Norfolk couple transform listed chapel into a cool new Airbnb
- Credit: Compendia Studio
Helen Littlewood’s love for her home county of Norfolk is infectious.
She proudly calls Norwich “the best city”, thinks the coastline is “amazing” and loves the north and south of the county equally, too.
She loves it so much, in fact, that she’s made it her mission to share its magic with others – one property at a time.
Day to day, she and her husband, Mark, run One Agency, an award-winning marketing and design agency which has offices in Norwich, Cambridge and London. And while Helen admits that their day-job is “full on”, it doesn’t stop the couple from filling their weekends and evenings with architectural drawings and rubble as they ‘do up’ and decorate.
Helen and Mark’s hobby is to bring life back to some of Norfolk’s most characterful period properties. They have renovated a former gallery space in Holt, an old chapel in New Buckenham and are now working on a former antiques shop in Wymondham. But it started long before that.
“We moved out of the city in 2005 and bought an old weaver’s cottage,” says Helen. “We renovated that and that really got us into it, into bringing something back to life, almost, and then we bought the house that we’re in now.” It’s a beautiful house, Helen says, a mix of modern and Victorian – but it was a wreck.
“It needed everything doing to it,” she says. “It took us ten years – we didn’t have the money to just do it all in one go, but in a way that’s a good thing because it allowed us to make decisions along the way.”
The couple have applied this thoughtful and gentle approach to subsequent projects, and it’s even inspired their new Airbnb brand, Slow Norfolk (on Instagram as @slownorfolk), which celebrates slow and mindful living, as well as natural materials and thoughtful design.
Helen admits that while they could spend less money and time on the renovations, they don’t. They refuse to set themselves deadlines, with the average project taking one to two years. “It’s not a short-term flip at all,” she says. “We love them, you know, and we don’t want to let them go. We want to restore them and make them beautiful.”
Last March, they set up two of the finished renovation projects – The Hideaway in New Buckenham and Chancery House in Holt – as Airbnbs, which has proved a further chance to share their love of their home county.
What’s consistent about all of the properties that Helen and Mark have bought is that they all have character, a story, a sense of history and place. The Hideaway had been a Sunday school and then, as congregation numbers dwindled, it was used as a chapel. Eventually it closed completely and was put up for sale.
The pair were thrilled when they won it at auction, and set about bringing it back to life. They put a new mezzanine in and restored what they could, cutting through rafters and opening up the space.
“It is beautiful,” she says. “It’s perfect for a little couple’s retreat so we thought, ‘right, this is the first step into Airbnb.’ We love the county and wanted to promote it, outside, as a retreat, somewhere to go. Where New Buckenham is, it’s right in the centre, so you’ve obviously got the opportunity to go to the Broads, the coast, the city or Thetford Forest.”
So far, it’s been a resounding success. They’ve amassed five-star reviews, received emails and pictures from clients who have stayed there and had every weekend booked out – even through January. It’s also proved a particular hit with those who have never been to Norfolk before.
“We’ve had a lot of Londoners, a lot of designers – I think that’s probably the brand attracting those kinds of people – but they love it,” says Helen. “The reviews I’ve had have been fantastic, you know – lovely things about the county and the village – and that makes me feel really proud. I find that really rewarding.”
The couple bought Chancery House, in Holt, around five years ago. They have transformed it from two dwellings – a gallery space with a flat above – into one, and sometimes use it as a personal holiday home. They also let it out on Airbnb, mostly as a family space, and Helen says it’s “snapped up” quickly, with a lot of interest driven by the town’s reputation and proximity to the coast.
Their latest venture is the former Damgate Antiques shop in Wymondham, which they are slowly transforming. It is perhaps one of the most challenging projects they have worked on. When we speak, they are having the beams blasted, which Helen says is a “messy job” – but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We want to put a woodburner in, but you’ve got to have a cherry picker which means we’d have to close the road down,” Helen explains. “There’s all these challenges. We have to wheelbarrow – wheelbarrow – right the way down and into the lane at the back car park at Damgate. The amount of rubble and stuff that we’ve had to clear out of that house is frightening. It’s a huge amount more work than we expected – well, what I expected, it doesn’t seem to faze my husband. But at this point in the project I’m thinking ‘oh, my goodness, is this ever going to get done?’ But that’s part of a renovation, really. Things take longer.”
Helen says they have learnt an incredible amount along the way – particularly about renovating listed properties.
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For Damgate, Mark is doing all the designs himself, using evenings and weekends to draw up the plans. “He’s not an architect, it’s his hobby,” says Helen. And it’s made even more complicated by the building’s listed status.
The couple’s goal is not only to bring the properties back to life, but to do so sustainably. “Sustainability is important to us,” says Helen, “but it’s challenging on period houses to make them as efficient as possible. I think a big part of that is the upcycling, where we can – using something recycled rather than new.”
The couple work with local builders and salvage yards to help mitigate this, and use sustainable or natural items for the Airbnbs. They always try to choose long-lasting materials and source the right suppliers, but there are some things they just can’t do.
“We can’t necessarily do the things we would want to do because we’ve got Grade II listed houses, so it’s a real balance, you know. But we’ve been very sympathetic to the houses and the periods, and we’ve put back features rather than taken any away.”
Helen wants to finish renovating the property at Damgate before embarking on another, but says they’re always on the lookout. “But it has to be right house. It has to be something that is bad enough, that needs a lot of work on it – I don’t think we’d ever take on something that was already renovated, and they do get snapped up.
“But what we’re looking for now has changed, probably, because it has to be something where we think people will enjoy the location, where they’re staying, so it’s actually attractive as a holiday let.”
Helen is overwhelmingly proud of Norfolk, and of the work she and Mark do to bring the experience to others.
“Living here, I’ve seen how the county has developed and become more exciting and cultural,” she says. “I am really proud of Norfolk. It didn’t used to be cool but I think it is now – why would you not want to live here?”
It’s a fair question.
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