St Paul’s Cathedral

Last week I took Lilah and Lily to St Paul’s cathedral for a special outing as I had a dim and distant recollection of first visiting it myself while still very young. A building of such scale and splendour is probably best impressed upon early childhood memories and, notwithstanding Lily’s little impromptu dip in the fountain, our visit was a great success.

Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral despite the heavy entrance charges (£15/$22) and so I noticed quite a few of the visitors taking snaps of the girls in their matching dresses outside on the steps and later up on the Stone Gallery. As a result of the restrictions, I’ve had to use an odd mixture of borrowed “guide book” pictures and my photos from last year’s Number 11 bus trip past the Occupy London protest to help illustrate this post. Never mind; even though our London skyline shots from the Dome turned out pretty well, my granddaughters were welcome to steal the show.

The story of St Paul’s starts in Canterbury (where else?) with the burial place of London’s first Bishop, Mellitus (ordained 604) actually to be found in St Augustine’s Abbey. Nothing remains of the first Saxon cathedral of London which was built of wood and burned down in 675, in fact it’s pretty amazing that we even have such an accurate date. The next fell to Vikings in 962 and, as luck would have it, another fire in 1087 took out most of the first attempt to build in stone. But it is now that things started to get serious.

Nearly a thousand years ago the various attempts to put St Paul’s in the record books began with the Norman intention to construct the longest cathedral in the world. Quite why the newly arrived French conquerors should want to put this monstrous (I mean monumental) edifice in England, of all places, I’m not sure but it took over 200 years to build. It must have been truly magnificant but its spire (the first building taller than the pyramids) was lost to lightning in 1561 and restoration plans under the great architect Inigo Jones were halted in 1642 when the King lost his head.

Are you following? Well, pay attention. After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II was all set to begin restoration of the cathedral when the Great Fire of 1666 took advantage of the lead-covered wooden ceilings to completely demolish what is now almost always referred to as “Old St Paul’s”. Cue: Sir Christopher Wren and the great Baroque masterpiece which may not have had a dome quite as big as that of St Peter’s in Rome but was the first cathedral to introduce admission charges in 1709. And it certainly cost a pretty penny to build.

Although I’ve visited any number of times and am fully aware of its significance in the history of England, I’ve never developed much affection for the building. And I use the term advisedly: to me it is just a building, all that over-the-top splendour seemingly dedicated to temporal majesty with little room for the divine. It may be a personal view but even Sir Kit’s tombstone “If you seek my memorial, look around you” is unnecessarily grandiose. I much prefer the story of how how he apparently contributed designs and materials to the little Synagogue being built just around the corner in Bevis Marks.

The girls were suitably impressed. The admired the “sparkly bits”, re-assured Grandma that they weren’t frightened climbing up all those stairs to the “tippy top” and wondered why there were all those great big statues in the “basement”. Sentiments which I can only echo.

 

1 Comment

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