Creating a home from home

Published on: 1 November 2018

When most people are settling into retirement, one couple took on a major project to provide a home from home for students. Here is their roller-coaster tale of the past two years.

Heathfield is a private hall of residence for students in Norwich. It is owned and run by me and my wife Sarah to provide a place where students can be at home in a community. We have 44 student bedrooms for a mixed community of students in all subjects at different institutions, from first years to PhDs. We aim to broaden horizons and to encourage our residents to build enriching and lasting friendships. The large common room, now known as ‘The Heathfield Centre’, can also host meetings, concerts, exhibitions, lectures and other events.

After 25 years in London, where I had worked for a housing association developing student housing, we moved to South Norfolk in 2005 for a new job. We had planned to move into Norwich while we were still hale and hearty, to get involved in things and build up a social circle before we began to feel the limitations of our years.

A skills audit course many years ago at our London church confirmed we share a gift of hospitality. We’d got to know each other in our post-graduate year, when two mutual friends put together a houseful of five as a Christian community. At almost every meal at least one of us had invited someone to share it. Ever since, we’ve felt a calling to live in community, without ever knowing quite how it would look. Later we had language students to stay a week at a time, and a couple lived with us while their asylum application was processed.

In South Norfolk, we’d had students to stay for weekends and at Christmas – via the charity HOST uk – so we thought it would be good to find a property with enough space to have two or three students living with us all year. After the 2016 May Bank Holiday we waved off two delightful students from China and Vietnam and I did an internet search to see if there were any interesting properties for sale in Norwich.

There were. Four former residential care homes were listed for sale by tender. One, in Norwich’s Golden Triangle, felt perfect. It was such a shame that the June deadline for submitting a bid was so tight. Except it wasn’t. The deadline moved back to August for legal reasons. One day a week I was still working at a Lutheran student hostel near King’s Cross. They were refurbishing and replacing a lot of good-quality furniture – we rescued it. The rest of the time I was estimating costs and constructing spreadsheets and schedules and setting up a limited company. Our bid was submitted in August, and friends and family joined us in praying we’d win the tender. We didn’t.

Heathfield, a “twin” building on the other side of the city, had been of interest to a charity we support so we’d held back. It remained unsold, hopes rose, we quickly recalculated, and our offer was accepted. We still had to sell our house and finalise a commercial loan.

Every step of the way people were helpful and supportive. Time and again we were put in touch with the person who knew the answer or had the skills we needed – and each time felt like confirmation that we were going in the right direction.

On 21 December 2016 we moved into the small on-site warden’s bungalow. The large common room was filled with the surplus contents of our quite large house on one side and the garage contents, including all the recycled furniture, on the other. The property already contained a large amount of abandoned furniture and equipment – 37 commodes, anyone? Industrial laundry machines? Give them to good homes!

We had just eight months. Once more, the right people were given to us. One neighbour objected to our change of use planning application. We met and talked, and Alison caught our vision and became a staunch supporter, and through her we met several people who worked on the refurbishment and continue to visit as odd jobs arise.

We’ve joined the family of St Mary Magdalene where we have been warmly welcomed. Alina, a NUA graduate we knew, did our design work. I’d already worked with Tim Bunn, and he designed the refurbishment. Our friend Rod and his wife Moira gave us invaluable practical help.

Neighbour Rob, whose father-in-law had wired the place when it was built, did much of the electrical upgrading. His wife Lesley, a former carer here, is now one of our wonderful housekeeper duo. The other, Julie, had worked here in the care home for 28 years. This building has always been a place of love and care.

Although Reception is open only for two hours morning and evening, students know we are usually in our respective offices and often come for help and advice or to chat. We’ve learnt so much! The first cohort arrived as tenants and in many cases left as friends.

In our first year we had just over 30 residents, and 13 have stayed on this year. For our second academic year all 44 rooms are full, and we were unable to offer places to all those who applied. Following get-to-know-you tea and cake the first few Sunday afternoons, the social events currently in planning include games evenings and film nights.

St Augustine said “Love, and do what you like”. Our faith, lives and interests have prepared us for Heathfield. Friends told us we were crazy and brave to take on a project like this in our sixties. We have never worked so hard in our lives. When sleep is a stranger at 3am it is possible to feel crazy and cowardly. But from the moment we started on this road it has felt right.

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Articles in this issue...

Supporting strangers and sojourners

Sally Clarke, who worships at St Stephens, Norwich, shares her individual approach in offering a home, not only to “regular” lodgers, but sometimes to those who others might think twice about accepting.


Adoption; the core of who we are

Without adoption, our Christian story might have been radically different. Christ’s earliest moments teach us to extend family generously, for our salvation as well as others’.


What makes a home?

The cat’s made herself at home. After a year of upheaval, moving from Oulton Broad, Lowestoft, to Norwich (where she was bullied by a streetwise city cat) and then again to Sparham, Mo our 15-year-old cat has decided country life is the thing. She has also set up home in my PA’s office next door.


A sense of belonging

Reflecting on home and family, I recall my own happy childhood when I naively believed everyone’s experience was similar. I was wrong. Family and home hold different meanings for people.


Faith at home

Research by the Church of England has highlighted that one of the most important factors in enabling children to continue in faith through to adulthood is the support they receive from their family – and yet the Faith in our families report published last year by Care for the Family showed a widespread lack of confidence in parents and a lack of tools to help.


Care Home Friends

Home and family comes in many different shapes and guises. One village church in Norfolk is making a real impact on the elderly in their community.


Home at the heart of the Cathedral family

Before I worked in a cathedral l had never considered what such a majestic building really meant. Visiting cathedrals as a child I remember feeling unnerved within vast, cold space, stunned by stained glass windows, bemused by weird smells and strange objects. I recall the word “Shush” being used a lot too.


The church as home – reflections on Mark 9:33-37

"Breaking down barriers and being a place that recognises that we're all unfit and need God and each other to get better"


Our house, in the middle of our street

Not content with opening their home to others, Sue and Gary Moore, member of the Church Army, have gone one stop further by purchasing a second home for the use of those living in their community near Dereham, and calling it 'Our House'. Biddy Collyer went to meet them.


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