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Gothick survival

technical & practice - The restoration of a hidden Gothic treasure has only succeeded by a combination of dedication, hard work and risk-taking

'It's the first time the place has been warm since 1666, ' says John Mothersole, wryly. As priest-in-charge of St Mary Aldermary, he is keen to show me around his Christoper Wren-designed church, which has undergone a four-year restoration project. Records suggest that there has been a place of worship here on Watling Street in the City of London since at least the 11th century and in 1507, a new church was constructed with money donated by Henry Keble, lord mayor and member of the Worshipful Company of Grocers.

Despite Mothersole's joke, the church is actually rather cold this afternoon. The heating is off and he gives the tour wearing his overcoat.

But neither the slight chill nor the Victorians' efforts to 're-Anglicise' the church are enough to lessen the impact of St Mary Aldermary's surviving interior.

Perhaps Tress and Inns, who carried out the work in 1876, convinced themselves they were engaging in a restoration job, because the ceiling appears, at first sight, to be vaulted in the perpendicular Gothic style with quatrefoils and cinquefoils spreading between the ribs of the fans.

But unlike similar-appearing vaulting in the 14th-century cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, the work is of plaster, not stone, and features a unique element that is wholly Baroque: large, concave saucer-shaped domes outlined in a thick circle, with, at each of their apexes, a different flower in heavy relief. The firework display of colour that explodes on the ceiling of St Mary Aldermary is almost certainly the work of Wren's chief plasterer, Henry Doogood.

Molyneux Kerr Architects has been in charge of the recent restoration of the church that Wren and his team actually completed in 1682.

The tower, which was slowly being destroyed by the corrosion of 1.8mlong cramps, has been fixed. There is a new gradine, or altar shelf, where a cross by Ninian Comper is displayed.

The interior and its monuments are clean and bright and restored as close to their original condition as possible.

As with many of Wren's creations, the Victorians removed many of the original features, auctioning off the box pews and replacing them with benches. They took the organ off its central point and shoved it to the end of the north aisle, a whole balcony was removed and a new reredos was fitted across the chancel, replacing the fine work done by Grinling Gibbons. The church has been lucky, though, given that the neighbouring St Antholin Budge Row church was knocked down for road-widening 130 years ago.

Architectural historians have been puzzled and delighted by this unusual styling in an interior of this period.

After all, it was a product of Wren at the height of his project to introduce a French, Italian and Flemish aesthetic to our - at best - spare, Classical Jonesian architecture. Some have called St Mary Aldermary the first example of the Gothic revival in England.

Wren began his work on the church in 1672 thanks to a bequest from one Henry Rogers and folk history holds that his will stated that the church should be reconstructed like the original. In fact, the church was not mentioned in the document; his niece, Anne Rogers, was simply asked to select the church that she thought would most benefit from the money.

Archaeological work carried out in 1839, when the neighbouring Glebe houses were taken down, suggests another possibility. The north and south walls are of 16th-century origin, at least up to the string course, and evidence points to the tower being of the same period. It seems that the church was not fully destroyed during the fire and Wren built upon the work in a similar or complementary style. He did much the same with the Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, writing to a friend about the 1682 construction:

'I resolved it out to be Gothick to agree with the founder's work, but I have not continued so busie as he began.' Wren was an innovator and a visionary who almost single-handedly invented an architectural movement, but he was also sensitive to fine, extant vernacular work. Besides, should we be surprised if he welcomed a little bricolage? With only two buildings to his name, he masterminded his 20-year, 52-church project while, at the same time, working on the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and St Paul's Cathedral.

Of course, the current restoration work on St Paul's alone makes this a heartening time for those who care about our Baroque buildings.

A £40 million cleaning and repair, inside and out, is being carried out in time for the tercentenary of the laying of the last stone in the lantern in 1708. Work on the east and west fronts is complete and, instead of a symbol of grim, Blitz-era resolve on Ludgate Hill, we are left with a light, exquisitely carved concoction.

This national monument has been restored to a Baroque cathedral.

Two of Hawksmoor's largest buildings, as well, will have been brought close to their as-built condition within the span of two years. Christ Church, Spitalfields, the masterwork of Wren's precocious assistant, recently reopened after 30 years' work, £10 million including Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) money and £500,000 of English Heritage cash. St George's Bloomsbury has received a grant of $5 million (£2.7 million) from the estate of the late Paul Mellon. The entire project, due to be finished in the summer, will cost about £6 million. The West End church features the only statue of King George I, who stands on a mausoleum upon a Greek temple. Lions and unicorns once kept him company in his triumph over both classical and ancient worlds and will be winched up to join him again in May.

