Tag Archives: St Paul’s

St Paul’s Cathedral

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.

The famous Dome
The famous Dome

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.

Medieval town courtesy of photo bucket
Medieval town courtesy of photo bucket

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.

London Wall, courtesy of Photobucket
London Wall, courtesy of Photobucket

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.

The front of St Paul's
The front of St Paul’s

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.

St Paul's from One New Change 2015-05

The Dome
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

Dark and Hidden London



Footprints of London has done it again! My friend Sheena and I went on the Dark and Hidden London walk, hosted by Paul Surma, on Saturday and had an interesting, informative and thoroughly enjoyable time.

If you take a look at Paul’s profile on the Footprints website, you will see that he has a liking for little alleyways and the history attached to them, and that was pretty much the point of this walk.  I know how expensive it is to become a City of London Tour Guide (which Paul is) and I never cease to marvel at how much these guys know about the City – and other parts of London.  A hard course to study, I think.  Back to the tour.


We started at the Information Centre, near to St Paul’s Cathedral. I had assumed that it was just for convenience, but no, there was a purpose to that being the starting point which was soon to become obvious.  I’m intentionally not putting the reason in here though, some it has to be left for you to find for yourselves.

Paul explained to us that the City of London (Londinium, as the Romans called it) was the old Roman city, and that in their day, the streets were based on a grid system, much like that followed in other major cities of the world nowadays.  The Romans left England in around 410 AD so Londinium was left to its own devices. It wasn’t the weather that drove the Romans away, well, probably not; it was purely and simply that Rome itself was under attack and it was too expensive to keep an army in England. Austerity was alive and kicking in Roman times too, it seems.

Leaving Roman London to its own devices meant leaving it all to nature and anyone with a garden will know exactly what that means; if there was anyone left living there, which would have been only a few, they didn’t have the skills to maintain the Roman infrastructure. I’m not spoiling the tour by saying this, it’s a matter of record.

When the Saxons invaded in around 450AD they stayed well away from the Roman city and settled further west in what is now called Aldwych (taken from an old Saxon word Ealdwic, which meant old trading town or old market place). It wasn’t until around 900AD that the Saxons moved back to Londinium, which, by this time, was dishevelled and overgrown. So much for the Roman legacy. What did the Romans do for us? A story for another time.


The tour moved on. We came to Bow Churchyard, named after the church that stands in Cheapside, St Mary-le-Bow, the one of Cockney fame. (To be a true Cockney, you have to be born within the sound of Bow bells, and it is this Bow church, not the one in Bow E3. Back in the day, before cars and aircraft, you’d have heard the bells about five miles away, but not now. I wonder whether any true Cockneys are born nowadays?)


Cheapside is so named because it used to be a market, cheap being the Old English name for market. The street was much wider years ago; wide enough for jousting tournaments, gallows and other fun features. (Back in the day, it was a tourist attraction to watch a hanging and the like, and with some of the videos available on YouTube these days, I am not convinced that much has changed.)

A church has stood on the site of the church at St Mary-le-Bow before the Norman Conquest, but, like so many other buildings, it was destroyed in the Great Fire in and was subsequently rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. The one that was rebuilt wasn’t the first church on this site to be destroyed though, there was one in 1091 which was destroyed by the London Tornado.  That was reckoned to be a pretty fierce tornado, with speeds up to 250 mph, it’s estimated.

It was an important church for many reasons, not the least being that the bells were used to sound the curfew when it was a walled city – if you didn’t get inside the city gates PDQ, you’d be spending the night in the country, which wasn’t nice back then. I wonder whether that is where all the stuff about Londoners getting a nose bleed if they go too far from home or the wrong side of the river comes from. (I can assure anyone who is not from London that this doesn’t happen.  I even travel around London quite safely without my passport.)  St Mary’s was considered to be the second most important church in the City (St Paul’s being the first) and so it was one of the first to be rebuilt after the Fire.

Our tour moved on to somewhere I’ve been before but I couldn’t remember the name of the place – the premises in question is now Williamsons’ Tavern in Bow Lane, but it used to be the residence of the Lord Mayor of London. The original building was built back in 1189 when the office of Lord Mayor was established, although the Lord Mayor has now moved to the Mansion House. I must actually go in this pub for a drink one day, just to get an idea of what it would have been like. (It’s been closed whenever I’ve gone since I’ve known of its existence.)

