St Paul's is one of the most defining landmarks of the capital, its large dome instantly recognisable as a symbol of the city's defiant rise from the ashes after the Great Fire of London, as well as its remarkable survival of the Blitz during World War II. Today it is a living, thriving church, not just a tourist attraction but a place of worship and music. Although it can be a busy place, it is still possible to visit it the Slow Travel way and to experience the stillness and peace within its ancient stone walls.
What to see in St. Paul's
A Brief History of St Paul's
There has been a place of worship called St Paul's on this site on Ludgate Hill for centuries. In 604, the Saxons established a Christian church inside the old Roman walls in the city of Ludenwic. There may well have been an earlier Roman church or temple on this same site, although there is no remaining evidence of one.
The fate of the first St Paul's is not known, but its successor was destroyed by fire in 962, being rebuilt the same year. King Æthelred the Unready was buried in the cathedral in 1016, his tomb lost when that one burnt down in 1087, along with much of the city. The fourth St Paul's was built by the Normans and survived for centuries, on the receiving end of much damage caused by the English Reformation, the Civil War and the Commonwealth, until it was gutted by fire in the Great Fire of London of 1666.
The new cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who as Kings Surveyor was in charge of the rebuilding of over 50 churches in the capital after the Great Fire. It was he who created the great dome, having first built a smaller version on his local church St Stephen Walbrook. St Paul's dome is the highest in the world and the cathedral has a full length crypt which is the largest in Europe.
The current St Paul's has survived two attempted bombing attempts by the Suffragettes in 1913 and 1914, both bombs being discovered before they exploded. (The remains of one of these bombs is on display in the City of London Police Museum.) St Paul's also survived the Blitz as although it did receive some damage, none of it was enough to causes irreparable harm. St Paul's became a symbol for the plucky Londoner who defiantly withstood the German onslaught.
Visiting St Paul's
St. Paul's is on many visitors' London Bucket List, not just for its astonishing beauty, or being the final resting place for many famous writers, artists, military and more, but also for the far-reaching views you can get over the city if you climb to the top of its iconic dome.
There is no denying the incredible beauty of the cathedral. As you walk through the entrance you may well be taken aback by the sheer size and vastness of the interior. The nave is lined with soaring arches, with a huge marble baptismal font elevated on steps which fills the whole of the west end. The black and white tiled floor, white walls, dark wood and flashes of gold create a rich, vibrant interior, with intricate decorations and carvings and it is a real visual feast. The ceiling over the quire is incredible and worth spending some time looking at with blues, greens, browns and gold creating a stunning effect. The whole building is light and airy, with countless clear glass windows to let the natural light flood in.
What to see in St. Paul's
Tombs and Memorials
There are hundreds of tombs and memorials within the walls of St. Paul's, which range from simple plaques on a wall to hugely ornate and elaborate sculptures. A lot of them are in the Crypt below the building, many of them well known figures from the past four centuries. Here are just a tiny handful of the great and the good you will find immortalised within its walls.
Sir Christopher Wren
The first burial in the present day cathedral was Sir Christopher Wren, who designed it. He died in 1723 at the age of 91 and is buried in the Crypt, with his daughter, sister and brother-in-law. The epitaph was written by his eldest son and reads:
Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91
This same epitaph is inscribed in the floor underneath the dome, around the sun which is the central motif underneath the dome. There is also a block of stone bearing his mark which was found in Portland, where the stone comes from, and was shipped to St Paul's in 1972 along with other Portland stone used for restoration work.
There is a memorial to TE Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, on the walls of the crypt. The bust was created by Eric Kennington, illustrator of his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." and was installed in St Paul's, alongside other great military leaders, a year after his premature death near his Dorset retreat of Clouds Hill.
Florence Nightingale died in 1910 at the age of 90 and although offered a burial at Westminster Abbey, her relatives declined and she is buried in the village where her family had a home, East Wellow in Hampshire. Due to public demand, a memorial service was held for her at St. Paul's and the memorial installed in the crypt some years later. It depicts Florence Nightingale holding a glass of water for a bedridden soldier with a bandaged head. You can learn more about the work of Florence in the Florence Nightingale Museum near Waterloo.
Dr. Samuel Johnson
Dr. Johnson, who lived and worked nearby is shown looking rather idealised, with a muscly body, draped in a toga and resting on a scroll. Portraits of the time show him to be a rather chubby and unattractive fellow, and the enhancements he has been gifted in this statue tell us more about the esteem in which he was held, rather than being a copy of his looks. He is famed of course for creating the first dictionary as well as being a highly intelligent man, conversationalist and man of letters.
Battle of Trafalgar
Lord Nelson, considered one of the greatest naval commanders in history, is buried in his own crypt in a huge marble sarcophagus. Laid out in the Painted Hall at Greenwich after his death at Trafalgar in 1805, he was buried with full honours at St Paul's in a display of mass mourning across the country.
His tomb is joined by others who fought at the battle, such as Captain John Cooke who was killed when he was commander of HMS Bellerophon. He is remembered for having died in face to face combat with the French, who were picking off the officers on the quarterdeck. Failing to remove his distinctive captain's epaulettes in time, he said 'It is too late to take them off. I see my situation, but I will die like a man'. As the French boarded the ship, he fought them off by hand until he was shot in the chest and died shortly afterwards.
Similarly there is an equally elaborate memorial to Captain George Duff, Commander of the HMS Mars. Decapitated by a canon ball at the start of the battle, his headless corpse was carried around the ship by his men giving three cheers in his memory, before he was buried at sea after the battle.
All three men were reported as heroes in the official report of the battle and all are commemorated near each other in the crypt.
