norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer
 
   

HOUSES OF GOD
The Times

Thank God for rectories. Whatever your views on the Almighty, these classic church houses seem to be the closest thing to heaven on earth for many house hunters. “Former rectories are cited as the ideal home by 80% of our country buyers,” says Rupert Sweeting of upmarket agents Knight Frank.

Perhaps the most famous church house in literature was the Old Vicarage in Grantchester, whose memories were conjured up by Rupert Brooke in his famous 1912 poem. Before we go on, it’s worth noting one important difference between a rectory and a vicarage. At its simplest, rectors were allowed to keep tithes - parish taxes, amounting to a tenth of the worth of the produce of the parish lands
- while vicars couldn’t. This meant rectors were not only grander than vicars but could generally build grander houses.

But let’s not split religious hairs. Becoming the local religious bigwig was a highly respectable way of making a good living in earlier times - the occupation of Jane Austen's father, for example, as well as some of her characters. The Brontes provide another literary link, raised in The Parsonage in the Yorkshire town of Haworth.

Most rectories were built in the 17th and 18th centuries though some - such as the one at Buckland in Worcestershire - date back to the 15th century. Whatever period, these houses were a statement of wealth and prestige. The need to entertain parishioners and other visitors also demanded generous space, with plenty of bedrooms and green surroundings ranging from a single acre to a hundred.

“ Part of the attraction of rectories is the peace and calm that exudes from them,” says Rupert Sweeting. “People feel a connection with the history of these houses. Living in the heart of a community is also extremely appealing, while the quintessential English view of a church spire is truly wonderful.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of these dream houses. An 1820s census recorded just over 10,000 rectories and other church houses - though few at the time ever came to market as families jealously guarded their slice of property heaven.

The situation changed when Victorian politicians decided rectors should no longer benefit from the tithes. Church reformers then sought to level out clergy incomes so rectors couldn‘t live too high on the fat of the land. Bursars, too, began thinking they had better things to spend money on than rectory upkeep. The result was that a steady flow of houses began to appear on the market from 1900 onwards.

Rectories don’t, however, tend to sit long on agents‘ books, with typical buyers split between those downsizing from large country houses and people fleeing London in search of a village idyll with a helping of history.

The variety on offer adds further appeal. Rectories may tend to grandeur but some are humbler - smaller houses made finer bit by bit whenever parish income rose. So prices can range from around £600,000 to the £3.75m price tag for which Church House in the Kent village of Northiam has recently fetched (through Savills).

Architectural styles, meanwhile, can range from Queen Anne through Georgian to Victorian Gothic. Exteriors might be warm Cotswold stone, bright Bath sandstone or, in the case of the 18th century Grade II-listed Old Vicarage in the Cornish village of Helston, tough grey Cornish granite.

The Helston building embodies many of the appealing qualities of these houses. Original features include high ceilings, large sash windows and a granite staircase. Seven bedrooms, four reception rooms and two bathrooms put a huge tick in the space box, as does a large south facing garden. Recently sold through Knight Frank, all this and the pleasure of Cornish living cost about the same as a house half the size in a smart part of London - £850,000.

The Old Rectory at Cossington in Leicestershire is another Grade II beauty, described by renowned architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the best small domestic buildings in the county”. Currently on the market with Knight Frank for £2.75m, it offers six bedrooms in the main building plus stables with their own two-bed flat. There’s also a further coach-house flat, plus a massive 35 acres of formal gardens, woods and a lake.

Like many rectories, the building is also a fascinating jigsaw of architectural styles that reflect changing fashions and changing fortunes. The front reveals its 16th century origins with mullioned windows and a half-timbered wing. The western façade, however, is an 18th-century Georgian add-on featuring typically light, well-proportioned rooms. A north-east wing and rear extension are Victorian creations built between 1840 and 1870.

Inside, historic elements include a timbered 16th-century solar (a master room above the main hall), an Elizabethan fireplace, plus William Morris wallpaper in the hall. “These houses have had a colourful history,” points out George Hyde of Knight Frank. “If only walls could talk!“

Buying a rectory may also buy you a slice of TV history. The Old Rectory in the Rutland village of Teigh, for example - a 1740s gem built in a style dubbed Strawberry Hill Gothic - featured as Mr Collins‘ parsonage in the BBC’s 1994 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, then as the Austen family home in their 2002 series Life of Jane Austen.

Little wonder given their beauty and history that wealthy culturati are among devotees. Current residents of one-time religious haunts include novelists Robert Harris, Ken Follet and Lord Archer. Others include gardening guru and writer Lady Mary Keen, historian/writer Lucinda Lambton and, perhaps not surprisingly, English Heritage chairman Sir Neil Cossons.
Interest in these buildings is also growing. Country Life, for example, have just launched an Awards scheme (with Savills) to find ‘England’s Finest Parsonage’. Rectory-loving journalist Charles Moore, meanwhile, founded the Rectory Club in 2006 to promoting the buildings through talks and visits.

The Rectory Club is a broad church, though, happy to welcome those living in old manses, presbyteries or, like writer Jilly Cooper, a former chantry. And the society’s motto? What else but John, 14,2: “In my Father's house are many mansions”. If you’re one of the smitten, pray one comes up near you.

FURTHER INFO:
Agents specialising in rectories include Knight Frank (knight frank.co.uk) and Savills (savills.co.uk). The Rectory Society, 8 Clifford Street, London W1S 2LQ (020 7851 6013, rectorysociety.org.uk

     
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