A derelict Upper Teesdale chapel, bought on a whim by a Swiss architect, has undergone a heavenly transformation and is now a bright and beautiful luxury holiday let. Jenny Needham reports

When Stefan Camenzind first came across the dilapidated Ebenezer Methodist Chapel in the wilds of Upper Teesdale, it was in a sorry state. There were no windows and holes in the roof. Nevertheless, he was smitten.

“I had seen a sign that the chapel was for sale and decided to make an enquiry,” says Stefan, who asked his brother-in-law Rob Broomby to consider buying it with him. “We were completely blown away by the raw beauty of the landscape and the amazing open horizon, and thought this would be such a fantastic place for our families to come to.”

As the chapel was part of the Raby Estate, it took quite a long time for the sale to go through, so the next time Stefan and Rob went to see it was after the sale completion on a winter's day. “We got stuck in a snowdrift and left the car behind," says Stefan. "It was impossible to get to the chapel on the main road because of the snowdrifts, so we decided to walk across open fields. Once we got there, we found the chapel in a very bad condition – the inside of the building was filled with snow. We just looked at each other and could see that we both thought the same: whose idea was it to buy this property? But despite its poor state we felt more strongly than ever that we wanted to bring this beautiful building back to life.”

This was back in the late 1990s. The restoration of the chapel in Forest-in-Teesdale has taken longer and been more challenging than journalist Rob and Stefan, executive director with award-winning Swiss architects Evolution Design, had envisaged, but the result is simply heavenly. Because they didn’t have the funds to start the renovation immediately, the first step was to make the building water and weather-tight. It was another decade before any plans for its future were drawn up in earnest.

After consulting with planners, they were told permission would only be given for turning the building into holiday accommodation, rather than a full time permanent residence, but as they had no fixed plans other than a desire to stop a beautiful building from falling apart, they were happy to comply. “We started talking to the planners at the very beginning to make sure we understood their concerns for the building, but everybody was very supportive of our idea of retaining as much of the history of the chapel as possible and the planning process was very smooth and constructive,” says Stefan.

Now snow and rain have been banished from this traditional old chapel and out of the ruins has risen a luxury holiday rental with dramatic double-height open plan living and kitchen area, and three light-filled mezzanine level bedrooms with panoramic views of the undulating pastures of Upper Teesdale.

Despite the size of the task that faced them, Stefan and Rob were convinced from the start that they could turn the building into something very special. “The location of the chapel on the top of a hill within this amazing landscape is so stunning and memorable that it becomes obvious why it was built there: it makes you think about the people who used to come here for contemplation and celebration. This very special spirit and feeling is exactly what we wanted to retain.”

At a very early stage of the planning process it became clear that there was not enough space on the ground floor for all required rooms, the mezzanine floor was proposed. But to insert another floor without obstructing the Gothic windows meant the challenge of limited headroom on the first floor. “To find the perfect solution and ensure the upstairs rooms would function well, we built a mock-up to scale in our office to test that the new layout worked,” says Stefan.

As well as the architectural challenges, the construction team had to contend with the very worst that the weather could throw at them; severe conditions meant the renovation ran six months over schedule and ended up taking 18 months. The contractors often had to stop work as it was nearly impossible to work in the driving rain and gale force winds. On top of that, the persistent rain and wind kept finding ways into the building. “We spent a lot of time together with our main contractor looking for all possible crevasses in the stone work, between the slates or at the main entrance door gaskets where the wind was driving the rain through miniature cracks you couldn't even see,” says Stefan.

The main aim was to preserve the fabric of the historic building and retain the grandness of the original chapel hall and the beautiful Gothic windows, which were flooding the space with daylight. And they have succeeded magnificently: the Chapel on the Hill, which was built in 1880, is now a modern holiday home, yet retains the charm of the building and the feeling of openness and light in the ground floor rooms.

“We wanted to create a space that was modern and yet had a traditional language that would complement the historic nature of the chapel and appeal to a wide range of guests,” says Stefan. “We chose interior finishes and materials that respect the character of the landscape and the existing building. The products were selected and sourced from all over Europe and had to pass the durability test, as well as being beautiful.”

The heart of the finished chapel, the kitchen and dining space, is open and bright, taking advantage of the arched windows and the beautiful views. The natural wood of the roof trusses gives a traditional touch, while a large Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art print adds drama and modernity. The kitchen units have a homely rural feel, framed by the hand-made feature wall tiles which cover the full height of the back wall.

This unique holiday rental sleeps seven guests and has four comfortable bedrooms, two en-suites and a luxurious family bathroom. Tucked under the stairs is a little office, where Stefan likes to work when he’s staying.

“It’s a great place to relax,” he says. “Our guests love being close to the nature, but they also appreciate the comfort and amenities of this historic yet very functional holiday home. The amazing thing is that it just doesn’t matter what the weather is like - staying at the chapel always gives us such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and we are always sad to leave and can’t wait to get back.”

So are they on the lookout for more disused places of worship to convert in the wild upper reaches of the North? “In fact we are,” laughs Stefan, “although we probably shouldn’t. It is quite a challenge to take on a building like this and you should only do it if you feel very passionate about it. We love the history of old chapels and their often remote locations, so we might fall in love with another one again. We’ll see.”

  • Chapel-on-the-Hill, Forest-in-Teesdale, Barnard Castle, DL12 0EE, County Durham.

Booking enquiries on 03000-262626 or email visitor@thisisdurham.com

W: revolution-design.info