The long road to restoration: A tough hike will benefit one of the nation's finest churches. Michael Leapman reports

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THERE cannot be many countries where a rector would feel obliged to undertake a 200-mile mountain hike to raise money to restore one of the nation's most historic and exquisite churches. That is what the Rev Richard Hayes, of St Mary Woolnoth in the heart of the City of London, will be doing next May.

He is not resentful about it - indeed, he is rather pleased with himself. He has a right to be, because only 250 people are awarded places on the Scottish Coast to Coast Challenge every year. The selection is made by the hiking magazine The Great Outdoors on the basis of walking experience and, to a lesser degree, the worth of the cause for which sponsorship is being sought.

'They had 450 applicants,' said Mr Hayes, as we stood in the spacious square nave of the only City church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. 'They told me that while my walking experience was not really up to scratch they were impressed by my willingness to learn and to get myself trained. I've done some other long walks. I went on a 17-day pilgrimage from Lourdes to Loyola in 1991 and I've done the Pembrokeshire Coast Path - that's 170 miles. But this will be the toughest I've tackled.'

Given the architectural importance of St Mary Woolnoth, and its central position right by Bank underground station, you might assume that the City Corporation and financial institutions based there would pay for keeping it in shape. Up to a point you would be right, for last year the City Parochial Foundation stumped up over pounds 100,000 for the restoration of the exterior, and two banks paid for a complete electrical rewiring.

What Mr Hayes now plans, though, does not come under the heading of essential works in the structural sense. His aim is to restore the interior of the church to something approaching Hawksmoor's intention when he designed it in 1716. Hawksmoor, a pupil of Wren, built only six churches in London. Although the smallest, St Mary Woolnoth is a composition of enormous vigour and power.

It is unusual in several respects. First its name: the official designation is St Mary of the Nativity. In the 18th century much of the City was a crowded and somewhat deprived residential area and many foundling children were baptised here. They were given the surname Woolnoth, probably because the wool market was near by.

The western facade, with horizontal banded stonework topped by a colonnaded tower, was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as 'the most original church exterior in the City'. Inside, the nave is supported by clusters of three Corinthian columns at each corner.

Like many old churches, though, it was 'improved' in Victorian times, in this case by the formidable William Butterfield. His most radical change was to remove the oak galleries on the edge of the nave, apparently because he believed they were unsafe. He also embellished Hawksmoor's stone floor - white interspersed with small black squares - with garish red tiles that spoil the geometric pattern.

Mr Hayes has asked Tom Helme, an expert in decorative restoration work, to draw up a plan of improvements. Rebuilding the galleries might prove too costly, but at least he hopes to undo what Butterfield wrought on the floor and redecorate the whole interior in stone coloured paint. When Mr Helme has drawn up his plans and estimated the cost, Mr Hayes will launch a public appeal in the new year, using the Scottish walk as a part of the campaign.

The rules of the walk are that it must start and end on defined stretches of the west and east coast, and take no more than 15 days. Each walker works out an individual route, which has to be approved by the organisers. Mr Hayes will start at Shiel Bridge, at the top of Loch Duich, and head almost due west to Fort Augustus. From there he will follow General Wade's Military Road - built, as it happens, at about the same time as St Mary Woolnoth - and on to Braemar.

If he is making good time here, he might climb the celebrated peak of Lochnagar before heading for the coast at St Cyrus. Having dipped his toe into the North Sea he will, all being well, repair to Montrose for the party that the organisers are laying on for those who last the course. Then back to his church, where he hopes his exertions will be translated into the re-creation of Hawksmoor's vision. Londoners should be grateful to him.

(Photograph omitted)