A rope access technician we’ve previously worked with on numerous occasions recently sent me a photograph of a small church in London and I was immediately struck with a sense of warm familiarity as a wave of fond memories rolled in.
It was very much the kind of nostalgia you’d get if you stumbled upon an old photograph showing your fresh-faced school buddies, all laughing and tumbling over each other in an effort to get in the centre line of an off-the-cuff snap.
Many years ago, I and two others carried out a live-video survey and subsequent repair works on the window bay sitting atop the copper dome of the stunning church of St Stephen Walbrook, London.
The building was constructed in 1672-9 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, at a cost of £7,692. The 63 feet (19 m) high dome was designed and made as a prototype for Wren’s then in-the-making design for St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the first classical dome to be built in England at the time. Its circular base formed by eight arches that spring from eight of the twelve columns, cutting across each corner in the manner of the Byzantine squinch, plays a large factor in what is now considered to be the finest example if his interior design works.
The external photo shows the domed roof, internally constructed in timber and plaster, with an external shield of copper plating that has in turn given it its characteristic powder green appearance.
WallWalkers were contracted to carry out repairs to the rotting woodwork, delaminating paint and corroding leaded windows, the latter of which were removed from the structure entirely and lowered internally using our custom made plywood casings.
We also placed plywood boards in the spaces created from their removal, painting them bright white both for aesthetic purposes and for protection from the elements. The windows were then hauled back in to place once the repair works to the 8 windows had been completed.
There were however, some additional difficulties in working on the internal areas of the domed ceiling and the hauling of such heavy lead windows. The main issue is one which has little to do with rope access itself!
In the centre of the church hall, directly below the dome ceiling we were working on, lies an 8 foot wide, several ton weighing, priceless Henry Moore stone alter sculpture.
The large altar by Henry Moore was commissioned by Lord Palumbo for the church during its restoration in 1978-87 and was carved in 1972. In taking the controversial step of commissioning one of the world’s most original artists to devise a statement about belief, as seen in the Walbrook altar, the people of St Stephens were engaged in a major social outreach programme, now wanting this iconic Wren building to express a theology of how they saw the gospel in relation to the workplace.
This meant that the 17th century placing of the altar away from the people with the priest standing with his back to the congregation no longer expressed what they felt to be the immanent nature of the God they worshipped and served. Thus Henry Moore conceived a centrally placed altar made of travertine marble cut from the very quarry which provided the marble for Michelangelo’s work. By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. This place was designed for people to gather as a community around the altar where God could be found at the centre.
To counter the problem of falling debris and grot from our works in the dome ceiling, we created a huge net from a wooden frame, green material and chords which would be tied to a hauling mechanism ready to be pulled from the ground. This would in theory suspend the netting above the sculpture and catch all waste materials that “made a break for it”.
Rope access work and problem solving go hand in hand, with this work being no exception. It culminated to what was to be an epic project and one we all thoroughly enjoyed.
The final photo below shows the church as it stands today, sent by our previous colleague, many years after the works were carried out yet still looking as strong, bright and youthful as ever.
…I wish I could say the same about myself!