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/ 22 November 2013

Remarkable renovation of medieval City church

One evening recently the church of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London was full of people eating and drinking. Usually there’d be nothing terribly out of the ordinary about that – the provision of hospitality is an important part of the church’s mission today. But this was a special event: it was held to mark the end of the most recent term of the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC). This body – a kind of internal planning committee which also exercises listed building consent when deciding faculty applications involving listed buildings – is ‘refreshed’ every six years, when its members are replaced or reappointed. The choice of venue was no accident: St Andrew’s represents one of the most challenging cases to have been dealt with by the Committee during its most recent term. It’s now a good 11 months since work finished there – hardly a blink of an eye in the life of this venerable building – and, now that the dust has settled (in every sense), a good time to evaluate what has been done there.

The City Churches are one of the greatest delights that London’s ecclesiastical heritage has to offer. But they also have the potential to be one its biggest headaches. That they bear witness to Christian worship in the Old Square Mile going back over a millennium is both a badge of pride and potentially their undoing because they are also a reminder that what is now London’s Central Business District was once densely populated. As the City began to empty out of inhabitants in the second half of the 19th century so they began to be deprived of the centuries-old communities to which they had ministered. Few now have parishes with any permanent inhabitants and those of some churches amount to just a handful of addresses. In 1994 the Templeman report recommended closing for worship 24 out of a total of 38, setting them aside to become what would have been termed ‘reserve churches’. One of that number was St Andrew’s, whose parish had in 1991 been merged with that of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. It is greatly to the credit of Bishop Richard that this didn’t happen, but ensuring that the long-term future of City churches remains secure is always a matter for concern.

St Andrew Undershaft is, even by the standards of the City Churches, an exceptional building. Sir John Betjeman thought it the most stately of the surviving medieval ones. An ancient foundation – the parish was extant by 1276 – most of the fabric dates from an early 16th century rebuilding completed in 1532 on the eve of the Reformation, although the lower stages of the tower are even older. It has lot in common with the great Perpendicular gothic churches of Suffolk and Norfolk and is similarly ambitious in scale. The curious appendage to its dedication derives from a tradition of setting up a Maypole by the south door on May Day in the morning. This was so tall that its wooden shaft rose even higher than the bell tower, hence the church was literally ‘under [the] shaft’. The tradition lasted until 1547 when a puritan curate from nearby St Katharine Cree preached a sermon against what many churchmen viewed as a pagan hangover and it was sawn up and burned.

St Andrew’s is famous as the burial place of John Stow (1524/5-1605), the historian whose ‘Survey of London’, first published in 1598, remains a vitally important source of information about the City’s past. His tomb in the north aisle includes a full-length sculptural portrait in which he is depicted sitting and writing at his desk, holding a real-life quill pen which used to be ceremonially replaced each year. But although the building survived both the Great Fire and the Blitz more or less unscathed it sustained serious damage from the IRA bomb of 1993 when nine tenths of the only surviving pre-Victorian stained glass in the City (late 17th century figures of English monarchs in the west window) were destroyed.

Following its reprieve the pews were removed and a raised floor was inserted, which allowed the church to be used by St Helen’s Bishopsgate for group Bible study and for its mission of hospitality, with over 2,000 people being fed in the church each week. This ensured that it stayed in use, but necessitated rather ad hoc arrangements and the lack of satisfactory essential facilities such as proper modern toilets or a kitchen and the life-expired services became more and more of a problem over time.

In early 2011 St Helen’s approached the DAC with an ambitious scheme under a Bishop’s Mission Order for the comprehensive refurbishment of the building which would allow it to be used for all these purposes and also on occasions for worship. The design work was done by Sheppard Architects, a practice with long experience of dealing with ecclesiastical buildings, and was guided by a heritage statement by Alan Baxter & Associates, which traces in great detail the complex architectural development of the building. Progress was rapid and a faculty issued in December 2011 with contractors going on site shortly afterwards. Project-managing a scheme as major as this involving a building as significant as this has been described as being ‘Like surfing backwards standing on your head’ and the truth in that was borne out by the progress of the works.

But none of this makes sense without looking at what exactly was done. The existing floor was almost completely removed with only the raised and tiled sanctuary area being left intact. This consisted of a mixture of wooden pew platforms and a concrete slab on which were laid tiled walkways and which had been built up at the east end to form a raised chancel area (there is no architectural division between this area and the rest of the building). All of that had been introduced during the reordering carried out by Ewan Christian and Sir Arthur Blomfield, whose brother was rector here, in 1875-6, when the box pews, west gallery and other fine Georgian furnishings were taken out. It’s impossible to put a spade in the ground in a site of this antiquity without hitting something of significance. A radar survey was carried out before work started to trace all the graves beneath the floor, but all the same the exercise of a watching brief by the Museum of London’s archaeology unit was attached as a proviso to the faculty. This turned out to be all to the good as burial vaults and a ledger slab that had eluded the radar came to light when the concrete was being removed and some of the design work had to be rejigged as a result. After being recorded they were covered by sand and a geotextile membrane so they could easily be brought back to light at a future date.

