St. Paul's Cathedral review
One of the things that I have always liked about St. Paul's Cathedral is the lousy piece of street planning outside the front door. As you walk up Ludgate Hill you'll expect to see the grand facade block off the top like a great barn door, but with the way the street curves over the brow all you get is three-quarters of the front. It's the worst piece of street planning ever! and it must have driven Christopher Wren nuts -- but I don't suppose the surrounding shops were as tall in his day.
They do a similar trick when you enter the front door, because all you see is a little bit of the aisle. It's not until you pay your money and enter the Nave that you'll stand back and say "wow". You'll be standing in the same spot for ten minutes before you even switch the audio-guide on. Some buildings are just worth standing still and looking at.
I feel like a stalker. How long can you stand and stare at something before you get arrested?
I'm not a big fan of the audio guide, if I'm honest. The information that it provides is very detailed, and it even plays a few videos like Prince Charles' wedding to Diana, but it's a bit too full of lines like "May God go with you", "Take time to reflect on God" and "Our main purpose is to worship God". You get passages by the priests and it's almost like they are trying to convert you through the headphones. You do learn lots of nice stuff about the architecture though (the way he constructed the domes is an eye-opener) and a crazy line about the cost. Did you know that the cathedral only cost £143 million in today's money? That might sound like a lot but that is £20 million cheaper than Gareth Bale and Ronaldo! Why are our priorities so warped these days that we'd rather watch two footballers knocking in a few goals than build another St. Paul's?
Have you seen Portcullis House opposite Big Ben? That cost £235 million. So on the one hand you've got St. Paul's for £143 million and on the other you've got Portcullis House for 235. It doesn't make sense does it? Where on earth does all the money go these days if it doesn't go on the bricks? They must blow it all on fees. I think it's got something to do with the timeframe too -- they want it all completed in six months so they can start earning their money back. If Christopher Wren told them that he needed thirty-five years then he'd be laughed out of town.
And don't get me started on the modern art... (too late! you've got me started)... they've erected two new war memorials on either side of the Nave and they look like intergalactic space stations -- no joke. Have we lost the ability to do traditional sculpture? I'll tell you how art works these days: they create objects like these and then cover up the fact that they're not very good by applying a layer of 'hidden meaning' to them (which nobody can see). And we are all supposed to stand there and say: "Oh yes, aren't these pieces of twisted metal wonderful — who needs the skills of Grinling Gibbons and Michelangelo when you can just pull a piece of structural junk out of the rubble and paint in white." I will say one thing though: art is very democratic these days, because they've opened it up to the talentless masses. Art is the one discipline where you don't have to be any good at it to be successful.
You shouldn't get angry in a cathedral... what's wrong with me? Just ignore it and count to ten...
Let's sit underneath the dome and look up instead. That is all the art that I need to see. I've been sitting there for fifteen minutes and I'm quite happy. I could have sat here for another fifteen but my neck is starting to get stuff. These seats underneath the dome are worth the entrance fee alone. They've got a few choral tracks on the audio guide which you can sit and listen to whilst you're looking and that is my advice to you: just loop through those tunes until your neck gives out.
Are you brave enough to climb to the top of the dome?
The first one is called the Whispering Gallery and it's a relatively easy climb up some wide wooden steps. Even I managed this one. When you come out of the top you will be looking down onto the interior of the Cathedral floor (where you've just been sitting). The next dome up is called the Stone Gallery and will put you at the bottom of the exterior dome (which is a bit confusing... but there are actually two different domes, one inside the other). I have managed this one okay in the past so I forced myself to do it today, but my legs were definitely complaining halfway up. These stairs are a bit harder because they are very steep and windy.
You get a great view of The Shard and the City skyscrapers from up here. See if you can spot the top of Tower Bridge (which is easy) and the golden urn at the top of The Monument (a bit harder). The White Tower at the Tower of London might take you a while as well. Then look for the Globe (easy) and the London Eye and Parliament. I will give you some bonus points if you manage to spot the top of Westminster Cathedral -- and I do mean the 'cathedral', not the abbey!
The third level is called the Golden Gallery and will take you up to the top of the exterior dome. I have never once made it up here, despite three times of trying, and I chickened out again today. I even climbed up the first ten-or-so steps before backing out and coming down. My problem is that I am a total wuss when it comes to heights and I always think that I've picked the day when the whole edifice is going to come tumbling down on my head. The fact that it has been standing quite happily for 350 years doesn't matter. It even stayed standing when the Germans were dropping bombs on it in the Blitz, but I don't care — it still looks totally unsafe and there is no way you will ever catch me climbing that thing!
The final place to visit is the Crypt downstairs, containing the tombs of Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
If you walk to the chapel at the far end then you'll find the graves of famous painters like Turner, Reynolds and Millias (Constable is on the other side). You'll also find the most surprising tomb of all — to Sir Christopher Wren. The surprise is not that he's buried here, (that is obvious), but the fact that they made so little fuss of his grave! It's basically just a simple slab of black tucked quietly away in the corner. But I suppose he gets the Cathedral as his headstone.
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