Last edited 24 Mar 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The conversion of St Luke's church in Cwmbwrla

Circus Eruption.jpg
Circus Eruption brings people facing all kinds of challenges together to learn circus skills in a supportive, fun environment (Photo: Circus Eruption).



Redundant places of worship are relatively common in urban areas, partly because so many churches and chapels were built by competing denominations in the Victorian period when the industrial towns and cities were expanding rapidly. Since then these urban areas have seen many demographic changes as they have evolved, often separating places of worship from their potential congregations. Furthermore, congregations have been in steady decline for decades. The small Glamorganshire port of Swansea alone had over 50 churches and chapels by the end of the 19th century, often within a hundred metres of each other. In urban areas like this, with such a high density of places of worship, it is simply not possible to keep all of these buildings in their original use. However, finding new uses without subdividing their large spacious interiors can be challenging, but many have been adapted in ways that allow their original character to be appreciated. These new uses range from public houses, restaurants and shops, to theatres, music venues, indoor climbing centres and, in the case of the former St Luke’s in Cwmbwrla, Swansea, a permanent base for a youth inclusion charity using circus skills.

From a sustainability perspective, finding a new use such as these avoids the carbon cost of demolishing an existing building, recycling its materials and constructing a new one. From a heritage perspective, this saves an old and often beautifully decorated building which is significant both for its tangible and intangible heritage, including its associations with those who built it, those who worshipped there, and those who are commemorated in its memorials.

St Luke’s was an Anglican church which was built in 1889 in Cwmbwrla, an industrial, predominantly nonconformist corner of north Swansea. On the elevated and steeply sloping site they acquired, the growing Anglican congregation first built a mission hall in brick and stone, later extended to serve as their school room, which still stands tight up against retaining walls at the excavated back of the plot. Funds for the construction of the church itself followed once its mission hall had opened, and work commenced on a fairly plain four-bay hall church in Early English Gothic style, to the designs of the Cardiff church architect E Bruce Vaughan, using the ubiquitous local pennant sandstone for the snecked rubble walls. Proud at its west end and conspicuous from the passing Carmarthen Road, stands a distinctive tower, with paired lancets to the belfry, a plain parapet and a large pyramidal slated spire.

Today its physical surroundings are very different, as is the social and economic climate. The deindustrialisation of the Swansea Valley, once the world’s dominant copper smelting centre, has stripped out investment. Many of the rival nonconformist chapels that St Luke’s was built among, some architecturally splendid, did not survive. The Grade II listed Libanus Chapel, just 100 metres away, closed in 2000 and following a fire in 2012 was approved for demolition by the council.

St Luke’s finally closed in 2014. A cautious surveyor’s report saw it mothballed and then auctioned by the Church in Wales. The first buyer aimed for residential conversion but local development economics thwarted that ambition and the plan came to nothing. In 2018 it was finally acquired by Circus Eruption. By then the building had unmet conservation needs, of course, but it was in fact structurally sound.

Welcome to the circus!

Circus Eruption was born in 1991, initially from the want of integrated provision for young people with disabilities who too often experienced segregation. Circus Eruption is open to all, creating spaces where everyone can belong. Mostly it does this through circus workshops, but the organisation is responsive to need and has recently opened its building regularly for anyone needing warmth, food and a welcome.

Radical integration destigmatises and equalises, so the organisation’s work now intentionally embraces a diversity of needs. It is actively inclusive of challenges like being in care, a refugee or an asylum seeker, or having a disability, but it also continues to welcome those with no obvious challenges. Children, young people and families can engage and learn new skills together in a constructive, supportive environment, leading to gains in confidence, resilience, a sense of belonging and crucially, fun.

For most of their 30 years, Eruption had moved from temporary homes to meanwhile spaces. A school hall served for decades, then disused retail park units and briefly a hired church. For many of the young people who attend, the long-term weekly workshop is an island of stability. The accelerating itinerancy made the desire for a permanent home more urgent. The basic requirement was a large, accessible room with high ceilings for juggling, diabolo, stilt-walking and maybe even aerial performance. A building that might raise their profile would be a bonus.

As their second retail space allocated for charity lets drew to an inevitable close in late 2017, Circus Eruption researched dozens of unused buildings to rent, including St Luke’s, which was still developer owned. However, by the autumn of 2018, Circus Eruption had secured an informal loan, enabling them to explore purchase opportunities. So, when the former St Luke’s appeared for sale, a second call inspired the developer to take the building off the market and enable the team to explore it as a potential permanent home. The developer helpfully opened up the building on more than ten exploratory visits during which experienced friends and professionals visited the building, offering advice from a variety of perspectives. Some warned against a small inclusion charity taking on a listed property, while others gave practical reports and professional opinions to inform the charity’s assessment. On balance, it seemed clear that this building had the capacity to meet Circus Eruption’s current and future requirements, and the sale was completed in April 2019.

