After the IRA: a church lost and found: For St Ethelburga's there was no escape. Can it be replaced? David Whiting sees the opportunity for a new beginning

Click to follow
The bomb in Bishopsgate 10 days ago destroyed one of London's most endearing and historic churches. St Ethelburga- the-Virgin was one of the few City churches to have survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940 almost unharmed. Other buildings were badly damaged and some will have to be pulled down, but this tiny church - the smallest in central London - will be the most mourned. Its Kentish ragstone facade caught the full impact of the explosion and collapsed.

St Ethelburga's was a pocket of medieval London that stood in Bishopsgate long before the Great Fire and Wren's rebuilding of the City churches, long before the great age of unbridled 19th-century property development and ages before the mushrooming of giant post-modern office blocks that have dwarfed the area over the past decade.

Surveyors see no reason why it should not be rebuilt, but the church was little-used and there may be neither the will nor the money for this. The site is valuable and could well be sold to make way for even more offices. In any case, it seems futile to try to rebuild 500 years of history; no restorer, however skilled, can capture the patina of age that St Ethelburga's had acquired since the 14th century. The answer is surely to build a new church in a new style, if a church is considered necessary, or to design a delightful public space within the ruins, a place for City workers to enjoy and a memorial to those killed by terrorist attacks.

Why should we feel strongly about a tiny, all-but-forgotten church? Because there was something special about a structure that had stood its ground with such tenacity, a Gothic relic from Catholic England sandwiched between increasingly large and chilling buildings. How English to have a church squeezed into such an unlikely place.

It is surprising that Harold Clunn, in The Face of London published in 1932, did not single out St Ethelburga's when he remarked on the indecent amount of space that old London churches occupied. Clunn, an apologist for the new commercial architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, complained that 'if every building with a claim to antiquity is to be suffered to exist for perpetuity, where is the space to allow any future progress in the world?'

Clunn, who argued for the demolition of Hawksmoor's masterpiece, St Mary Woolnoth, because it was out of scale with the new bankers' classical style of the Thirties and stood on an apron of land then worth at least pounds 1m, might have been pleased to see St Ethelburga's go. For the rest of us, the destruction of the little church constitutes one of the saddest architectural losses since the Blitz.

Perhaps it escaped Clunn's iconoclasm because it was so compact, measuring 60ft by 30ft by 31ft high; it was so hemmed in by other buildings as to be almost invisible. St Ethelburga's was a far cry from the baroque grandeur of its Wren neighbours; it always looked as if it would have been happier sited on a village green. It was certainly too modest to attract the attention of tourists and, while a must for City historians and antiquarians, it has only now, for all the wrong reasons, achieved long-deserved fame.

The earliest parts of the building dated back to the 14th century, with additions made in the 15th. It consisted of a nave and south aisle divided by a plain perpendicular arcade, a suitably scaled-down room for a parish of three acres. It survived the Great Fire because the wind suddenly changed direction.

Structurally it changed little over 300 years, although a charming bell turret was added in the 18th century, all the better to show off the church's splendid weathervane, made in 1761. Until a City corporation road- widening scheme in 1932 the facade was half-hidden by shops and one entered it through a porch under a 16th-century house. The church's dedication was written on a sign hung over the entrance, as if the saint herself had set up shop there.

John Wesley preached in it and there were many distinguished rectors, including the blessed John Larke, a friend of St Thomas More. Larke was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1544 for refusing to take Henry VIII's oath of supremacy. His successor, John Deye, fared little better. In 1553, during the reign of Mary I, he had his ear nailed to the pillory for 'hannus words against the queen's majestie . . . and for the up-rore that was ther don' after a sermon he had preached at St Paul's Cross.

The church was proud of its association with Hugh Hudson, who took communion here in April 1607, before setting out to discover a route to China and Japan via the North Pole. Hudson reached the mouth of the great Canadian river which bears his name, but there the crew mutinied and set him and his young son adrift on a small boat in which they perished. These events were recorded in three stained-glass windows installed in the Thirties.

Perhaps the greatest loss inside the church has been a series of furnishings dating from 1912 and designed by Sir Ninian Comper, that champion of High Church aesthetics. Comper designed a delicate 15th century- style parclose screen that divided nave from chancel, as well as the pews, pulpit, lectern, west gallery and organ casing. The effect was complete and quintessentially medieval, so that standing in this space one could get some idea of what City churches must have looked like before the Great Fire. It was uniquely intimate, with a delightful sense of 15th-century muddle.

Lost, too, was medieval glass and what Sir John Betjeman called an 'excellent pastiche' of the 15th century, the east window designed by Kempe in 1871. There was an 18th-century font with a cover from St Swithin London Stone. There was a fine and precious painting (given to the church in 1931) by the 16th- century Flemish master, Pieter Koeke van Aelst of Christ Healing Blind Bartimaeus, probably the only work we had in Britain by the artist. Rather incongruous was the modern mural by Hans Feibusch on the east wall in 1962, but perhaps even this odd work contributed to that greatest loss of all, the particular atmosphere of St Ethelburga's, its sense of place and survival.

A door in the church gave access to a tiny disused burial ground in the rear with a loggia, terracotta fountain and pool where people could sit and think, away from the pressures of Bishopsgate.

Westminster Abbey it was not, but I, for one, will shed a tear at the loss of one more part of old London, a little church of real guts and dignity, a place to escape, a time machine and, as Ian Nairn, the architectural critic, said, 'one of the sweetest things in the City'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments