For some unfathomable reason I have never been inside Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. Recently, I made amends and spent the day in what is, surely, one of the most breathtaking buildings in the world. The approach to St Paul’s Cathedral across Blackfriars Bridge affords a great view of the iconic dome and towers, but it is nothing compared to stepping inside. It was love at first sight.
You are literally stopped in your tracks by the sheer size of the interior for one thing, but also by the Baroque oppulence of rich colours spread before you. Many of the panels on the soaring ceiling are set with glass chips that sparkle like jewels as they catch the light.
Where to start which such a lavish offering? Common sense prevailed and we booked a 90-minute tour with one of the expert volunteer guides.
So much has been written about St Paul’s, built between 1675 and 1710 and I won’t even attempt to provide a history here. In short, there were four previous cathedrals on this site. The first being burned (AD 604). The second was destroyed in 962 by Viking raiders and the third also burned in 1087. The fourth, known as ‘Old St Paul’s’, was used as a barracks by Cromwellian cavalry troops during the English Civil War. Struck by lightening in (1561) it was finally destroyed by The Great Fire of London (1664). Keeping up the tradition, Wren’s masterpiece was bombed during WWII, and an unexploded bomb was removed from the Nave. A analogy for determination.
What follows is a potted version of my favourite aspects, the impressions from my visit that resonated on the day as a guide to what to look out for especially.
The Baroque splendour of the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral, the second biggest church in the UK after Liverpool Cathedral.
It took over 30 years to build St Paul’s but this is relatively short compared to some Gothic cathedrals which took half a century or more. And it is not simply the building construction but the expert carvings, ironwork and statues that are integral to the overall impression and the environment. Much of the exquisite wrought ironwork in St Paul’s is by Jean Tijoux, a French ironworker, including the ironwork gates and grilles in the Quire (top left) originally alter rails and repositioned; and the ironwork on The Dean’s Stair (below). Tijou, active from around 1689 to 1712, is known only for his work in England, notably his contribution to St Paul’s. Though surely that’s significant reputation for anyone.
The bells cast in 1878 are the second-largest ring of bells in the world. ‘Great Paul’ is the second-largest bell ever cast in Britain and weights a staggering 16 and a half tons.
St. Paul’s Cathedral. L to R: circular iron railing at the main steps to the cathedral, where Lady Diana Spencer stepped from the royal carriage to reveal the stunning dress by designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel; the Geometric Staircase in the south-west Bell Tower.
Not generally open to the public, as part of the tour we were afforded access to inside the south-west Bell Tower to admire The Dean’s Stairs, or Geometric Staircase, which rises to dizzying heights. While the public is not permitted to climb the ‘floating’ 80 steps, filming here has included: Harry Potter Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); James Bond’s Skyfall (2012) and The Madness of King George (1994). Rising to a height of 50 feet, the steps show no visible means of support. A small fraction are embedded in the wall and shaped exactly to balance the step both before and after. Designed by Christopher Wren in 1705 the staircase was built by William Kempster. They really built to last back then.
Royal services at St Paul’s, also filmed for television, have included the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Charles, Prince of Wales and the thanksgiving services for the Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilees (and the 80th and 90th birthdays) of our late Queen Elizabeth II.
The Choir Stalls
Set within the vast space of the remainder of the building, the choir stalls feature intricately carved dark wood, discreet little lamps and an atmospheric residue of centuries of occupants. It is a cosy, intimate space; a mise-en-scène where the stage is set for heavenly voices to soar. Sometimes in cathedrals there are graffiti carvings in the ancient stalls reminding us that young choristers are only human after all, and attention will wander during a long service (and the bare wooden benches are not built for comfort).
Discover the many treasures at St. Paul’s
Clockwise fron top left: memorial to the Duke of Wellington in the crypt set directly below the great dome high above; painting St Martin Divides His Cloak (2018) by Hughie O’Donaghue; one of a pair of Commemorative Crosses (2014) by Gerry Judah, the artist behind the Goodwood Festival of Speed Central Features; the passageway climbing up to the Stone Gallery inside the dome (a climb of 528 steps) is not for the faint-hearted
There are many good reasons to visit a cathedral, abbey or minster in Britain, quite apart from the peaceful atmosphere and space to reflect. These magnificent buildings are also part museum and part art gallery and St. Paul’s is home to some remarkable art works waiting to be discovered.
Either side of the nave are two 20 foot high crosses created in 2014 by Gerry Judah to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The war-torn cities and towns of modern-day conflict is represented by carefully embellishing each cross with tiny models. These have a Star Wars’ vibe from a little distance. Originally intended for temporary display, the positive response received to the memorials has resulted in a prominent, permanent place in St Paul’s. The juxtapostion of historic and contemporary ethos emphasises the sad truth that somewhere in the world, at any given time, wars continue to be fought.
The Stone Gallery
If you have a steady head for heights, be sure to climb the 528 steps to the Stone Gallery – passing the Whispering Gallery, which is currently closed – to be rewarded with expansive views across London. The dark, ancient passageways leading upwards were mostly deserted (our guide and some visitors remained below) and it was a rather spooky experience. At one point we weren’t sure we were on the right path and there was no-one to ask until a volunteer came into view around a corner. At least I think he was real and not a ghost! The crypt is the largest of any cathedral in Europe and the cathedral was the tallest building in the city up until 1963. Located on top of Ludgate Hill it forms part of London’s famous landscape.
Meanwhile, down below once more, The Duke of Wellington, among the commanders who won and ended the Napoleonic Wars, and twice Prime Minister, lies buried in the cathedral crypt (in 1852) following a procession watched by 1.5 million people (pre-TV and internet). The funeral service was attended by 10,000 people. The recent impressive state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated some idea of the grandeur of a State Funeral.
During our visit we saw only a small part of the collection and a return visit is a must. More artworks and historic objects to see include, as part of the Triforium tour, the oak and plaster model of the cathedral made in 1673-4.
Tip: I would imagine it gets very busy with visitors in high season and at weekends so bear that in mind. Allow half a day for a first visit and accept that you will not see everything in one go. Like a city it’s good to savour in small bites. Of the different tours on offer some are free including the one we booked. Guides are very knowledgeable and each tour will be unique depending upon their personality and the group’s interests. A tour provides an excellent overview as well as highlighting objects and locations you might otherwise miss.
St Paul’s Cathedral. Adult £18, concessions available. www.stpauls.co.uk
Thanks to Tony, our volunteer guide for his time and for sharing interesting facts, along with lots of lively anecdotes.
Left: Guide, Tony, challenges his audience to discover whether the The Mother and Child statue by English artist, Henry Moore (1898-1986) is created from one or two pieces of marble? Answers on a postcard, please.