Suffolk’s prettiest homes: A converted chapel in Constable Country
PUBLISHED: 10:17 24 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:37 24 July 2019
A converted chapel in the heart of Constable Country makes a spacious, light-filled home . . . and an intimate concert hall | Words & Photos: Tony Hall
Living, as I do, in the north of the county, I don't often get an opportunity to visit the Suffolk-Essex border area known as Constable Country. So, I was delighted to accept an invitation from Maggie East, a semi-retired music teacher, to see her lovely converted chapel in the village of Nayland.
The village sits beside the River Stour, in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a delightful countryside, with gentle hills and valleys. Nayland prospered as a result of the local medieval wool and cloth trade, when wealthy merchants built fine houses and a church.
It flourished until the beginning of the 17th century when these industries declined. Fewer houses were built, which helped save many older houses from being knocked down and replaced.
The adjoining village of Wissington was a separate parish until it was combined with Nayland in 1884. In 1864, William Stammers built the chapel that is now Maggie's home. He is buried in the graveyard, along with many local people whose families still visit.
"Classical music, churches and now this chapel have had major influences on my life, more or less from the moment I was born, in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Argentina, ," says Maggie. "My father, who was from Liverpool, was an Anglican priest, who became vicar at the English church in Buenos Aires.
"My mother was a true cockney, born in Stepney to the sound of Bow Bells. Interestingly, her father was also a priest, at the time in Stepney, but moved to a Bramerton in Norfolk when my mother was five."
When Maggie's parents married they worked for the British consul in Buenos Aires university, as well as looking after the parish. After Argentina, her father was posted to Montreux, on the French-Swiss border, where he was Anglican vicar to the English community at St Johns Church, Territet.
The family returned to the UK in 1956, where Maggie's mother became a French teacher, first at St Felix, Southwold, then at the John Leman Grammar School, Beccles (where she taught this writer's wife).
"Father became chaplain to Woodbridge School, where we lived in a school house for six years. I remember us arriving from Switzerland, for the first time, at Woodbridge Station, looking rather like the Von Trapp family." Her father later became vicar at All Saints, Kenton, rather an isolated village, so Maggie was sent to boarding school at All Hallows, Ditchingham.
"We were the last family to live in the vicarage as it was sold as a private house by the ChurchCommissioners in 1970. My love of the county was firmly cemented during that time, so it was a joy to return some years later."
Maggie studied music at Colchester Institute and later married Denis East, a professional violinist, professor of music at Trinity College, and freelance session musician. They lived in London, where they had two daughters, Julia and Camilla, and Maggie studied for a degree at Trent Park (Middlesex University) to teach music, something she now does part time. Eventually, their thoughts turned to living in the country.
"Our first home was at Ardleigh, in Essex. My husband had retired and become an excellent cook. One day looking in a newspaper he said, 'I have found my concert hall.'
"It was always his ambition to have a space suitable to put on small performances, playing string quartets and Mozart violin concertos. The source of his excitement was this chapel in Nayland."
It was 1996. The former United Reformed Chapel had already been partly converted by the previous owner, who was an architect. It occupies two floors on a sloping site, so what appears from the front to be a basement is actually the ground floor, where Maggie lives, overlooking the gardens.
Upstairs, at street level, the main chapel room remained largely untouched, to be used for concerts. Unfortunately, the plan was never fully realised as Denis become ill and died seven years ago, although not before conducting a concert in his beloved chapel. Maggie turned to local builder Tom Lowe for advice about the building and he recommended she involve architect Roger Balmer.
It was Penny Clements, who worked with Roger and was well versed in church buildings, who came up with the plans that would retain some of the main space, allowing room for concerts and events, but would enable the creation of a self-catered annexe for holiday lettings.
On the main floor is a spacious kitchen/dining and living area, and a shower room. Upstairs, in the original gallery, is a large bedroom and a 'loo in a pew'.
"I love the bedroom," says Maggie, "with the high windows and roof, all the different angles and reflections. My favourite item is the wooden duck in the shower room, that I used to have in our beach hut at Dovercourt. Happy memories."
I ask Maggie, about the guests who have stayed at the chapel. "They love the historic atmosphere," she says. "The novelty of staying in a quirky building, filled with light from the large windows.
"Nayland is a lovely old village, with walks beside the River Stour, or the other way up Gravel Hill, with great views, right over the valley. Several local families have relatives buried in the churchyard and I generally see them when they visit. It's a very peaceful spot.
"I often return to Woodbridge, which also holds happy memories, to go around the shops and have lunch at The Kings Head with my daughter. Back at home, I enjoy playing the piano, gardening, doing crosswords and sudoku, but most of all dancing.
"I am so pleased that my life has brought me back to Suffolk, a county I love."
The Old Chapel Annexe, Nayland is available for holiday lettings. Contact Suffolk Secrets suffolk-secrets.co.uk. T: 01502 722717 Ref: TOCA
Room: The bedroom - lots of light, reflections and different angles
Item: Wooden duck in the shower room
Interiors shops: Snape Maltings, Jim Lawrence lighting, partridges in hadleigh
Day out: Woodbridge - a wander around the shops, lunch at the Kings Head
Waste of time: Crosswords and sudoku
Walk: Polstead to Stoke by Nayland
Pub: The Crown at Stoke by Nayland.
Cafe: The Coffee Box, Boxford
Hobbies: Playing the piano
Most magical moment in the county: Cycling with my husband and daughter from Woodbridge to Ramsholt, just wonderful