Wednesday, February 22, 2012

St. Paul's Cathedral

Monday morning I met several fellow AWC members at the St. Paul's Tube station for a guided tour of St. Paul's Cathedral.   I had been looking forward to this ever since I signed up, since I had never been inside before.  I'm not a particularly religious person, but I can certainly appreciate the magnificent architecture, gorgeous ornamentation, and historical significance of English cathedrals.  I  also recently read London, by Edward Rutherfurd, which turned out to be a pretty good summary of the city's 2000-year history, and devotes an entire chapter to the construction of St. Paul's.
Rare blue sky in London over St. Paul's dome
As we made our way around to the front of the cathedral, we started to see signs of the Occupy London encampment.  Why are they camped here?  It's likely the only area within the square mile of the City of London -- which is the heart of the financial district -- where they have been allowed to gather.  You have to weave your way through a maze of pathways between the tents to get to the front entrance.
Tents next to St. Paul's
Occupy London sign
Sea of tents outside St. Paul's
The cathedral, which is the fifth to stand on this site since 604 AD, was designed by Christopher Wren after the previous one was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.  It is quite impressive, and imposing, from the front.  The giant door in the middle is only used by the Royal Family, so that's where Charles and Diana entered when they were married here in 1981.  I'm old enough to remember watching that global event on TV from my grandmother's house in San Francisco -- although it probably wasn't live as I doubt my parents would have let me watch TV in the middle of the night. 
Front entrance of St. Paul's
They charge a pretty steep admission fee to visit St. Paul's as a tourist.  Even with a group rate, we paid £13.50 each ($21) just to go inside.  You can enter for free during Evensong and other public services, but you probably aren't able to tour all the parts of the cathedral during those times. Sadly, photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, so I don't have a bajillion beautiful photos to share with you.  If you don't want to just take my word for it that it was well worth the price of admission,  you can see a few photos of the interior on the St. Paul's web site.

It's hard to imagine why Christopher Wren's design was so controversial when he first drew up plans for St. Paul's in 1669, but topping a cathedral with a dome rather than steeple was considered "too foreign" and he was sent back to the drawing board.  It wasn't until 1675 that he was able to produce a design that met with royal approval -- a more traditional, cross-shaped structure with an elongated dome topped by a tall spire.  His contract included a clause allowing him to make some variations, rather ornamental, than essential, as from Time to Time, he should see proper."  And so he did, which is why St. Paul's is topped with a dome, and not a spire.  The cathedral was completed 36 years later, and was the first English cathedral to be built within the lifetime of the architect.  To put this in perspective, one of the memorials inside the cathedral took over 50 years to be completed!

Highlights of the tour included the painting The Light of the World, by W.H. Hunt, the Duke of Wellington monument (which took 50 years), a massive pipe organ -- parts of which date back to 1695, the painted interior of the dome, an American memorial chapel dedicated to US soldiers who died in the UK during WWII, and the gorgeous wood carvings and mosaic ceilings of the quire.

We also went down to the crypt, which is quite large, and also houses the cafe and gift shop.  While Westminster Abbey is probably better known for all the famous people buried there, St. Paul's is the final resting place of quite a few familiar names as well.  Many military heroes can be found in the crypt, including the two biggest: Admiral Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington.  Nelson is buried in an impressive black stone sarcophagus that was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey, but remained unused for nearly 300 years after he fell out of favor with King Henry VIII.  Other names of note include the artists JMW Turner and Joshua Reynolds, composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan), and Sir Christopher Wren himself, who visited his masterpiece just two days before he died in 1723, at the ripe old age of 91.  The Latin inscription above his simple tomb, written by his son, says: 'Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.'

Our final stop was the Whispering Gallery, which required climbing up -- and then down -- the 257 steps of a large spiral staircase to the base of the dome.  (Add that to the stairs in the Tube, up to the entrance, and up and down to the crypt - twice - and we definitely got our exercise for the day!)  The acoustics are such that if you stand against the wall and say something in a loud whisper, it can be clearly heard by someone standing on the opposite side of the dome.  As we were on our way out, one of the security guards gave us a tip: if you take the elevator to the roof of the new shopping center and office complex across the street, you get a fantastic view of the dome.  I couldn't resist that, so after a quick lunch in the cafe, one of the other ladies and I did just that.  Great tip!
View of St. Paul's with London Eye in the background (on the left)
We also had a nice view of The Shard, which is still under construction.  When complete, this glass tower of office space, retail, luxury apartments, and a fancy hotel will be the tallest building in Western Europe.
The Shard, under construction
 The sun was in the wrong place to get a really good shot of the dome, but I tried my best...
Close-up of the dome. 
That gold ball at the top is 6 feet across!
It always boggles my mind when I encounter things that are older than the country I was born in.  Londoners had been worshiping in this cathedral for nearly 80 years by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed -- and they had been worshiping on this spot for well over a thousand years!  Mind boggled.


  1. It's interesting that this dome reminds me of the US Capitol building and the Panthéon that it was modeled after. But St. Paul's predates them both.

    It's a funny coincidence that I was just reading about an ancestor whose funeral was held at St. Paul's. I've never been inside, but I'd love to see it.

  2. I'd love to see this at some point. Thanks for the recap of your visit! I've always been a Christopher Wren fan, given that the oldest building at William & Mary is named after him and may have been designed by him as well.

  3. I think the door with the stairs leading up to the ball has been locked for all eternity on grounds of health and safety - I always believed that people would be likely to get stuck near the entrance to the ball, because the structure near the top of that staircase is so narrow, hence the stairs must also be extremely narrow on the final turn or so and thus be very dangerous, and only usable at all by the most extremely agile people.


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