“If you told me not so long ago that I’d become a Christian and help to open a church, I’d have slapped you.”
This is more or less the opening line of my interview with Pete Hardy, the man who recently bought a Worksop nightclub and is steadily transforming it into a house of worship.
I never had the pleasure of a night on the tiles at Disraeli’s nightclub on Victoria Square, but I’ve heard the legend, and seen pictures of its once garish red and black interior complete with dancing poles.
These days, it’s usually the other way round, with churches and even cathedrals across the country falling victim to the demand for a good nightclub as interest in church-going falls into decline.
I’m curious to see how this works in reverse, and am invited to the former pub site where a transformation is well underway.
The bar, dance floor and red and black tiles have been swiftly removed- revealing a welcoming foyer, an open plan kitchen and bright, spacious main hall where the services take place.
When I meet Pete, the church leader, I like him immediately- he has a warmth about him that instantly puts me at ease, and an infectious, child-like enthusiasm for the project at hand.
It’s clear straight away that we share a love of history, and as he gives me a tour of the building he tells me the land we’re standing on has boasted a drinking house for centuries.
In fact, the original plans for the Chesterfield canal, which famously winds through Worksop, were originally drawn up in a pub that stood here in the 1700s.
Keen to hold onto the building’s heritage, this “home for the work of the church” has been named after that same pub, The Golden Ball.
“We don’t have anything against a bar,” says Pete. “I like the odd glass of wine myself. And when I was a lad, there was nothing I liked to do more than get drunk. I was a real horror for it.”
How did this former “horror” become a dedicated church leader, I ask, and Pete starts from the beginning- interestingly, his journey to Christianity began when he worked as a trainee journalist for the Guardian in 1971 and reported on a bishop’s meeting in Southwell.
“I remember being told to go to this big religious meeting by the editor and thinking- urgh, do I really have to?” says Pete. “Back then, I was on 40 cigarettes a day and in the pub most evenings.
“Just a few years before that at school, I’d written an essay about the non-existence of God. I was a very unlikely candidate for Christianity, but from then on, I somehow got tuned into it. I turned some kind of corner. It’s all a bit of a joke.”
You don’t have to be religious to admire the projects that Pete took on after deciding to leave journalism behind to work for free church Poplar’s Church full-time, which at the time was run from a small house in Woodsetts.
For example, in the 1980s, an HIV epidemic in Romania saw Pete travel with fellow church members to orphanages in the city of Brasov in order to care for sick and dying children.
A project later undertaken by Poplar’s Church successfully transported hundreds of vaccines to the city.
Pete describes the moment he held a child dying of AIDs in his arms: “Seeing something as horrifying as that can drive people away from God, but it made me all the more aware that I wanted to help people.”
By 2014, the church had been meeting at Gospel Hall and Norbridge Academy with the permission of the headteacher, but with an ever-growing membership Pete became more ambitious and began looking for a building.
“Disraeli’s club was the first listing my wife and I saw when we looked on the internet,” says Pete. “You’d be forgiven for thinking I was a religious maniac if I told you something was guiding me towards the building, but I knew it was ours as soon as I saw it. It was going for around £300,000- about five times what the church had managed to scrape together in savings. People thought I was mad, but I just knew it was meant to be.”
Astoundingly, the church, which is now a registered charity, managed to raise the rest of the asking price in donations. Extensive building work to transform the site even further is being carried out by volunteer builders.
“By February of last year, we moved in. It’s a big place, but we’ve got big plans for it,” says Pete as he shows me around more than 20 empty rooms excitedly. “We want to turn the cellar into a recording room, and there’ll be a room for young people to come to if they need some space.
“Any groups in Worksop could have their meetings here and we’re also hoping we’ll be able to carry out marriages in the main hall, for those who feel they can’t afford a wedding. I’m really looking forward to that.
“We’ve got talented builders, a fantastic treasurer, and a brilliant team of church leaders and volunteers at the helm. With their help, the building has endless potential.”
“But for me, the church is not really about the building- it’s about the community,” adds Pete. “We’ve had drug addicts and alcoholics come here, along with people who are very lonely or who have just simply fallen on hard times. They felt like they were worth nothing, some of them were even close to ending their lives. You wouldn’t believe how rewarding it is when someone like that tells you they feel loved and at home.”
It’s clear that everyone who attends Poplar’s Church is valued, from the woman in her 80s who loves to sit at the front, “get in on the action” and sing, to the timid lady who likes to creep in halfway through the ceremony and sit, quietly but happily, at the back of the hall.
“You never know though,” said Pete. “Our visitors could just be coming for Cake Sundays, which we hold on the first Sunday of every month. That’s one thing I can safely say about this place- we do eat a scary amount of cake.”
nwgu poplars church wor(3): Pictured is Pete Hardy.
nwgu poplars church wor(2): The Golden Ball, home to the work of the Poplars Church, on Victoria Square in Worksop.
nwgu poplars church wor(6): Pictured is Baz Holmes working to transform the rest of the building into the new church.
nwgu poplars church wor(7): Vivienne Recas working to transform the rest of the building into the new church.
nwgu poplars church wor(8): The Golden Ball, home to the work of the Poplars Church on Victoria Square in Worksop.
NWGU-29-01-16 disreali’s pub: The pub when it was known as Disraeli’s