fundraising Officer, as well as the Chair of Herefordshire Churches Tourism Group. He is Church Buildings Support Officer and also works at The Victorian Society as a conservation advisor.

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