on June 1, 2008
If St. Paul’s wasn’t emblematic of London before World War II, the Blitz certainly fixed that. The famous images of Wren’s dome rising seemingly unhurt out of the surrounding fires and smoke, made it the embodiment of London’s resistance to the brutal Nazi bombardment. Less well known is the price that was paid for its survival (which only heightens the image): the fire battalions worked round the clock to preserve the Cathedral, at the expense of much of the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, St. Paul’s did not escape unscathed: a major bomb crashed through the west end of the building in 1941, and you can still see some of its effects on the climb to the Whispering Gallery along the dome’s lower edge.To me, visiting here seems essential to understanding London and England. It’s certainly worth a visit for its qualities as a structure, or more holistically, as a place of worship. Christopher Wren, whose ability as architect, planner, astronomer and scientist have made him one of my heroes over the past decade, created a building that is awe-inspiring, solid, airy and intimate. Wren, who had responsibility for rebuilding so much of London after the Great Fire, built at least the third Cathedral here on Ludgate Hill. The dome still rises well above almost all of London’s skyline, but modern construction (and post-Blitz reconstruction) around the area makes it awfully hard to see the hill. The building he put here was the first English cathedral built after the Reformation, a chance to state what the new English church was, instead of what it was not.I find it powerful to visit places where people have worshipped for centuries or even a millennium. Although they did so in previous incarnations of this cathedral for many of those years, this place still carries a strong sense of history predating its 300 years. Wren’s Baroque cathedral is hardly without ornamentation, but it seems well chosen, neither too fanciful nor too restrained. It has a much more solid feel than gothic Westminster Abbey, and as a place of worship, I think I’d prefer it. Seven years ago, my wife and I came for evensong on a raining Wednesday evening, which proved to be among the highlights of that first trip to London.Understandably, the ushers patiently but firmly escorted us out of the building after evensong was finished. We hadn’t returned to tour the church, and it was the first stop on our first full day in London. Unfortunately, we arrived later than we’d planned. Hoping to arrive just as St. Paul’s opened to visitors at 8:30 (or, as I dreamed, even earlier for morning prayer), we successfully negotiated the morning tube ride from Moorgate and climbed the steps just after 9 am. Jet lag was still raging in my teens, and negotiating a family forced march through the cathedral seemed a risky bet. So we invested in audio tours (£4) for everyone who wanted one, and set off to explore the cathedral separately. I was hoping for a verger tour, but the next one didn’t leave until 10, so I headed back to the desk, where the clerk kindly offered to renegotiate my bill for the family price.Among the highlights for me were the great space under the dome, the carved wood quire and pulpit by Grinling Gibbons, and the American Chapel at the far east end. The audio tour made sure I noted the paintings by contemporary Russian artist Sergei Chepik, part of an effort to bring contemporary art into St. Paul’s, which makes sense if it is indeed to remain an active place of worship and not a museum. I don’t think I would have missed these large works, but I’m glad I didn’t. The four panels tell the story of Christ, from birth to resurrection, in an installation where they face each other in pairs, giving the set an added dimension.Everyone wanted to climb the steps to the Whispering Gallery, so we gathered at the northeast end of the cathedral for the 150+ steps. It was here that we began paying the price for arriving late, as one of two busloads that arrived at 10 was also here, and on the way further up. It was hard to test the Gallery's famous acoustics, but the view of the mosaics from this level and the dome above was worth it. My acrophobia was waking up, and walking the narrow aisle along the railing with dozens of other pushing to get past wasn’t helping. I stepped up onto one of the pairs of benches running around at the dome’s wall, and enjoyed the view outwards and upwards. Even if your plans don’t call for anymore climbing, I wouldn’t skip this part of the cathedral. If you do need to rest, it’s much easier to do so on this climb than it is as you ascend to the outdoor galleries above.Above the Whispering Gallery are an array of windows, and your view of the Cathedral is enhanced by being close to the dome over your head as well as farther from the floor, quire and apse below. I would have hoped for a more peaceful setting, but next time I’ll come earlier.My family was split on heading up from here. My oldest decided not to climb, and my wife stayed with her; my younger two were going up regardless, and thinking about them 300 feet above London without me made my parental sensibilities ring wildly in alarm. In the end, the climb wasn’t too bad: it’s a little shorter ascent to the next gallery, which is a solid stone walkway with views out holes in the stone railing. It was still a bright, sunny morning, and this view out over London was better than I anticipated. We walked a full circuit of this level, and then climbed to the Golden Gallery. It’s not the uppermost level on the dome’s exterior, but it is as high as you can go these days.This climb takes you up catwalks and over the top of Wren’s inner dome. It’s more challenging than the first two intervals, and I’d think twice if you’re uneasy in tight spaces or on steep mesh stairs. The view over London is exquisite. It rivals that from the London Eye, and there’s no glass or metal frame in your way. Of course, nothing protects you from the elements, either, but the breezes weren’t too bad. The gallery is exceedingly narrow—perhaps 3 feet at its widest point right by the top of the stairwell, and much tighter in places. It was so crowded that once we stepped out, we couldn’t walk around, and were stuck simply waiting for others to finally head down. I nearly lost it as one of the teens ahead of me climbed the railing and leaned as far over as possible, but he survived, the line cleared, and we made it to the far side for a view to the east and the Tower of London.From here, we headed to the crypt. Nelson’s tomb is on the main floor of the cathedral, but the number of other tombs and monuments seemed restrained compared to Westminster Abbey. On the lower level are Wren’s tomb, bearing his son’s famous epitaph ("If you seek his monument, look around you"), the tomb of Wellington, still surrounded by the battle flags carried at his funeral procession by Britain’s allies in the victory over Napoleon. Churchill isn’t buried here, but an ornate iron gate across the midpoint of the crypt honors him and his contributions to the nation. Joining him are numerous generals from the First and Second World Wars, panels commemorating the service of many units in both conflicts, and the politicians and soldiers who built the empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I paused briefly in front of a table where a docent was selling guidebooks, and she struck up a conversation with me, taking me aside to point out one of her favorites, the monument to George Williams, founder of the YMCA: “Doesn’t he have just have the most wonderful smile? He looks so happy to me”, she said as we gazed on his image.We emerged from the crypt just after noon. I was hopeful that we’d return later in the week for a service, perhaps on Maundy Thursday. It wasn’t to be, but I will come here every chance I get.
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