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The St. Paul’s Cathedral that we see today is actually the fifth religious building on the site.
The first church burnt down in 675 AD, and the second was sacked by the Vikings in 962 AD and replaced by another in stone. The fourth church – known to history as Old St. Paul’s – was started by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest. It suffered fire damage in 1087, and another fire in 1136 set the builders back years.
It was finally finished two hundred years later, only to burn down again during the Great Fire of London in 1966.
The task of rebuilding the cathedral was given to Christopher Wren. The English architect began building it in 1675 and finished it in 1708. The resulting masterpiece boasts the second largest dome in Europe (after St. Peter’s in Rome) and is the only domed cathedral in the whole of England.
If you walk directly under the central dome then you can read Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph on the floor: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, which translates as: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
You start your St. Paul’s Cathedral tour with a view of long processional nave . This is where Princess Diana walked in her long flowing train when she married Prince Charles in 1981.
To the left is All Souls’ Chapel, St. Dunstan’s Chapel  and the entrance to the bell tower . Don’t miss the Duke of Wellington’s monument on the left (his actual tomb is next to Admiral Nelson’s in the crypt). Over to the right is the chapel of St. Michael and St. George .
The woodwork around the altar was carved by Grinling Gibbons , and the iron gates were made by Jean Tijou. You’ll also find a 20th-century statue by Henry Moore.
The canopy over the altar is a copy of the cover in St. Peter’s in Rome, but only dates from 1958 (the original was damaged during the Blitz in World War II).
Another damaged artefact worth seeking out is a small burnt effigy of the poet John Donne – one of the few pieces to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. John Donne was famous for his immortal lines: “No man is an island,” and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
No tour of St. Paul’s would be complete without climbing up the stairs to the cathedral’s domes, all of which are open to the public (assuming that you don’t mind the heights, of course).
If you look directly up from the centre of the cathedral then you can see the famous Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s. If you want to enjoy the interior views then be prepared to climb a hefty 257 steps. You might also like to partake in the Gallery’s favourite pastime: talking. Due to a bizarre acoustic effect everything said on one side of the gallery can be easily understood on the other – even if you whisper.
For views of the London skyline you need to climb another 119 steps to the Stone Gallery, which will put you at the base of the exterior dome. If you are very brave (actually, let me rephrase that: I mean extremely brave) then you can climb another 150 steps to the very top of the dome: the Golden Gallery.
‘Big Tom’ is the name of the clock face on the right-hand tower. Whilst nowhere near as impressive as Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament, its minute-hand is still taller than a human being. But Great Paul, on the other hand – the 17-tonne bell that rings out at 1 o’clock every day – is actually larger than the one at Westminster.
St. Paul’s Cathedral houses the largest crypt in Europe, containing over 300 memorials to the great and good. The most notable are Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Christopher Wren himself, who has a rather modest little tomb at the end. Other tombs include Florence Nightingale and Lord Kitchener.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral today and climbed all the way to the top (nearly), and i’m bloody knackered now – they need to get a lift installed for lazy people like me. They should get Christopher Wren back to design a lift.
I did the whole audio guide thing just to make sure I got all the history but I ended up skipping most of it. The one at Westminster Abbey was too short but at least it was interesting. But this one had too much about religion and not enough about the bricks. It was like they were trying to convert you through the headphones. Westminster Abbey had stuff by Jeremy Irons, but this was full of big long passages by the priests, emploring you to sit down for a minute and revel in the glory of God.
The interior is a lot more impressive than the one at Westminster Abbey… but in a funny way it’s not. The St. Paul’s Cathedral architecture is very airy, open and white. There’s lots and lots of room in the Cathedral, whereas the Abbey is crammed to the brim with every kind of memorial imaginable, almost brushing your nose as you walk past. But when you look up at the ceiling there is no contest because St. Paul’s is plastered with golden mosaics everywhere you look, all the way down the nave. And the dome goes almost up to the sky with paintings all around. Westminster Abbey is just stone. I sat in the seats underneath, until I had neckache from bending it.
They’ve got a few chapels dotted around but none as impressive as the Abbey’s. This place is all about peace and quiet and prayer time for the locals. They don’t even let you take any flash photos in case it upsets the devoted. Presumably they don’t mind the three thousand tourists walking around listening to their audio guides.
Once you’ve plucked up the courage you can head for the stairs and the half-hour traipse to the top of the dome. Everyone always asks how many steps there are in St. Paul’s Cathedral; well, let me tell you: for the first level up to the Whispering Gallery it’s a mere 257 steps – which even I could do. The steps are very wide, and wood, and easy peasy. Once you get to the top you can look down onto the floor far below. You’re supposed to be able to whisper to the wall and hear it clearly round the other side, but seeing as I was on my own and both of my ears were stuck to my head, I couldn’t test that out. But you’d be hard pressed to hear it above the three hundred other people doing it anyway. You couldn’t even hear a whisper if they said it two feet from your face.
After that you’ve got to climb another 119 steps to the Stone Gallery. These ones are of the narrow little windy type, and I was pretty happy to get to the top. You come outside at the very bottom of the dome and get some decent views across London.
If you’re fitter than Sebastian Coe and have got balls of steel then you can climb another 150 steps to the Golden Gallery. This one takes you to the very top of the dome, with even better views of the city. But unfortunately there’s no stone tunnel to climb. No wide wooden steps either. What you have to do is climb a twisty old rickety iron thing that goes straight up vertically, with fabulous views of the floor far, far below where you can plummet to your death. The steps are see-through too, which just makes it even worse. I reckon Christopher Wren must have been having a joke when he built those, because even Edmund Hilary would baulk at doing that.
Once you come back down there is one more place to go – the Crypt. The best two tombs are for Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, but don’t miss the chapel at the far end because they’ve got some famous names in there – J.W. Turner, Millias, Blake, and a modest little slab for Christopher Wren himself.
> Read Craig’s latest review of St. Paul’s Cathedral “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… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of an Evensong service at St. Paul’s “After doing the Evensong at Westminster Abbey last week, I thought I’d give the Evensong at St. Paul’s a try. I was all ready for the entry scrum this time so I turned up at 4.30 only to find that the big queue was already going in – it’s a lot more civilised in The City. If you do happen to turn up early then you can always wile away a bit of time in the Crypt downstairs, which is open to the public without an entry fee. They’ve got a little restaurant and a shop down there, and you can get a sneaky look at Nelson’s tomb through the big iron gate – just don’t make the same mistake that I did and come out with only half an hour to spare, because you’ll discover that half the people have already gone in… continued.”
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If you enjoy visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral then how about attending an Evensong choral service? Other big churches in London include Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Brompton Oratory and Southwark Cathedral are also worth a look. There are quite a few smaller churches that are worth a visit including the world famous Temple Church. Check out our list of churches in London for some more ideas.
Great Fire of London Tour — St. Paul's Cathedral to St. Paul’s Cathedral The CityDiscover how the Great Fire of London destroyed Old St Paul's, and gave us Christopher Wren's masterpiece.
Evensong Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral St. Paul’s Cathedral The CityIf you attend a choral Evensong service at St Paul's Cathedral, you can wander around and see part of the Cathedral for free.
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