Like it or not, as a nation, we have forsaken our gods. Earlier this year, a YouGov survey showed that almost 70 per cent of us now consider no religion of any kind to be of importance to our lives. Of a population approaching 65 million just 800,000 are regular Christian churchgoers. The god of Abraham may not be dead but he is, perhaps, looking a little peaky.
However, although most of us appear unconcerned about the decline in religious belief, what we should all be concerned about is the decline of our religious buildings. In virtually every Wealden village, the finest building is the church. In some villages they have stood for almost a thousand years, surviving war, pestilence and famine only to fall victim today to apathy. The cost of their upkeep is simply beyond the means of a cash-strapped Church or State.
So what does the future hold for these often beautiful buildings? Some will inevitably fall by the wayside but others will find new roles in the increasingly secular world in which they must survive. The survivors will be those whose fabric can be economically restored and who are lucky enough to find developers with the courage and vision to take them on.
Some, the larger buildings, may become community centres or entertainment venues while the smaller churches and chapels are already finding a new lease of life as offices or private homes. It does, however, require considerable imagination and commitment to walk into an echoing, musty cavern of a building with leaking roof, rising damp and born-again deathwatch beetle and say "Hey - this could be cosy."
This perhaps wasn't quite the reaction Nick and Sonja had when they walked into Goudhurst's old disused Methodist Chapel but it was perhaps something close. Nick is a consultant surveyor and former partner of a worldwide construction and development consultancy company and Sonja has had in-depth experience of the delivery side of the construction business and is also an accountant, so between them they had no trouble seeing past the chaos and cobwebs and recognising that the glorious 2,000 square feet of surprisingly unlisted space bounded by solid Victorian brick and soaring Gothic windows represented an extraordinary opportunity.
"The church was selling the property with planning permission to convert it to a single residential dwelling having failed to get consent to knock it down and build flats," says Nick. "But for us it was the chance to create the home we wanted in one of the most attractive villages in the Weald - and to save a glorious old building in the process." There was a slight problem in that the couple were busy renovating a property in Rochester but when they found that the chapel was going up for auction, they couldn't let the chance slip by.
For some time the local residents had been fearful about the fate of the building and what might replace it so when they heard Nick and Sonja's plans the couple found they had solid local support for their project. "When we presented our plans to the Parish Council, neighbours even came along to voice their approval - and that surely must be some kind of first."
The couple both like minimalist living so, with just empty space before them, they could plan exactly the home they wanted - well almost. "The broad concept is minimalist but we didn't want to go too far out of respect for the building, says Nick, "and in any case there were some glorious features we wanted to conserve."
Needless to say, at the top of this list were five spectacular windows that have poured light into this space since 1878 and which the couple were determined to keep. "We actually had to reinstate one of the five arched windows to be as the original design." Says Nick. "This was necessary because the church had replanned the internal space in the 1960s which had in turn required the main entrance door to be moved from the southern elevation to the western side." However, windows like these have always created problems for developers of churches and chapels looking to create two storeys within a building originally designed as one. The most common but unsatisfactory solution has simply been to chop them in half with the lower part of the window lighting ground floor rooms and the upper the first floor spaces.
The couple, however, were determined to keep the windows as single entities and worked with their architect and friend Colin Sharp at CO3 Architects in Staplehurst to develop a two-storey solution that would do just that. What they have done is to divide the living room into three spaces, two soaring to the height of the windows at either end of the room and a centre section with a lower ceiling which not only provides for second floor accommodation above but adds intimacy to a room that would prove dramatic but perhaps a little clinical.
An L-shape of grey Spanish leather Cadira sofas gather round a mauve Habitat rug and an audio-visual system of truly epic proportions - a 65-inch Panasonic TV with a supporting cast of KEF speakers. Strangely, though, it doesn't seem to dominate the room such is the overall feel of light and space. In a niche in the wall behind the sofa is the chapel's huge old leather-bound bible. The remainder of the hymnals and prayer books went to Africa, the couple gave the old pews that were still usable to Whitstable Cricket Club, keeping one back for themselves, whilst the church's electric organ was donated to the Goudhurst Catholic church and the pulpit and dias ended up in a pub.
At one end of the room is a contemporary Contura woodburner, the tallest they could find and, at the other, three steps up to the fifth window that graces the office but here the couple have had no choice but to compromise and lose the top of the window to the bedroom above. Star of the show in the office is a truly superb white leather Varier 'Orange Peel' chair where the couple can take it in turns to relax and enjoy the stunning westerly view down from the top of Goudhurst hill.
The kitchen is a triumph, a combination of cool grey porcelain tiles, white walls, warm oak and a breathtaking sweep of bi-folding doors out onto an elegant sandstone terrace and its Lloyd Loom table and chairs. The units and surfaces and island are courtesy of Cambridge Kitchens, the dining table and Eames-style chairs are from John Lewis and the Italian white bar stools are by Harry&Camila by Kristalia.
The wall of bi-folding doors is echoed upstairs in the master bedroom directly above where they open out onto a decked balcony and more Lloyd Loom surrounded by a plate glass balustrade. The polished nickel bed is from Feather & Black in Tunbridge Wells while above it hangs a wonderful glass Flos Glow Ball light which can be dimmed to look like the moon. Underfoot - as in most of the chapel - glows warm engineered oak.
There are also three further bedrooms which gives some idea of the potential of the single empty space the couple first walked into. One allegedly belongs to nineteen-year-old Jessie, the only one of the couple's children still in the nest, but based on personal experience, I simply do not believe any teenager's room can be this tidy. Yes, there are a few clothes on display but they are hung neatly on the side of a wardrobe not scattered around the floor like your average teenager. Part vaulted and a touch less minimalist than the rest of the house, it's painted in a gentle Old English white and has inherited one of the chapel's original circular windows.
The guest room is a pleasing combination of contemporary minimalism with a dash of country charm - the latter provided by a pretty shuttered window. Here, as in all bedrooms other than the couple's own, the bed came from M&S and accent lighting is provided by small light cubes which are also cleverly used in the living room and kitchen.
The final room is a bright and stylish cocoon fashioned from the space above the centre of the living room and drawing its light not only from another circular window but from the top quarters of its walls which are glass and overlook the sitting room.
The build took 15 months to complete but rather than rest on their laurels and merely enjoy what is a truly outstanding home, they are busy developing the property next door, built on an empty overgrown plot that was part of the auction lot. "With the chapel we had to be true to a special, historic building but with this new house we can be more radical," says Nick.
The Rochester project followed by the chapel and now 'Chapel View' have all given Nick and Sonja the taste for more and while they feel they have one last build of their own to make one day, they are now looking to become involved in other home owners' and developers' builds and have formed a consultancy, NDL Consulting, to do just this.
Some of their future projects may be new builds or the remodelling of existing homes but, hopefully, there will also be the opportunity for the couple to bring their vision and proven expertise to saving more of the Weald's threatened treasures.