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A Private View: how a leap of faith led to the creation of an extraordinary home on the Cornish coast

This 19th-century church hall in Newquay had fallen to near ruin by the time Jo Painter and Ben Wigglesworth ended up unexpectedly placing the winning bid on it at auction. Happily, however, the plucky couple could see potential amid the gloom and grime and set about transforming it into a functioning family home and a public gallery, reinvigorating the spirit once at the heart of this community space in the process

Grace McCloud
A Private View: how a leap of faith led to the creation of an extraordinary home on the Cornish coast

In the last 30 years or so, church and chapel conversions have become a recognisable part of our domestic architectural dialect in the UK. Sure, they’re not as familiar as barns or even factories, but imaginative homemakers have learned that, as places to live, these spaces – once places of routine and reflection, providing respite from stresses and strains – make simple sense as places to live too. Communities have made the most of their increasing availability too, turning ecclesiastical buildings into art centres, exercise studios, performance spaces. But what about combining the two? Wouldn’t it be fitting if, in our secular age, a former ecclesiastical building could offer both refuge and shelter to its inhabitants, while still giving something back to its locale?

Enter North Coast Asylum, the home, studio and gallery space of artist Jo Painter and Ben Wigglesworth, a photographer, in Cornwall’s Newquay. The couple have, since 2017, been the owners of the 1890s Neo-Gothic church hall (once part of the church next door), which they painstakingly restored, turning its lower level into a family home for them and their two children. The hall itself – vast, lofty, bright with the Cornish light that slants through its stained-glass windows – serves as the more public-facing space. Day to day, it’s a gallery dedicated to promoting and properly supporting the work of the artists it represents from around the world (North Coast Asylum doesn’t charge extortionate commission or make artists sign excessively limiting contracts). But in the three years since it was completed, it has played host to supper clubs and sound baths, yoga lessons and charity events too.

As you might have guessed, it wasn’t always like this – and it took three and a half years of perspicacity, optimism, creativity and just a little bit of foolhardiness to make it what it is. Now, having outgrown the flat downstairs, the couple are putting it and the gallery space upstairs on the market and starting their search for a new though no less extraordinary space. As they do, Jo reflects on the leap of faith that got them here.

“We’re lucky – Ben and I are both creative people, so when we first viewed this place, we could see through the mess and ahead to something beautiful. That vision was definitely needed, because while the stained glass is heaven and the light is incredible, when we walked around with the estate agent, there were dead pigeons on the floor, and live ones nesting in the roof, some of whom were flapping above our heads. The downstairs rooms, which were pitch black, their windows having been boarded up, had been a squat. I remember seeing something that looked like two-year-old lasagne down there. It was pretty dire.

“We ended up buying it almost by accident. It wasn’t entirely out-of-the-blue – we had viewed it a few times – but we definitely hadn’t thought much beyond the fact that, after 10 years in London, we wanted to be on the coast and to have somewhere concrete and different-feeling for our online gallery. The listing was up for auction on a Wednesday afternoon and we drove down specially, thinking we wouldn’t buy it but that experiencing the bidding process would be helpful. Then when we got there, Ben said he was going to stick in an offer, otherwise it would feel like a wasted trip…

“Very quickly, the bidding hit our budget. Ben put his hand up one more time and… The room went quiet. We both just thought, ‘Oh, shit!’. We hadn’t even had a survey done. It was spontaneous and completely brilliant, because we had fallen a bit in love with the place. We just hadn’t quite got our ducks in a row yet.

“The church next door was in the same auction. While it was very beautiful, I’m glad we didn’t go for that because everything in there is listed: the pews, the organ, the crucifix, the whole lot. In here, there are various listed elements too, but they’re all the architectural elements that we would always have wanted to restore and repair anyway: the columns, the stained glass, the balustrades.

“There had been some cheap 1970s additions, which were pretty horrendous, and there was a weird loo in the middle of the main space, but the bones were stunning. And while it clearly had religious roots, they didn’t feel overbearing, which was something we liked. It did, however, and still does have the power to make people say ‘Wow’ when they walk in. It’s quite an ethereal space, in a way.

“We knew we had a project on our hands. The first thing we had to do was clear it of rotting pigeons, grotty extensions and asbestos. Then we paused, looked at what we had and what we could restore. The timber floors, which are all original save for a few boards; the stained-glass windows, all of which had bowed and had to be removed and repaired; and the roof were our priorities. I think they took two tonnes of pigeon crap out of the roof.

“At one point, we were worried we would have to lose the lath-and-plaster ceiling in the hall space. The structural vaulting it hides is beautiful, but it would have been a shame to its curves and beautiful architraves. We thought it might be unsound, but through conversations with Historic Houses we worked out it would be better to repair it.

“Because of the listing – and the fact we’d never done anything like this – we did consult a few bodies for advice. But largely, in part because of Covid, we worked things out ourselves with the help of my parents, who are expert renovators, and a lot of Googling. In fact, one of our biggest inspiration for the building came while researching what to do on the internet: a 13th-century Catalonian church that was badly damaged during the Spanish Civil War. We loved the simplicity with which the architects had treated that huge open space.

“It made us want to do work that would mean the building would last, rather than to carry out quick fixes here and there. And we also wanted it to look amazing. The idea was always that the upstairs space would become our gallery, so that was key. In the end, those priorities went hand in hand.

“In many ways, sorting out the downstairs spaces was easier. While upstairs, we were led by the fabric of the building, in our apartment we were led by light. Where the windows were dictated the way we arranged the rooms. I had worried that it might be dark down there, but the opposite is true. Even though it’s a level below the hall space, it’s not a basement, because the building is on a slope; it’s more like ground-floor, opening out on to the courtyard garden. From there, the beach is about 40 seconds away on foot.

“Because we were designing the apartment from scratch, we were able to add things that felt like real luxuries: a larder, for instance, and a utility room. When you live as close to the beach as we do – and have small children and a dog – having space for sandy shoes is a small detail that makes a huge difference. We’ve got an outdoor shower and a surfboard rack outside too, which Ben uses. It’s great.

“I wouldn’t change anything we did about the project. While we did spend a lot more than we anticipated – who doesn’t?! – I’m so happy with the decisions we made. We were naïve going into the project – and that was before the pandemic threw everything into disarray. We’d never even owned a house together, let alone created one, but we both loved the process of working out each other’s tastes. Then we threw a child into the mix, then another one. The whole thing has been a great experience in working out what, as a family, you need from a space. It’s been wonderful.”

Photography: Tom Griffiths (1-3, 5-13); Ben Wigglesworth (4)

Further reading

North Coast Asylum

North Coast Asylum on Instagram

The Gallery, Newquay, Cornwall

View sales listing
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