A LOVE of the arts and history which brought together a couple when they were postgraduates has breathed new life into historic buildings in the North Tyne which once played important roles in the community.

Anne and Bill Monroe, who live at the rectory at Greystead – Anne’s family home ¬– met while studying for their masters degrees in art history in London. And their interest in the subject has seen them restore the former St Luke’s Church next their home, retaining its Georgian features, as well as the nearby Victorian village hall, which was once a thriving hub in the local area.

Without their enthusiasm, these two historically significant buildings could have fallen into disrepair. The church played a role in many people’s lives for nearly 200 years, not least Bill and Anne’s who were married at St Luke’s before it was deconsecrated in the late 1990s.

Anne was brought up at the rectory, bought by her parents, author Edward Grierson and his wife Helen in 1950. She left home to study English at Cambridge and it was while she was undertaking her MA in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute that she met Bill.

“My father died in 1975 at 60 and my mum had a long widowhood at Greystead,” she said. “Having had a career in London and our first son, we felt really that we should come back and look after her in 1989 and we have been here ever since,” said Anne.

The old coach house next to the rectory was converted into living accommodation for Anne’s mother and later it was rented out, before the couple turned it into self-catering accommodation – their first experience of holiday lets. It has just had a major renovation in time for the new season.

“Meanwhile, in 1998, the Church of England decided that St Luke’s had very few parishioners,” said Anne. “My father had been one of the three or four people who attended church on Sunday. So the Church of England decided to close it and it was put up for sale.”

Anne and Bill firmly believed the church belonged with the rectory and as art historians, appreciated the building’s architectural features. So they decided to buy it and preserve it in a way which would keep alive its history, which has its roots in the in the early 18th century, 100 years before it was built.

“This land had belonged to the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater who was executed for his part in the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion,” explained Anne.

“The land passed to the Greenwich Hospital which is a charity for retired and disabled seamen and after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 there was peace at sea and they had a lot of naval chaplains who were redundant.”

So the decision was made to build several churches and rectories in the area, between 1815-18, which included Greystead, Humshaugh, Wark, Falstone and Bellingham, all designed by Henry Hake Seward, a pupil of Sir John Soane.

“It was sparsely populated area and yet they built these substantial churches here,” said Anne. “I think they thought the congregations would increase as the 19th century went on, but the population increases happened in the towns, not the country. They built six rectories in all and put in them all these naval chaplains, some of who had been present at various battles.

“These large rectories and churches were placed in the middle of the Northumbrian countryside as far away from the sea as they possibly could be and there were not many parishioners, so in 1930 the Church of England sold this rectory and my parents bought in in 1950.”

After buying the church, Anne and Bill left it as it was while their children were growing up, but in 2008 started discussions with various agencies, including the church commissioners, historic listed building officers, the Diocese of Newcastle and Parochial Church Council with the aim of converting it into self-catering accommodation rather than a home, due to national park restrictions.

“The planners said because we lived in the national park and had a redundant building, we could convert it for business use rather than as a home so that meant we could convert it into a holiday home,” said Anne.

Anne and Bill employed Historic Property Restoration Ltd, specialists in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings, and Tristan Spicer of Kevin Doonan Architects in Hexham. And they had to respect the fact that the churchyard was still in use. They were therefore allowed to use a small area by the entrance to the main west door to enable their visitors to park safely off the road and local parishioners to continue to visit the graves.

And they couldn’t have done it without financial help from the national park’s sustainable development fund and Northumberland Uplands Leader Action Group. “The grant was to restore the building, but also because this would have a beneficial knock-on effect on the community with more visitors coming to the area, greater spend in the pubs, shops and other tourist facilities,” explained Anne.

The result was an upside down conversion with four bedrooms on the ground floor and a mezzanine across two thirds of the nave, overlooking the magnificent stained-glass east window. The window was paid for by the Spencer family who had an ironworks in Tyneside and is in memory of Margaret Isabella Spencer who died at the age of 22 in Madeira.

The Georgian heritage of the building has been enhanced by the conversion. Thanks to the mezzanine, with its deluxe Neptune kitchen, you can get up close to the sandstone arches around the windows whose golden hues are echoed with the colour scheme. Everywhere you look, the church’s original features meld into the new design, the metal ballustrades, for example, complementing the restored leaded windows.

And unlike most churches, you step inside to a warm building, thanks to a biomass boiler.

Anne and Bill applied the same principles to the recently restored Victorian institute, which is next to the rectory’s tennis court.

“It was built in 1895 to be a Sunday school for the children of the parish of Greystead,” said Anne. “The land was given by a man who lived at The Hott Farm across the fields, Peter Lockie Clark, and he was a Sunderland engine maker.

“He must have been a keen supporter of the Church of England because he gave away this land at the end of the rectory walled garden. Local tradition tells us that it was used in the early part of the 20th century for village dances and community events and the fields in front of it were used for local events. The Moorcock pub was up the road so it was used as a sort of village hall at that point. I remember it in my own childhood with church fetes and the women making tea and sandwiches.”

Anne and bill managed to buy it in 2016 and when they went inside the building, they entered a 1970s time warp.

“There were newspapers piled up everywhere, biscuit tins…We recorded it for the Tarset Archive Group,” said Anne.

The same architects were used for the project to turn it into luxury holiday accommodation and it again has a mezzanine, a nod to the minstrel’s gallery which once existed.

The central masterpiece is an oak spiral staircase which adds to the simple but elegant style, while, like the church, original features were retained where possible.

A tasteful extension has created a ‘garden room’, rather than conservatory to keep light pollution to a minimum. The institute is, after all, within the internationally-recognised dark skies park.

“Stargazing is a huge activity for so many people and any come here with specialist equipment,” said Anne.

“I think the dark skies area has been incredibly beneficial to the local community because it does mean we get a lot of bookings in the winter.”