Both of these churches have suffered years of indignity and neglect. But for every church lurching from catastrophe to victory, there are several others that survive through maintenance, make do and mend like St Mary Aldermary, which never reached the state of heroic disrepair that would summon HLF funds, even though total contract costs were less than £450,000. Instead, small amounts were forthcoming from the City Church fund, part of the City Parochial fund, which distributes the proceeds of 1,400 historic endowments among the 112 parishes of London. The projects - mending the nave roof, cleaning the monuments and interior and, most importantly, saving the tower - were bid for on an annual basis, light on speed, heavy on strategy.

'There was no way that we could have asked the church to do everything at once, ' says Colin Kerr, architect during the five-year project.

'It had to be done bit by bit.'

The restoration project began in a different era. When Dr Richard Chartres was named Bishop of London in 1996, Lord Templeman had just issued yet another gloomy report on the future of the City churches (City Churches Commission: Report to the Bishop, London 1994) and suggested that only four be kept open as places of worship, none of them built by Wren.

Chartres was having none of it.

'Templeman was really a rallying call, ' he says. 'That was when we realised that the future as laid out was pretty grim and we had to do something.' So he set about re-branding the churches as 'spiritual anchors', drawing upon their parishes' day-to-day working constituencies, such as the media types in St Brides, for instance. He also thought about displaced communities that might need a place to worship.

Romanian Orthodox services are held at St Dunstan in the west, and St Mary Aldermary plays host to Syrian Jacobites from southern India once a week.

The buildings would not survive intact any other way, Chartres reasoned.

That St Mary Aldermary was repaired has also been thanks to the former church warden, Douglas Barber. Kerr remembers his first meeting with the retired surveyor, who voluntarily took on the maintenance of the church single-handedly in the 1980s until his death in 2000. 'Douglas was waving a piece of paper, ' says Kerr, 'and he said: 'don't worry about getting paid, Colin. You'll get your 10 percent.'' The first phase of the work, fixing the nave roof, was costed at £36,000. A memorial to Barber, his business nous notwithstanding, is set into the south wall of the church.

His care was crucial says Kerr, the lead architect on numerous other important restoration projects, including St Giles-in-the-Fields and the current work on St George's, 'so often in these cases disastrous neglect results from the best being the enemy of the good. The most important thing is simply keeping the rain out.'

Repair to the tower at St Mary Aldermary was not so straightforward as the interior. Kerr says that the contractors were unwilling to drill out the enormous cramps for fear of piercing the skin of the building.

Since he knew they had to be removed - stone blocks were being forced into the tower interior and cracks appearing up the outside - he had to stand over them while they kept at it. 'I was saying: 'just a bit further, just a bit more', ' he recalls.

Now the tower is saved, as the church's other highly remarkable feature. Only partially engaged, and in the late Gothic style, the tower features unusual rocket-like hexagonal buttresses on each corner topped with bottle-shaped pinnacles, lending a dramatic Tudor verticality to what would otherwise be a rather ordinary structure. It seems to have been restored to the original condition by William Dickinson and completed in 1701, although its exact age is not known due to constant repair work.

St Mary Aldermary is an important building from a historical perspective. It gives lie to the notion that 'the Gothic' went underground only to be discovered by Pugin and Ruskin. Nor need we be puzzled any longer at the Gothic movement's 'freak' reappearance in the work of Hawksmoor on All Souls or All Hallows, Bread Street.

Although St Mary Aldermary is too beautiful to be regarded in purely academic terms, there is something comforting in the knowledge that through it, a tradition for building in the Gothic style extended unbroken for nearly 1,000 years.

As Kerr says: 'It is clear that even at the height of an infatuation with Classical and Baroque influences, Wren and others were moved by Gothic as far back as 1680.' And people continue to be moved by the grace of St Mary Aldermary.

One of the more touching donations to the church was £785 from the City of London Guide Lecturers Association. 'The goodwill, ' says Mothersole, as testament to the fondness people have for this church, 'has been absolutely extraordinary'.

Michael Willoughby is a freelance journalist who lives in London. Contact:

mnwilloughby@gmail. com

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