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One in seven: St. Paul's Cathedral

© By Mike Keenan

  The problem with London as with all of the great cities in the world is that one needs a minimum of seven days to begin to savour the multiple delights offered, and if one tries to cover too much, unless you happen to be an Olympic athlete buttressed with steroids, exhaustion quickly sets in. One frugal yet efficient method to deal with the logistics obstacle is to ride the popular double-decker British buses which transport clever tourists armed with up-to-date bus schedules in their ad hoc leisurely viewing sorties. We accomplished just that, and on one pleasant sojourn, sat near a beaming grandfather happily taking his grandson to visit St. Paul's Cathedral. We listened in on their banter and became so intrigued that we decided to visit as well.
     Our tour was conducted by Geoffrey Turner, the "Working Friends" team leader, a volunteer with an incredible array of knowledge that he was most happy to share with others.
     Impressive memorials fill the church, the largest devoted to the iconic Duke of Wellington, the renown soldier turned politician who, in 1820 was accorded a state funeral here, one of only three in the life of the cathedral, the others allotted to other warriors, Admiral Nelson and Winston Churchill.
     The choir occupies balanced rows on either side of the middle of the transept, ornamented with dark oak, carved spindles set between thick railings, huge white contrasting candles encased in glass, based in gold. Fortunately, the Bath Abbey Choir Master, a young man from Redding was rehearsing the choir, he outfitted in a stark black tunic, versus the lively blue cloaks of his charges. The organ and its riveting sound seemed literally to climb into the vaulted ceilings as light filtered down through the mosaic of stained glass in reds and blues, yellows and greens, augmenting that from many music stands. The choir, truly inter-generational, combined children and adults all the way up to those of thinning hair. A stooped lady somewhere between 80 and 90, grey-haired, bespeckled, no more than five feet tall and wearing a blue smock with heraldic crests on her arm, stopped by to laconically comment: "He's quite young, but good for his age," referring to the choir master.
     The American Memorial Chapel contains the only stained glass, architect Christopher Wren opting for plain glass as most stained glass was derived from Munich, and ironically, what Wren did have on site was ultimately destroyed during the war by German aircraft. During WWI, London was bombed for extended periods, but remarkably, the cathedral was damaged only twice, one bomb penetrating the roof and exploding when it hit the ground below, destroying a huge wooden door.
     Regimental banners over 200 years old, hang from the cathedral walls providing flashes of colour, and behind the altar resides "The Light of the World," famous artwork painted by William Holman, depicting Christ holding a lantern in the wilderness.
     Above, are three amazing inner domes constructed of brick with eight scenes from the life of St. Paul painted on the main dome for a stunning visual impact. The outside domes are covered in lead, and in-between the inner and outer domes are another brick layer, heavily reinforced in order to support 700 tonnes of stunning architecture. We walked the entire 259 steps to the whispering gallery, 100 ft. up, and there was a gallery outside the dome where one, if determined, arrives at the very top.
     Looking down at the choir, in 1697 this section was used for the first service for Queen Anne with its original woodwork containing delicate carvings of cherubs and other unique decorations that remain intact. The enormous organ commands both sides of the cathedral, and there is a plain ceiling in the west. In the east, the coloured glass mosaics exhibit a twinkling effect because the glass is set unevenly. Ostentatious Latin titles demark the seats of the Bishop of London, the Mayor of London and five assistant bishops. A Henry Moore sculpture beautifully depicts Madonna and child.
     Below, inside the impressive crypt, an underworld exists, vast and remarkable for its ornate memorials, one devoted to John Donne, depicted in a shroud. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare, a preacher and poet who at age 42, became an Anglican choosing to leave Roman Catholicism.
     Stained glass windows in three panels are dedicated to "service," "sacrifice" and "resurrection" with state seals embossed on the borders and 28,000 names contained in a large book, commemorating the men who did not return home from war. The first memorial that I notice to the left is that of Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first Prime Minister (1815-1891). His epitaph reads, "A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die."
     There are graves located on the floor by "ledger stones." Wren is buried under a black slate at the very spot where the cathedral construction began. His epitaph reads, "If you seek his monument, look around" (Latin: "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.") There's Wellington's tomb complete with tattered flags over 150 years old, the Florence Nightingale Memorial under a trap door for coffins and Nelson, who perished five weeks away from Trafalgar near Spain was preserved in a barrel of booze before being relocated at St. Paul's. A chapel pays homage to the Order of the British Empire's 100,000 members lost throughout the British Commonwealth. Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame has a memorial, dated 1881 as well as Lord Thomson of Fleet and Sir Alexander Fleming (ashes) 1955, discoverer of penicillin. After 1936, there were no longer interments at St. Paul's.
     Huge 27 ft. high double wooden doors at the west end symbolically allow one to arrive facing the east: Jerusalem and the other significant places of the Holy Land. Over 300 years old, they have been opened only on special occasions such as during a royal visit but are otherwise closed to the public except for the "grand occasions." The panelled doors weigh one tonne each and oak grain runs each way, therefore they remain so exquisitely balanced that even after three centuries, the doors are easily opened by one man.
     I am amazed at the Victorian beauty and extravagance that they employed to commemorate their dead. Two doors depict the gates of death, one manned by an angel with a trumpet, the other, an angel with a sword. Under an archway are the names of the Deans of St. Paul's from the 9th century on. The original cathedral dates back 1400 years, and the modern cathedral celebrates over 300 years.
     Fittingly, at Saint Paul's, there is a call to prayer each hour. One may sit here for hours and reflect on British history, but for us, there were many more double-decker buses to catch.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan: St. Paul's Cathedral Britain On View: Part view of ornate Victorian gothic architecture of the iconic Big Ben clock tower at the Houses of Parliament, designed by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin; View across the River Thames towards the South Bank, showing the iconic London Eye and historic County Hall building; Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace; Changing the guard viewed from the roof of the palace; Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London; The London Eye; The West End by night (Pawel Libera); The London Eye and Bodicea statue (Damir Fabijanic); Looking through gateway entrance into the forecourt outside the British Library, showing the bronze sculpture 'Newton, after William Blake' designed by Eduardo Paolozzi;View of the grand west front of Westminster Abbey, one of Britain's finest Gothic buildings, home to Royal coronations, marriages and funerals since the eleventh century; Nelson's Column and a statue of a lion on one of the four plinths in Trafalgar Square (Damir Fabijanc); Canary Wharf station on the Jubilee Line (Lee Mawdsley); London Underground signage for Paddington Station (Damir Fabijanic); Streaks of light from cars passing over Tower Bridge at night. (McCormick-McAdam); "London bus on a bag, St Martin's market" (Ingrid Rasmussen); Woman standing in telephone box (Ingrid Rasmussen)

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