A new floor was put in at a lower level incorporating underfloor heating and with a bamboo surface. This has never been tried in a London church before, but the material has two important merits: it is hard-wearing and also grows very fast so is more sustainable than traditional hardwoods. The entrance from the kitchen, which was completely refitted and re-equipped, and the serving area in the north aisle are hidden from view by portable screens. Indeed, hardly any immovable fixtures were introduced with the exception of a west narthex housing the toilets with a gallery above. The discovery of the vault in this location made it necessary to put in a floating slab at the west end of nave and insert extra pilotis to carry the weight of the load-bearing first floor, but this also meant that it was possible to avoid transferring any load to the walls of the church. A two-storey enclosure was also inserted at the west end of the north aisle mirroring the tower, which is engaged with the south aisle, and this means that the two ‘book end’ the new gallery. The enclosure contains a break out space at first-floor level and a lobby on the ground floor for the fire exit to St Mary Axe. To allow this to be done a fine baroque wooden doorcase had to be relocated, being turned through an angle of 90 degrees. In the process it was restored and a lost capital to one of the pilasters was carefully reinstated. A handsome Georgian clock, named the Pistor clock after the parishioner who made it, which formerly adorned the west gallery front was restored and mounted above it.

The idea was floated during discussion of the scheme by the DAC of placing the organ up in the gallery. This fine instrument – originally of 1696 by the celebrated Renatus Harris and one of the best preserved and most important historic organs in the City – was in a west gallery until Blomfield and Christian stuffed in into a cramped location on the south side of the chancel, when the ornamental finials to the pipe towers were removed. But this would have inflated the cost and also blocked the west window, one of the main sources of light; although the church has large windows on all sides, it is also closely hemmed in by neighbouring buildings. It is also debatable whether a baroque organ would have sat very well, aesthetically speaking, on top of a decidedly modern stainless steel and plate glass structure.

The front wall of the narthex is curved to form a recess for the splendid font of 1631 (a work of the celebrated sculptor Nicholas Stone; the cover is 18th century), which was relocated here as part of the reordering. Originally it was surrounded by an apparently typical Stuart-era wooden balustrade. This threatened to cause an impasse between the architect and DAC: the rails couldn’t be moved with the font to its new location as they didn’t fit, but, given their significance, could hardly be cut to size either. Yet in an historic church all is not always what it seems – even to the trained eye – and it transpired following an expert examination by the Committee’s woodwork specialist that they had been much hacked about with the insertion of a lot of later fabric and probably were even not original to the building. As a result it was decided to dispose of them. Another historic fitting to be relocated as part of the reordering was the late 17th century pulpit, one of the most important fittings in the building, which migrated a short distance from the south to the north side of the nave, back to near where it was located prior to the Victorian reordering.

Because they are some of the most celebrated and historic buildings in the Diocese, whenever any new proposal involving one of the City Churches comes to the DAC and then goes out to consultation with English Heritage and the national amenity societies it is always the subject of intense scrutiny. It would be no surprise to learn that this scheme was only granted faculty after lengthy wrangles and a consistory court hearing – no surprise, but in fact very far from the truth. Curious though it might seem, the scheme fell between several stools, so to speak, where the national amenity societies were concerned. Usually one of the most stringent external consultees, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings raised no objections and indeed was positively supportive. No major intervention was planned to any of the fabric falling within its remit – i.e. from before 1714 – and the insertion of the west narthex avoided any need to build onto the church, as well as keeping the internal volume largely unencumbered. The Victorian Society, veteran of numerous battles over reordering schemes, raised no objections either: Blomfield’s reordering was far from intact and, in the context of a church most significant for being a survivor of pre-Great Fire London, was only of limited importance (the features that were removed were judged to be of ‘neutral significance’ in the heritage statement).

The only controversy as far as the external consultees were concerned was the proposal to cover over the 17th century panelling in the vestry to allow it to be used as a storeroom, to which English Heritage objected. This was regrettable but necessary: much needed storage space (before the reordering the church suffered from a proliferation of clutter) could not have been provided otherwise and the panelling would have been at risk of damage. But the original panelling survives and could be revealed again in the future as the alterations to this area were all intended to be reversible. Moreover, all the modern interventions need to be balanced against the restoration work carried out on the historic fabric: the baroque doorcase has already been mentioned; other parts which benefited include the grisaille paintings by Robert Brown of scenes from the Life of Christ in the spandrels of the nave arcade, probably executed in 1725-6, and Tables of Kindred and Affinity, the only surviving Elizabethan fitting in any City church. These had been in a very poor state when work started but have been conserved and are now on display in the gallery. Much restoration work has been carried out on the church’s fine collection of wall monuments and will continue as and when funds allow.

The DAC exercised careful oversight of all the provisos attached to the Certificate of Recommendation and Faculty, which included the installation of AV equipment (loudspeakers and a projector with a drop-down screen). A draft proposal to hang the speaker from stainless steel rings hooped round the arcade piers below the capitals was rejected after a visiting party inspected a mock-up. A revised, far less obtrusive installation involving hanging them high up in the aisle ceiling was substituted for it. The technical nitty-gritty of reordering schemes such as this often gets overlooked once the initial agitation over purely architectural matters has died down, but in fact it can necessitate the DAC’s continued engagement for many months in the discussion of fine detail.

It is vital to realise that the conservation of St Andrew’s as an untouched historic interior was never an option – not just because keeping the church in its optimum viable use necessitated alterations, but also because the building was nothing of the sort when work started. No one who saw it then could argue that it has failed to benefit from the reordering. The work carried out was guided by careful study of the fabric and analysis of its significance to identify the places where change was admissible. Since St Andrew’s remains a functioning place of worship it is still covered by the Ecclesiastical Exemption, which means that all the external consultees will be kept informed of any further changes. While the reordering may not win the hearts of everyone, any censure it draws must surely come down to individual points of the design and matters of taste. It is, in that sense, the classic Anglican compromise – not a fudge nor the lowest common denominator but a careful balance of tensions.

This was written by Edmund Harris, formerly of the Parish Property Support Team.

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