Tobacconist, Citizen and Founder
St Vedast alias Foster, Foster Lane, London
Huddled at the east end of St Paul's cathedral, across the road to St Augustine Watling Street, St Vedast is one of my favourites of all the City of London churches, especially of the smaller ones. It is one of those City churches which has no real reason for existing - indeed, it nearly didn't. There are no resident parishioners, it has no particular splendour or historical significance. It is small enough to almost disappear behind the shopping temples of modern Cheapside. Perhaps that is why I love it so much.
St Vedast was a Bishop of Arras in Picardy whose cult was popular in the 13th Century. Probably, there were merchants from Flanders in this part of Cheapside who dedicated the church to him. His name was corrupted into English as St Forster or St Foster, and although the church is ordinarily dedicated to St Vedast these days thanks to the medieval enthusiasms of the Victorians, it still sits on Foster Lane.
The church is one of a jigsaw of little churches around St Paul's, their ingenious spires intended by Wren and Hawksmoor to emphasise the sheer bulk of the cathedral dome. In fact, St Vedast was almost not part of this puzzle. After the Great Fire, the energetic parish got to rebuilding its church against its old tower independently on the lines of the old one, and it wasn't until as late as 1695 that the Wren workshop came along, pulled it down and put up a new church, drawing the north aisle into a widened nave and leaving the south aisle towards Cheapside. The tower and steeple at the west end of the aisle was the final touch, erected about 1710 to Hawksmoor's design. As Pevsner says, it is the most baroque of all the City steeples. It was, however, the Wren church that came in at the cheapest price, which may be explained when you know that restoration work in the 1990s revealed much of the outer walls to be medieval in construction. Wren had reused the shell of the old church.
In 1919, St Vedast was one of 19 City churches selected for demolition by the Diocese of London's City of London Churches Committee. The plan was to sell off the land and use the money to build churches in the north-western suburbs. The church, measuring only 23 yards by 17 yards, would perhaps not have provided a fortune, especially as it was hoped that the tower would be kept.
Ewan Christian had reordered the interior quietly in the 1880s, leaving alone the 17th Century reredos and communion table, which everyone seems to have admired: the table supported by caryatid saints, the reredos an ordered but complicated array of Corinthian pilasters, flowers, fruit, mitres, flaming torches, putti musicanti, and a pelican in her piety over and around the four tables of the Creed, the Commandments and the Paternoster, wrote Wayland Young. There was a west gallery - Christian moved the organ out of it into the south side of the chancel - and a royal arms on the north wall. Margaret Tabor, writing in 1917, was struck by the large number of old monuments, none of them of very great interest.
This, then, was the church which was destroyed by incendiaries and high explosives on the night of Sunday 29th December 1940. The London Blitz had the two-fold effect of ridding the Diocese of more churches than it had originally planned to demolish, and also completely reducing the value of City land for a generation to come. When the dust settled, it was decided that St Vedast would after all be one of the churches to be repaired and restored - St Augustine Watling Street across the road would only be kept as a tower, to be worked into the replacement choir school. St Vedast was never a major City church, and perhaps the architect chosen for the job was secretly glad that he could get on without too much interference or noise from those keeping a beady eye on the likes of St Bride and St Mary le Bow.
He was Stephen Dykes Bower, the last of the unrepentant Gothicists. In his 1994 obituary in the Times, Stephen James described Dykes Bower as a devoted and determined champion of the Gothic Revival style through its most unpopular years. He rejected modernism and continued traditions from the late Victorian period, emphasising fine detail, craftsmanship and bright colour. It is also worth recalling what Pevsner had written about Dykes Bower's restoration of the great church of St Nicholas at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, similarly destroyed in the Blitz: What an opportunity was lost! What thrilling things might have been done inside! A modern interior, airy, noble, of fine materials could have arisen to affirm the vitality of C20 church architecture inside the C13 walls. How defeatist does the imitation-Gothic interior appear, once this has been realized!
In the early 1960s, Dykes Bower reimagined St Vedast as a college chapel. The seating, with rests, faces inwards across a mosaic-tiled floor. All memorials, some of which came from churches of parishes subsumed into that of St Vedast, were relegated to the south aisle, which is screened off from the nave, access only possible at the eastern end. The glass is by Brian Thomas, who had worked successfully with Dykes Bower at Great Yarmouth and other places. Everything is of the highest quality. Not all the furnishings are to Dykes Bower's design. The 17th Century reredos from St Christopher le Stocks, which had been taken by Ernest Geldart to Great Burstead in Essex, was brought back to London and installed here.
Despite Dykes Bower's reactionary enthusiasm for the past, there is a Festival of Britain jollity to the interior - prayerful, yes, but also with that confidence of the post-war years. It is a thrilling interior, perfect for music-led worship, especially candle-lit on a winter evening. And Dykes Bower has been proved right, of course. His reinvented interiors here, and at Great Yarmouth, and especially at St Edmundsbury Cathedral are perfectly suited to quiet 21st Century Anglican worship.
(c) Simon Knott, December 2015