An icon of London: Dispatches from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul's lead picture

When I first started this blog I wanted to do two things: 1) Provide an honest and balanced overview of my travel experiences, both the good and the bad and 2) provide an insight into the new and exciting goings-on in London. The first I hope I have achieved, the second I fully intend to do. I did think to myself however that whenever I go abroad, I spend time and effort going to see all the sights and yet when I’m at home, with a wealth of genuinely world-class museums and monuments on my doorstep, I don’t take advantage of this. With this being said I’ve decided to become more of a tourist in my own city except with proper tube etiquette and no bum bags.

We’d spent the night in the Rookery Hotel and after we’d checked out we had some time to kill so we made our way to the grandest of London churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Despite seeing it throughout my childhood and many times on my travels through London, I’d never visited. This changed a couple of Mondays back when we slalomed through the tourists in the churchyard and ascended the steps to go inside.

For those who may not know, St. Pauls Cathedral is an incredibly important building to London and Londoners in general. During the Blitz Prime Minister Winston Churchill, realising the importance for morale, declared that “…St Paul’s Cathedral should be protected at all costs” and through great effort with little to no water available, low visibility and fires raging throughout the City of London, protected it was. Luck also played its part; an incendiary device hit the roof but didn’t explode. It melted the lead, falling through and the brave volunteer fire-fighters managed to smother it with sandbags before any major damage was done.

St. Paul’s stood as a symbol of strength and defiance when Britain was at her lowest ebb. Standing proud when the buildings surrounding it were completely levelled, it is miraculous it is still here when some 30,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on London by the Luftwaffe from September 7, 1940 until the Blitz stopped on May 11th 1941.

The funerals of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana were held here, it has survived twelve monarchies and 2 World Wars, and it has the 2nd largest dome in the world at 111m high. This is as genuinely verifiable a London icon as you’re likely to find. The importance and gravitas of this place not being lost on me, I made my way inside the building that has dominated London’s skyline since 1708 when it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to replace the previous cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The entry fee is steep at £18 each although I didn’t begrudge paying this as it goes towards the upkeep of this magnificent landmark. If you’re a U.K. taxpayer you can also register this payment for Gift Aid which allows any charitable institution to claim the tax back from the government effectively increasing the amount of the donation. It also grants you entry for 1 year making it better value for money.

My first impressions were of the scale of the church. It is one of the largest churches in Europe. I visited the enormous cathedral of Seville back in March and it appears larger here because of the open-plan nature of the church despite being smaller in stature. There is a long, central walkway leading to the north and south transepts and the high altar. There are monuments to the great and good of British history including the Duke of Wellington and the fallen of both World Wars. The interior is ornate and in the English Baroque style with painted vaulted ceilings, arched recesses and the magnificent central dome painted to depict the life of St.Paul. It is less gaudy than St. Peters in Rome albeit less immediately impressive, although I prefer the more restrained but still very elaborate sense of decor.

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The floor and the altar.

We explored the cathedral floor and the chapels, then we made our way up the 257 steps to the Whispering gallery for wonderful views of the worship area below and the painted dome above. One of the best things about the very challenging climb are the numerous alcoves where you can stop and take a breather if necessary. It’s a much less claustrophobic but more challenging climb than the cathedral in Seville. Photography isn’t allowed here but it was fun watching everybody whispering along the walls to their friends or parents on the other side of the dome. Originally an accidental feature, the Whispering gallery is so-called because of the acoustics of the dome; you can whisper along the walls and apparently be perfectly heard on the other side.

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The painted dome depicting the life of St. Paul.

After we sat for ten minutes enjoying the somewhat militant guards shouting “no photos” at the tourists we made our way up a further 121 steps to the Stone Gallery. You arrive outside and are able take in the spectacular views of London for the first time. The best part about the views here as opposed to The Shard or The Monument for example, is the fact the views are unobstructed by windows or bars allowing you to take better pictures and enjoy the panorama more. It is also enjoyable being out of the fresh air after climbing those 376 steps!

After we’d made a circuit of the outer dome we made the final descent up the further 152 steps to the Golden Gallery. This was the most challenging and claustrophobic climb of them all. It was quite steep and at several points we had to stop to allow the people in front to go through the small doorway leading outside. It was worth the effort though as the views were spectacular. At 85 meters up you have unrestricted 360 degree views of the City and the West End. London landmark after London landmark are on show; The Tate Modern, The Shard, Canary Wharf and Docklands, The Houses of Parliament, The London Eye and many more are spread out before you displaying the vast and wonderful tapestry of London in all its glory. I’m not very impressionable but it’s moments like these where I stand there and simply think “I love this city”.

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The view from St. Paul’s.

We made the descent down to the crypt, thankfully much easier than the climb up, to see the final resting places of some genuine titans of history. Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington and Alexander Fleming are all interred here. Figures that drastically altered British and World history, without whom the world would have been a very different place. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for this masterpiece is also buried here and there are memorials to Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale amongst others.

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The painted vaulted ceilings.

I really enjoyed my time here. I always like to see the principle churches or cathedrals whenever I travel abroad and I would like to see all of the most famous churches in the world. The Cathedral of Milan and St. Marks in Venice are still high on the wish list but I’ve seen St. Peters in Rome, The Cathedral of Seville and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona amongst others. For me, the only church that can compare to St. Paul’s is St. Peter’s. The interior of St. Peter’s is more extravagant and the Sistine chapel is magnificent but personally, I prefer the more restrained interior here and the views from the top aren’t as impressive as St.Paul’s. Something that St. Peters doesn’t have either is its history.

I’m very proud to be a Londoner and I’m even more proud that this incredible structure has been such a fixture on our skyline for over 300 years. From rising like a phoenix from the literal ashes of the Great Fire of London, to shining like a beacon of hope during humanity’s darkest hour, galvanising a nations spirit in the process, St. Paul’s has a story few can rival. It may no longer be the most prominent building on our skyline, or the most visible, but it’s still the most beautiful and the most important. I think it always will be.

Thanks for reading.

Terry

Prices and Info:

St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London, EC4M 8AD.

https://www.stpauls.co.uk/

Adult tickets start at £16 if purchased in advance online.

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