The Battle of Waterloo
Just ten years after the Battle of Trafalgar was another era defining battle. The Battle of Waterloo, that great victory over Napoleon in 1815, led to many of the officers involved being given awards and honours, including burial and memorial in St. Paul's. This includes of course the Duke of Wellington, who was given a state funeral in St Paul's and laid to rest in a huge granite sarcophagus in the crypt, after spending several days lying in state at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where you can still see the table he was laid out on.
He is not the only person who fought at Waterloo who is commemorated in the crypt. You can also see a hugely ornate and over-the-top memorial to Major General Ponsonby, who was captured and killed by French lancers in the Battle of Waterloo. There is also a small plaque to Captain Alexander Macnab, a Company Commander who led about 200 soldiers into battle twice during the three days of Waterloo until he was killed by grapeshot.
There are other memorials aplenty to military leaders, Field Marshalls and Admirals, their officers and their campaigns lining the walls of the crypt. Gallipoli, Kuwait, Falklands, Boer, Uganda, the World Wars and more are recorded, as well as individual memorials to the men. Sculptures of bewhiskered men with craggy faces, serious expressions and sculpted medals adorning their chests gaze out at you. These conquerors of the colonies are joined by the men who ran it, with memorials to assorted Premiers and Governors of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia, India, Peking and others, old men with their mutton chop beards and sense of righteous superiority.
It is not all about Empire building though. There are artists such as Henry Moore, John Millais, J M W Turner, Joshua Reynolds, John Henry Foley and Van Dyck, the latter having been buried in the previous St Paul's and given a new memorial in this one.
There are writers such as the poet John Donne who is standing on an urn in a rather bizarre shroud, William Blake, Charles Read who has now sunk into literary obscurity and George Smith who wrote the first Dictionary of National Biography. Musicians are represented by Hubert Parry, who wrote the music to Jerusalem (words by the abovementioned William Blake), and Arthur Sullivan, one half of the famous operetta duo who has the most ostentatious memorial you will find in nearby Embankment Park. Scientists include Sir Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin, and founder of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Henry Wellcome. The well known architect Lutyens, principal architect of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and designer of many of their most famous memorials, is also honoured with his own memorial.
These are all joined by dedications to hundreds who have now passed into obscurity; extravagant memorials erected in gratitude for works or deeds that have not survived in the public consciousness, or those who were never really in it. Some are known only to those in the local area - clergy, organists and clerks to the cathedral. There is a huge wooden door which is a memorial to the choristers killed during World War I, with the names of the choristers from World War II added at the bottom, a very sad sight.
St Paul's Dome
The magnificent dome is truly spectacular from below, but it can also be climbed. There is a small doorway off to one side near the transept and you can climb the steep, spiral steps up to the top. The first stop is the Whispering Gallery which is where you can look down over the ornate interior of the dome, and also 'play with the whispers', the unique structure meaning you can hear someone whispering on the other side. The second stop is the Stone Gallery where you can look out through the balustrade on the roof and see a part of the view outside. The final stop is the Golden Gallery, where you can walk all around the very top of the dome and get some incredible views. Some of the journey to the top takes you through rooms which were never intended to be seen, dark stone walls covered in graffiti, both ancient and modern.
It is 527 steps to the very top with no lift, a mixture of stone spiral staircase and metallic ones. These pass the interior cone which holds the dome up, a hidden structure which is integral to the dome's design and and which gives a fascinating insight into how it was constructed.
It is a long way up and can get really tiring, so bear that in mind before starting out!
The Exhibition and other things to see
In the crypt is an exhibition about the construction of the cathedral, with some original objects on display and a timeline of its many incarnations. There are also several smaller chapels, some with artwork or sculptures over the altar. There is quite a lot of artwork within the cathedral, who are currently doing a '50 Monuments in 50 Voices' project, giving artists the chance to re-interpret some of the more contentious monuments within the building.
St Paul's for the Slow Traveller
The cathedral opens at 8.30 to visitors on all days except for Wednesdays and Sundays. If you are able to visit at that time, you will find it a peaceful place with plenty of space to explore without the crowds. It won't take long though before the other visitors start to arrive and it soon fills up.
What I would suggest instead is to book your entry tickets for later in the day, maybe about 2.30 - 3pm. This will give you time to explore the church, the crypt, to climb the dome and do all of the touristy bits. There is a lot to see and you should allow at least a couple of hours to do it justice. When you are finished and your legs are exhausted, especially if you have climbed the 527 steps to the top, you can then take a seat under the dome and wait for Evensong, which is at 5pm every evening.
Evensong gives you the chance to just sit quietly and listen to beautiful music as you take in the extraordinary surroundings. The whole cathedral falls silent; the phones are put away, the chatting ceases, the wandering stops, it is time to sit quietly, listen to the music soaring through the high ceilings and admire the mosaics, the dome and your ancient surroundings. You can drift into a contemplative stillness, watch the rituals and just be. It is a moment of peace within the noise and chaos that can be London, and is the best way to feel a part of and a sense of belonging to this magnificent building.
If it is term time you will hear the Cathedral Choir; in the school holidays they usually have visiting choirs, who are just as good to listen to.
There is no need to be a practising Christian; the service is attended by tourists from across the globe, you don't need to sing, just sit quietly and listen.
You can collect an order of service from the stewards which will tell you what will be happening and when so you can follow along.
Visiting St. Pauls
Nearest tube station: St Paul's
Opening hours for sightseeing: Monday to Saturday
8.30am (10am on Wednesday) to 4.30pm
Last sightseeing entry 4pm.