The Eerie ‘Tin Tabernacle’ With A Weird Past Could Become A Vacation Rental To Save It From Ruin
It used to echo the sound of hymns and prayers – even the soft clink of billiard balls. Today, this small tin chapel, in the heart of the Flintshire countryside, is abandoned and in danger of falling into disrepair. The windows are broken, the floors are rotting and nature invades
Businessman Wyn Thomas, who lives nearby in Lloc, wants to breathe new life into it. However, his plans – to turn it into a holiday home – ran into trouble.
In January, Flintshire Council’s planning committee rejected the idea on the grounds that “the work proposed for such a modest building is considered excessive”. Wyn, who started the successful Thomas Plant Hire 22 years ago, now plans to appeal the decision.
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“It’s kind of a project I’m passionate about,” Wyn said. “But time is running out. If nothing is done and the building is left to the elements, it will crumble over time, which would be a terrible shame.
Pen Llwyn Chapel is an unlikely survivor of the 19th century rage for prefabricated corrugated iron ecclesiastical buildings. Easily erected, though relatively expensive for their size, over 4,000 “tin tabernacles” (also known as “iron churches”) were built across the British Empire: by 1851, 19 had been erected in Melbourne, Australia alone.
They weren’t universally popular. The Church of England had a bad opinion, and in 1890 William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote a pamphlet condemning corrugated iron buildings which “were spreading like a plague over the country”.
In Wales they provided an outlet for non-conformism, particularly in rural areas where congregations tended to be smaller. Several remain in use, such as the Church of the Good Shepherd in Drury, Flintshire, and the Methodist Chapel at Wrexham in Rhosnesni.
One of the finest surviving examples, now privately owned and Grade II listed, is St Andrew’s Mission Church in Minera, Wrexham. By comparison, Pen Llwyn Chapel is positively modest in size and decor – probably because, uniquely, it was never intended as a chapel.
Originally it was built as a billiard hall in Holywell. At the time, billiards and snooker were seen by some as a temperance-friendly alternative to pubs and inns, although its transformation into a place of worship must still have raised some eyebrows in the area.
In a remote area of Methodist worship, people living near Llyn Helyg, a large lake surrounded by woods, held services under a tree at Pen Llwyn Farm, presided over by a minister called Hawkins.
At the turn of the 20th century, the chapel congregation was given land at Pen Llwyn Farm. “They had the option of building a new stone or brick building, or buying and relocating the then redundant Billiards Hall to Holywell,” said Wyn Thomas. “They went for the latter option because it was more cost effective.”
LOOK: 23 photos of the chapel, inside and out, show remnants of its ecclesiastical past
A local resident who used to frequent the chapel recalls that it attracted a regular congregation of around 20 people, including members of his farming family. Others came from farm properties around the woods of Llyn Helyg, some from as far south as the Pen-y-Cefn area in Caerwys.
Chapel services ended in the mid-1970s. The last baptism was in 1972, half a century ago. Since then, many pewter tabernacles in Wales have disappeared. In 2011, the 130-year-old tin Church of St David in Pensarn, Conwy was replaced by a modern brick building, leaving only around nine examples in Wales.
That’s why Wyn Thomas is desperate to save his. Despite its sense of dilapidation, a structural inspection of the current building found the chapel to be in good condition. Wyn thinks he’s not ready for scrap just yet.
In a planning statement, agents acting on behalf of Wyn said: ‘The work required to complete the conversion is minimal and the only external difference to the existing structure is that the store on the south west side will be removed and a extension of the building created to house a kitchen. The expansion is only slightly larger than the store it replaces.
Further changes are planned. Although little is known about the foundations of the building, a mezzanine is proposed to accommodate a bedroom. Perhaps the most obvious modification is the addition of skylights to provide ventilation and light. But above all, the corrugated iron exterior will be patched up and preserved as a reminder of the building’s heritage.
During the planning process, the Whitford Community Council did not see it that way. As well as moving it to residential use, the council felt that significant reconstruction would be required. Poignantly, he condemned the current dilapidated building as “not worthy of classification as being of architectural or historical interest”.
The planning officer agreed. Although new independent tourist units are permitted in converted buildings outside the settlement boundaries, they must be structurally sound and capable of conversion without major reconstruction. Otherwise, specifies the regulation, that would be equivalent to the construction of a new dwelling in full countryside.
In the case of Penllwyn Chapel, the Flintshire planning department rejected the structural investigation and said that visual inspection found the building to be in a “poor condition” with “a rather fragile shell of sheet metal. ‘tin”. It would “not be capable of conversion without significant expansion,” he concluded. Additionally, it is near Pen Llwyn Farm, which happens to be a listed building.
Wyn thinks they are wrong. If not the Lord, he feels he has justice on his side.
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In recent years, Flintshire Council has attempted to expand its tourism offering, with the county being the Cinderella of the region’s holiday industry. A unique holiday destination, in an unspoiled relic of Welsh religious history, should be just the ticket, Wyn said.
“It’s a great base for exploring the rest of Flintshire,” he said. “And it’s only 40 minutes from Snowdonia.”
The planned vacation rental, if built, would provide year-round occupancy for up to five people, helping to boost off-season tourism, Wyn said. If successful, Penllwyn Chapel might again echo the chant, albeit of a more secular nature.
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