The derelict grounds of one of the most important church buildings in London are going to be turned into a public park.

St Luke's Church, Old Street, Finsbury, was built in 1727-33 by architects Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James. Its graveyard has been closed for more than eight years because of its ruined and decaying state.

Now, after a pounds 100,000 scheme funded by English Heritage to make the Grade I listed church safe, Islington council plans to renovate the burial site, including the surrounding cast iron railings which are considered so important that they warrant a separate preservation order.

The moss-covered, crumbling tombs, final home of famous 18th-century figures such as William Caslon, the printer after whom a typeface was named, will be restored and cleaned.

Sam Courtauld, the silversmith and father of silk manufacturer George, married his wife Louisa at the church in 1749. There used to be a memorial to the De La Rue family, who printed Bank of England notes near by on the site of

St Luke's asylum. The Delarue company still prints banknotes and cheques.

Daniel Race, a Bank of England Chief Cashier whose signature appeared on notes and who died in 1775, has a brass memorial. Thomas Hosier Shepherd, the 19th-century water colourist, was christened at its font.

Many of the larger mausoleums are cracked and some have had top stones removed by vandals or grave robbers.

The restoration will cost pounds 163,000 and include clearing overgrown nettles and brambles, renovating pathways and installing benches. Landscaping will be carried out by the council and repairs to the tombs will be done by the Islington Buildings Preservation Trust.

It will cost about pounds 66,000 simply to restore the black-painted railings and ornate iron lamp-posts which once provided gas streetlighting for the square. The pipes are still there but experts believe it would cost too much to restore them to working order.

Local architect David Gibson, of the preservation trust, said: 'This church is one of the most important in London. There are very few Grade I listed churches and the separate listing for the railings is highly unusual.'

Mr Gibson and his team will ensure the tombs are vandal proof. He plans to secure top stones with stainless steel pins. Some tombstones may have to be relocated.

As he surveyed the site, picking his way through rubbish and avoiding long stinging nettles, Mr Gibson explained: 'The attraction to grave robbers is that coffins of this period have silver plaques on top and lead which lies beneath the mahogany outer layer of the casket.

'The lead was to hermetically seal the coffin. Some thieves break into the stone tombs believing the coffins are just inside, but give up when they realise they are well beneath the ground under bricks and soil.'

St Luke's was closed in 1959 and the roof removed by the Diocese of London because the foundations were slipping and the building was unsafe. It was gutted and is now an empty shell.

It may be restored and used as an orchestra practice hall or an art gallery. Any application would need the

approval of the church, which would be responsible for leasing it, and the local authority which, as well as being the planning authority, has had responsibility for the churchyard since the 1930s.

Islington council has donated pounds 15,000 towards the project. Officials hope to raise the rest from English Heritage, the Cripplegate foundation and local businesses.

Alec Forshaw, council conservation officer, believes the grounds can be a haven despite Old Street traffic. 'Because of the canopy of trees and the railings enclosing the graveyard there is a psychological barrier and buffer from the hustle of the city.'

(Photograph omitted)