From here we made our way to a road called Watling Street. I always get very excited when I come here because I remember learning about the Roman Roads and Watling Street when I was at school. Sadly, this is not that Watling Street, although it is a Roman Road. Nonetheless, it does have some historical significance, it leads directly to St Paul’s, and there is a pub here called Ye Olde Watling, which dates back to just after the Great Fire.  Wren had a huge workforce setting about rebuilding London and he realised that they would need somewhere to go and let off steam and have a bit of relaxation, so he had this pub built, reputedly from old ships’ timbers.  It is also said that Wren used the rooms upstairs as his drawing office.


Further along Watling Street, in the opposite direction to St Paul’s, is a bronze statue check of a cordwainer. Paul explained that this street was once known as Cordwainer Street because that was the street in which most of the cordwainers were based. It was like that back in the old days – Bread Street = bakers, Silk Street = silk makers, and so on. The term “cordwainer” comes from Cordoba in Spain, and these were the people who made leather shoes. The cordwainers made it big in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, I suppose they must have been the Jimmy Choo of the day.


Another interesting thing that Paul told us (which I think I had known but forgotten) was that the well-to-do used to wear things called “pattens” over their shoes. The streets were pretty rough to walk in those days, no nice paving stones or tarmac on the road, and there was a lot of… well… to put it politely, the streets were used as drains, and I’m leaving the rest to your imagination. So pattens were early platforms and covers to protect the shoes and to ensure that the ladies’ lovely dresses didn’t drag in the dirt.

Onwards to St Pancras’ Church Gardens, which would have been the site of St Pancras Church. It could only have been a little church and was one of 86 destroyed in the Fire. (There were originally about 110  churches and only about 50 were rebuilt.) This was one of those that wasn’t rebuilt but the churchyard continued to be used as a burial ground until 1853.  It’s a lovely little churchyard, off the beaten track, with beautfully carved wooden seats.  These benches are a fairly new addition to the gardens, designed by students from the City and Guilds London Art School.


Then onto St Stephen’s Walbrook, near to Mansion House. This is the last of the three churches that Wren built with domes – it rather seems that he was practising before building St Paul’s, and he got it right with this one. The original church on this site was another that was destroyed by the Fire.

From here to Change Alley, where Garraways Coffee House stood; it was rebuilt in 1874, another Fire casualty, but this was where tea was traded. There was a blue plaque on another building, the site of the King’s Arms Tavern, where the first meeting of the Marine Society was held on 25 June 1756. Marine society

Then we made our way to St Michael’s Alley and the Jamaica Wine House. I wrote a little about this in my post of 29 May, about Mark Rowland’s Walk in the City:



Although what I hadn’t realised previously that as well as trading sugar, and the like from the West Indies, as they would have been called back then, they also traded slaves. Naïve of me not to realise, I suppose.

Moving swiftly on after that charming note, to Leadenhall Market. I love Leadenhall, partly because all of the shops have their signages in the same design, as in the photograph below. So no matter what their trade mark and logo is, they don’t use them in Leadenhall.


Leadenhall Market used to be the cheese and poultry market, but is now a shopping area.

Paul told us the tale of Old Tom, a goose who had been taken to market to be slaughtered but escaped and then went on to become a local celebrity. Apparently, back in the day, around 34,000 geese would have been slaughtered over a two day period! That’s a lot of Christmas dinners!

Then along to Rood Lane, and the church of St Margaret’s Patten; you can guess what that’s about. This is one of the churches that has an exhibition in it, so somewhere I need to return to. Paul took us onto Plantation Lane something here where there are

The tour ended at All Hallows by the Tower, which is one of the oldest churches in London, dating back to the 10th century. It survived the Great Fire (Pepys stood in its tower watching the fire’s progress) but not the Blitz. It was badly damaged but has been rebuilt since. This is another church with an exhibition in the basement. I can see I’m going to have to have a day of visiting churches soon.

From here, Sheena and I made our way back down to Liverpool Street, to pick up some Prosecco in the Tesco there, and then wandered along to Brick Lane, to go to our favourite Aladin restaurant.

It was a good tour and a good meal. Paul was personable and knowledgeable and answered all the questions easily. I thought it was really nice that he thanked us all too, at the end of the walk.

© Susan Shirley 2015