Accessibility for all is non-negotiable for Circus Eruption so a sloping site elevated about two meters off the pavement brought immediate challenges. But Swansea copes with some formidable level changes and save for the forecourt wall and railings, the church’s tarmac plot was of no significance. In February 2020, listed building consent was granted for the replacement of the steps with a long ramp. While a blocked-up doorway into the former organ loft beside the chancel was reopened, a fine new hardwood boarded door was commissioned to fill it.

Simultaneously, Swansea Council’s supportive conservation officer approved alterations to remove pews and raise the floors around these to meet the level of both the pewsplatform and the reinstated threshold. The vacant vestry now accommodates an accessible toilet. Despite the pandemic, these works were completed by the summer of 2021.

An accidental heritage project

Although taking on this former church is an accidental sort of heritage project, Circus Eruption has embraced the challenges posed by a listed building and is living out the multi-layered sustainability that all old buildings promise. Heritage skills have been built on the job and there is an inevitable element of experiment.

Progress towards completion is phased as the charity’s core inclusion work continues. This often necessitates flexibility and creativity to maintain momentum as the determination and openness of the charity’s director, staff and volunteers accumulate goodwill and expertise around it. An academic mycologist offered support when opening was delayed by a dry rot drama affecting the mission hall’s timber floors and matchboard-lined walls. And a sustainable heating solution was found with the help of Inspired Efficiency after the infrared heating initially given consent for, proved ineffective, and had given way to fearsome, noisy LPG heaters as an interim solution. The rare church building expertise of Inspired Efficiency produced a report which established that an air to air system was the most appropriate and efficient for the building’s needs. In future phases the consultants hope to hook up the air source heat pumps to their own solar array and batteries to reduce grid use.

The resilience that the charity hopes to inspire in those they work with is well matched by their approach to building development: some circus skills are difficult and risky and most take repeated failure before eventual success. Team members encourage, saying ‘I can’t do it yet’ rather than ‘I can’t do it’ but crucially, that’s in a supportive context. In their accidental heritage project, members of Circus Eruption’s in-house team have been the learners. They have benefited from the help and support of the building’s conservation and development team, which has been constant and committed, with generosity and flexibility. The Architectural Heritage Fund provided indispensable development and capital grants, and Adam Hitchings, its development manager in Wales, has been a crucial adviser and advocate. Cadw has provided essential repair funds. Eruption’s growth into its new building has gone hand in hand with developing the staff team and board of trustees, including two with heritage building expertise. A strong link has been forged with the Heritage Trust Network. There’s always progress, though not always straightforward, and we have not (yet) secured funding for the air to air source heating system.

Future generations

Behind all this, literally, is the charity’s second space. The old mission hall remains boarded-up at the back of the site. Adjoining it, on its end wall above a high retaining wall, is a memorial garden but the two are separated today by the blocked up rendered wall. The community meaning is deep here. This second high roofed space is apt for bolder adaptation to the charity’s needs. Its capacity to accommodate a mezzanine floor beside the garden, in the area of a removed rot-addled stage, points towards a still more literal reopening of the former St Luke’s to its locale. Plans are developing to make the conversion of Mission Hall a training project, partnering with the local social enterprise, Down to Earth, to draw on their expertise in participatory sustainable construction.

The project is ambitious, not least when work on the main church is still incomplete and the organisation is a modest inclusion charity. But to paraphrase Dillwyn-Llewelyn’s remarks on St Luke’s foundation in 1890, ‘the work is going on satisfactorily and it gives us much encouragement.’ The building and charity have secured one another’s futures and their particular needs and characteristics create unique opportunities.

The full social and environmental virtue of choosing to repair and retrofit a vacant community resource like the former St Luke’s wasn’t foremost in the decision to buy, but it has infused the charity’s mission with additional energy. The commitment to sustainability finds fertile ground in Wales following the radical 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which legislates for interconnected social, economic and environmental sustainability. It’s a perfect fit for Circus Eruption in the former St Luke’s. Bringing it all together is, ultimately, a matter of integration.

This article originally appeared as ‘Circus eruption and the conversion of a Swansea church’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Yearbook 2023.

Karen Chalk is the Director of Circus Eruption ([email protected]) and had had no engagement with heritage buildings prior to this project. She became a Trustee of the Heritage Trust Network in December 2022.

Alfie Stroud was born in Swansea and was a young person member of Circus Eruption for several years from the late 1990s. He has worked in heritage and planning for 10 years and is currently with Historic England as an inspector of historic buildings and areas in London. He has been a full member of the IHBC since 2018 and a trustee of Circus Eruption since 2022.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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