A Private View: in praise of an ecologically sound Cotswolds conversion
Having bought their Victorian home through The Modern House, Sheena and Paul Murphy had a vision to turn the Wiltshire manse and chapel into an environmentally responsible weekend retreat that didn’t compromise on character. Three years later, it’s a revelation, a place to commune with nature and contemplate the joys of country life – and it’s on the market
- Grace McCloud
- Ollie Tomlinson
We all know there’s a difference between looking for a home to buy and lusting over improbable Rightmove listings. And yet sometimes, as in the case of Sheena and Paul Murphy, the line between the two can get a little blurry. In 2020, the couple – she the founder of interior-design studio Nune, he a start-up founder – were in fact mid-renovation in London when they happened upon Chapel House, a 19th-century ecclesiastical conversion in North Wraxall, Wiltshire, then for sale with The Modern House. Paul had sent the listing to Sheena and suggested they go and see it. “It wasn’t unusual for us to ping each other houses we liked,” she says, “but I did think that was a bit of a stretch. I thought we were just having fun online! We really weren’t looking to buy a house in the country.”
And yet they did. How on earth did that happen? Paul laughs. “The house was so popular we were asked to make a pre-emptive offer to show how serious we were about viewing. It made us stop and think, at which point we realised what a prospect it was.” The pair were used to the urban/rural split, having had a similar set-up when they lived in New York. “We loved being able to drive two hours and feel a world away from the city.” Their offer was accepted and, before they knew it, the house was theirs.
Though the chapel and adjoining manse were both intrinsically appealing, Sheena and Paul felt they needed to make their mark – not least in terms of the ecological performance of these old structures. “We had a vision of where we could take it,” Paul continues, “though we definitely underestimated how much there was to do.” The work they did over the following three years is nothing short of awesome – and yet much of it is invisible, says Paul, referencing the radical overhaul they gave the insulation and plumbing, heating and electricity systems.
That said, much of it is on show – and gloriously so. The house’s sleek, calming interiors are a calling card of Nune’s understated style, while the surrounding land, reimagined with the help of Marion Boswell, who specialises in historic gardens, has been transformed. “We’ve created a proper haven for wildlife to thrive in,” Sheena says, wide-eyed as she tells of the bees and butterflies that buzz and flutter as you swim in the sustainably heated pool. “It’s been joyous to see.”
Such work – and such reward – means that, of course, putting the house on the market throws up mixed emotions for the pair. “We’ve had a wonderful time working on this place and enjoying it with friends and family,” says Paul. “But we’ve started working on another project in Dorset and we now need to focus there.” Sheena picks up the thread: “We’ve had such amazing experiences in this house. I just know that somebody else’s life will be as enriched by it.”
Sheena: “Paul and I are not the kind of people that walk into a house and think: ‘This is exactly right for how we want to live.’ I can definitely see the appeal in buying a finished place – especially if you’re buying a second home – but for better or worse, we’re drawn to places that we have the potential to turn into exactly what we want.
“In this case, we wanted to create a refuge from the city: a place we could just arrive and breathe. And ultimately, that’s what it became – after a lot of work…
“We’d spent a good amount of time in the Cotswolds, but not in this particular area, which is a bit more hidden. Though we’re on the borders of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire – and just 10 minutes from Bath – it’s somehow a bit under-the-radar. Our neighbours here are cows, sheep and horses and yet you can jump in the car and, within a few minutes, be at an amazing farm shop. In half an hour you’re in Bristol! That really suited us, because we wanted somewhere that felt far removed from London but that wasn’t cut-off.”
Paul: “But first we needed to make it work for us. While it did look beautiful when we saw it, there was a lot that required changing in order for the place to make sense. There was an inefficient old boiler fed by a massive oil tank in the back garden, for instance. Coming to this beautiful place and then burning endless amounts of oil to heat it just felt wrong. And it didn’t help that the structures were not at all well insulated. It might have been fine for a vicar a hundred years ago, or a hardy farmer, but not for us!
“So the boiler was the first thing to go, to be replaced by an air-source heat pump. That was – we thought! – a small project. But then we had to upgrade the radiators to suit the new system. And the pipework to suit the new radiators! The we realised that, of course, the rooms with five-metre ceilings weren’t even benefitting from them at all, so we replaced the floors, insulating them and adding heating beneath. The heat pump needed three-phase electric too, so that had to be upgraded.”
Sheena: “The whole chapel, which contain the kitchen, essentially came out and was put back in again.”
Paul: “It was a complicated process, made more complex by the fact the site is of archaeological significance, in part because it was a churchyard, but also because we’re 100m from part of the Roman Fosse Way. It meant we had to do lots of the groundwork under the watch of an archaeologist.
“Things took time. We reinsulated, we added secondary glazing. Everything you can think of, we did – stuff that you couldn’t even really see, which felt a little frustrating at the time, but now couldn’t feel more worth it.”
Sheena: “Absolutely. Because of my work, I’m particularly aware of the ecological footprint of renovating. It’s such an offender – and heavy work has the biggest impact. With Nune, we’re always looking for ways to make our refurbs more responsible, which is something I carried through here, both in the infrastructure of the building and its interior finishes. It’s why we used sheep’s wool for the insulation, eco-ply for all our cabinetry, non-toxic glues… There’s no chipboard or MDF anywhere here, which means the air-quality is the best it can be. Those things really matter to us.”
Paul: “For all this, at least half of the work happened outside the house – and those principles guided us there too. Everything we planted was chosen to increase the diversity of that ecological habitat, while the pool – the heating of which produces no carbon emissions – is entirely natural and is cleaned without chemicals.
“We put so much into every decision – we were really investing for our future. But even though we will have used the house for less time than we originally hoped, it was hugely rewarding.”
Sheena: “Definitely. I remember noticing a physical difference in our eight-year-old daughter as we’d arrive. She doesn’t have a lot of toys when we’re here and yet she’s never, ever bored – picking flowers, carving wood, choosing fish for the pond (even if they did get eaten by the heron…). I’d notice it in Paul too; his shoulders would just drop.”
Paul: “There’s not much better in the world than having a swim here and seeing the beautiful golden cows that live in the next-door field poke their heads over the stone wall. That, to me, is magic.”
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