Bro, Li’l Sis and I took a trip to St Paul’s Cathedral at the weekend. We had booked a guided tour. Our guide, Janna, a very passionate and exuberant lady who told us that she really wanted to keep us in the Cathedral for two weeks to tell us and show us everything that there was to know and see… That wasn’t as creepy as I’ve just made it sound, she really did mean it as a joke. I think. She also told us that we were not allowed to take photographs inside the cathedral, which is a real shame since it was so stunning.
St Paul’s Cathedral since 604AD
Janna told us that there has been a cathedral on this site since 604AD (earlier than the first abbey was built down the road at Westminster). The site where St Paul’s stands was chosen for a few reasons – one was that what we know as the City of London was London in those days, most of the rest of what is now London was fields and marsh land. Ludgate Hill, where St Paul’s stands, is the highest point in the City, so strategically a good position to have a building of importance. When the Romans were here (what did they do for us??) it is likely that there was a temple in the same area, so the rest, as they say, is history.
A Bit of History to put it in Context
By medieval times, London was still a walled City, and hadn’t spread much outside at that time. As 95% of the population was illiterate, streets became named after the trades carried out in there: Milk Street (milk was sold there), Bread Street (bread was made there), Love Lane (you can work that one out for yourselves). The social lives of the common folk revolved around the 87 churches in the City, and St Paul’s was at the heart of it all.
Most of the houses were timber built (there was plenty of wood in England) and when the families got bigger, people just extended their houses upwards. London wasn’t a clean city in those days, all the household waste was just chucked in the streets, and eventually made its way into the River Thames.
St Paul’s – Destroyed and Rebuilt
On 2 September 1666, soon after midnight, in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, a young apprentice fell asleep whilst in charge of the fire under the oven. A spark flew out of the fire and set fire to the flammable materials nearby and the fire took hold. The fire lasted for four days. Despite King Charles II himself taking charge and ordering a number of buildings to be destroyed to create fire breaks, it persisted for four days because the wind kept changing direction. Amazing then, that although there were only about eight fatalities when so much of of London was destroyed, St Paul’s included.
Sir Christopher Wren (he was plain old Chris Wren when he started working on rebuilding St Paul’s) was a very clever man – an architect, mathematician, he could read Latin and Ancient Greek, to name but a few of his talents. He designed many buildings, including Christ Church College Bell Tower, Oxford, The Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea.
The King engaged Wren to do a lot of the reconstruction in London, including St Paul’s. (In fact, he rebuilt 52 churches in the City after the fire. I think I am correct in saying that the the remaining 35 were never rebuilt.) Wren told the King that he wanted the new cathedral to be different from the original, he wanted people to see the light of God. He also said that he wanted the cathedral to have a dome.
The King rejected Wren’s first four designs. The King, whose father had been beheaded, and who was still concerned about Catholic:Protestant unease, felt that an Anglican Church with a dome was not right, it seemed more in the style of Catholic Churches eg St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Eventually, after some negotiation and modification, Wren’s fifth design was accepted. It took Wren 28 years to perfect the style and build of the dome – I believe he did “trial runs” on seven other churches before he was sure he’d got it right – St Stephen’s at Walbrook being one of them. The whole rebuild of St Paul’s took 35 years.
A Triumph of Structural Engineering
London is built on a clay soil, relatively weak in structural terms, which presented something of a challenge to Wren because of the weight of the cathedral he was about to build. St Paul’s has a crypt, the largest of any church in Europe. About half of the area of which is taken up by columns that support the weight of the cathedral. Additionally, the dome is supported by eight columns (rather than the usual four for similar designs) in order to distribute the weight more easily. As the foundations settled during the building of the cathedral, Wren made adjustments in the design to allow for this.
During our tour, Janna took us to what is known as the Dean’s stairway, a spiral staircase in which each of the 88 steps only goes into the wall by about 150 mm. Such was Wren’s genius that he worked out that if he cantilevered each step slightly, the weight would be born down thus obviating the necessity of a large inset into the wall. The entrance here has been seen in a number of films, including the Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Junior and one of the Harry Potter’s.
The strength of the design was born out during World War II, when two bombs exploded nearby and an incendiary device also went off. The steps remained in place. In fact, about four years ago, when the building was being checked, only a couple of the steps were found to have cracks, some 300 odd years after being built. I know of many newer buildings that haven’t withstood the ravages of time so well, without bombs going off nearby.
The main doors of the cathedral weigh a ton each, and yet, because of Wren’s design, they can be opened easily by one person.
Although you wouldn’t know it to look at it, there are actually three domes. The outer one, that we all know and love is wooden, covered with lead, the inner one is brick. The one in between, a bit like an inverted ice-cream cone is made of wooden struts that hold the other domes together. Although Wren wanted mosaics in the dome area, it was, once again, thought to be too similar to a Catholic Church, so it wasn’t until many years later that the mosaics were installed.
It is 365 feet from the ground floor to the top of St Paul’s Whispering Gallery, with 257 steps to get there. From the Whispering Gallery to the next level, the Stone Gallery, is another 119 steps, and from there to the Golden Gallery is a further 152 steps – 528 in total.
There is much, much more to be said about St Paul’s, far too much for one blog post. Too many secrets for one visit too. Definitely worth another visit.
© Susan Shirley 2016