On Architecture

Save this perfect Welsh building

The Church Institute and Churchmen’s Club at Llanfairfechan need, and deserve, to be preserved

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Over the last six months or so, I have become mildly obsessed about the fate of a perfect example of arts-and-crafts architecture — the Church Institute in Llanfairfechan, a seaside resort off the coast road between Conway and Bangor in North Wales.

In early July last year, I received a text from Andrew Hinchcliff who has devotedly looked after the Church Institute and the adjacent Churchmen’s Club, telling me that he and his fellow trustee of the Institute, Pam Phillips, its architect’s granddaughter, had come to the reluctant conclusion that they can no longer look after the two buildings on their own.

They have decided that they may have to put them on the open market. He knew that I greatly admire the buildings, which I first saw in 2014, alerted to their existence by Jon Savage, the historian of punk rock.

The Church Institute at Llanfairfechan opened in 1911. It was designed free of charge by Herbert Luck North, the arts-and-crafts architect who lived in a nearby house, Wern Isaf, which he had built for himself in 1898 while working for Edwin Lutyens in London.

He moved from London to north Wales in 1901 and established an independent architectural practice, designing small model houses in the locality in the style of Hampstead Garden Suburb — perfect examples of thoughtful, intelligently designed, domestic architecture, free of any residual Gothicism, each one different and all of them full of character. Many survive and are rightly admired, although they are less well known than if they were in the home counties.

After the local school had grown too small to accommodate village meetings, Herbert North’s mother gave the land for the construction of a Church Institute, to be financed by public subscription. It’s a beautiful building in the heart of the village, used before the First World War for pageants organised by Herbert North’s wife, Ida, as well as rifle practice in preparation for the war.

When the servicemen came back from the war, they were upset to discover that the Church Institute had been taken over by the women of the village, so North constructed an adjacent Churchmen’s Club for the men in the same style with a prominent slate pitched roof and two full-sized snooker tables.

If a developer buys them, then they could be stripped of their fittings

I don’t know anywhere which is so redolent of the community spirit that used to exist in villages and small towns before TV. But, unfortunately, the days when buildings like this might be maintained at the expense of the parish or local landowner are gone. The buildings need sensitive renovation and are a touch forlorn, the Church Institute used for fire drills and the Churchmen’s Club reached by a narrow and overgrown footpath alongside the Church Institute.

So, what should happen? My first thought was that they should possibly be taken on by a public body, perhaps by the National Trust as a visitor centre to encourage people to explore aspects of North Wales other than country houses and Edward I’s castles.

North Wales’s economy is dependent upon tourism. But the National Trust has more than enough on its plate and the Church Institute is too small to attract its interest.

Inside the Churchmen’s Club

Next, I was encouraged to think that the Landmark Trust could take them on, converting them into holiday cottages available for rent, using a contemporary architect as they have so brilliantly at Astley Castle north of Coventry. It turns out that they have already looked at them, but are likewise over-committed.

The Twentieth-Century Society is aware of them (they have a Welsh branch) and of the potential risk of insensitive redevelopment. But they take the view that the whole point of their Grade II* listing is that they should be protected if insensitive development is proposed.

I wish I were so confident. Of course, there is a possibility that they might be bought by a sympathetic developer and turned into holiday homes, preserving their character. Adam Voelcker, who has written a monograph on the work of Herbert North (the preface was written by the King when he was Prince of Wales), has done outline designs. The buildings could be turned into an architect’s office, which would preserve the generosity of their interior spaces, rather than carving them up into bedrooms.

There is a big risk that they will lose the character which makes them so special. If a developer buys them, then they could be stripped of their fittings, as apparently happened to the local school.

It feels as if efforts to save and protect them should be made now. It is not as if Wales is full of arts-and-crafts architecture of the highest international standard and north Wales needs places to attract visitors.

John Betjeman wrote in 1968, “If one could make a comparison I would say that [Herbert] North is to Wales what Voysey, the early Lutyens and Baillie Scott were to England, and what George Walton and C.R. Mackintosh were to Glasgow and the lowlands of Scotland.” He is one of the unsung heroes of British architecture.

The Church Institute and Churchmen’s Club at Llanfairfechan need, and deserve, to be preserved as far as possible intact. Is there not a way that they could be turned into somewhere which would preserve the spirit and ethos of Herbert Luck North, an architect who built such a remarkable model of early twentieth-century urban development?

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