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The present St Paul's Cathedral is at least the fourth to occupy its site on Ludgate Hill; the first cathedral dedicated to St Paul was built in 640 AD. As the cathedral of the capital city of the UK, it is considered the spiritual home of the nation, and is where many major events are celebrated.
Sir Christopher Wren had been approached to draw up plans to refurbish St Paul's Cathedral in 1663. The cathedral was in a very sorry state after years of Puritan neglect - Cromwell's troops had stabled their horses there, and it had become a place for 'after-dark entertainment'. His advice - to demolish it and start again - was not considered to be acceptable. Other plans he came up with were also dismissed until one week before the Great Fire of London when one was finally approved. A week later the only option was to demolish the remains of the colossal Norman Cathedral and rebuild and so Wren had to go back to the drawing board. His ideas meant a total change of architectural style.
Planning St Paul's
Wren came up with a number of plans before one was finally approved (again). The rejected designs included an equilateral Greek Cross ground plan and a plan which he built as a model at a cost of three times his annual architect's fee, reducing him to tears. In 1675 he finally gained the royal warrant to start building, which gave him leeway to 'make some variations rather ornamental than essential'. He used this leeway to make some changes which would not have been approved, but since it had taken over a decade to finally gain permission to start after being first approached, who can blame him? He shortened the nave and changed the planned steeple to the now famous dome - something that wasn't considered appropriate for English cathedrals.
The old walls were demolished with gunpowder and battering rams, and the first stone of the new building was laid in the summer of 1675. The final stone was not laid until 35 years later, by Wren's son when he placed the highest stone of the lantern upon the cupola of the cathedral in the presence of his father to mark its completion.
Normally structures such as St Paul's would be built section by section from the east, opening each completed area as they went. Wren was concerned that rising costs would cause the project to be aborted, or that he would be pressured to scale down his designs so he built the entire building from the ground up, rather like a child building a Lego house. This also allowed him to keep his plans to build a dome secret until it was too late. Due to the way it was built, none of the building could be used before 1697, and he didn't get away with it entirely; half of his fees were held back so that on completion he had to petition the monarch for payment.
The building costs were met by a levy on coal which also financed the rebuilding of other public edifices. St Paul's had nearly half of all money raised, £750,000, although as the cathedral wasn't complete until 1710 the cost was spread over half a century.
The Cathedral is 515 feet long including the portico but not the steps. The interior is 479 feet long. The transepts1 from door to door are 250 feet. The nave and aisles are only 102 feet. Height from the pavement to the top of the cross is 365 feet. The inner dome is 225 feet high with a diameter of 102 feet. The western towers are 221 feet in height. The golden ball on the top of the dome is six feet in diameter (with room inside for ten people).
The statue of Queen Anne which stands outside the west front shows which monarch ruled England at the time the cathedral was finally finished in 1710. This statue is not the original that was erected in 1712 and made by Francis Bird, but an exact (though some say inferior) replica made by Richard Belt in 1886 as the original had become dilapidated. The ladies around the base of the statue represent England, France, Ireland and North America, as at that time Anne considered herself to be queen of them all.
The original Carrara marble statue of Anne and four ladies-in-waiting was given to Augustus Hare, a writer of travel guides to London and Rome who had paid for Belt's version. He moved it to his home in Holmhurst St Mary, Sussex.
During the Blitz in September 1940 raiders dropped a landmine which lodged beneath the south-west tower of St Paul's. As Winston Churchill had declared that 'the cathedral must be preserved at all costs' every effort possible was made to save it. It took two demolition engineers three days to dig out (a feat which won them the George Cross) and when it was detonated on Hackney Marshes it made a crater 100 feet across. In December the same year the dome caught fire during a raid and the Cathedral fire watch quickly dealt with it. Another incendiary burnt through the roof and fell inside where it could be smothered safely.
The Cathedral is still a 'working church'. A full list of daily services and special events is listed on the official website. It is possible to get married, or have your children baptised there, but only if you are the holder of a very short list of British Orders and decorations.
How to get there
St Paul's is in the City of London and is near to the Thames. It is on a roughly triangular site, with Ludgate Hill at the west (top) of the triangle, Cannon Street to the south and the junction of Cheapside and Newgate Street to the north. The closest bridge across the Thames is the Millennium Bridge, directly south of the cathedral.
The nearest London Underground station is St Paul's on the Central Line, a five-minute walk from the Cathedral. Other local stations include Mansion House, Cannon Street and Blackfriars stations which are on the District and Circle Line and are slightly further away. There are six bus routes running past the Cathedral with convenient stops, and another two in nearby Newgate Street, so it is easy to get to from many places.
Free Visiting and Charges
Although services are free, visiting the Cathedral as a tourist does incur a charge (see their website for current charges). It is open from Monday to Saturday from 8.30am until the last admission at 4pm. Members of the public are allowed in at no charge for quiet reflection and prayer outside of services, but movements within the Cathedral are restricted. It may close to visitors at short notice for special events.
A marvel of engineering, the walls and eight pillars support a dome weighing 64,000 tons. It is made of wood with a thin covering of lead. Because it is so large and heavy, its weight would have pushed out the walls that supported it, so Wren came up with the idea of putting a giant chain into the material to prevent the walls from collapsing. He also created three domes, to lessen the weight. This meant that he could make the outer dome the size he wanted, without adding to the weight.
The inner dome is built of wood, to keep the weight down as much as possible. The middle 'dome' is a supportive cone-shaped skeleton made of wooden rafters - it wasn't solid to further save weight. The outer dome is a protective skin of lead.
Whispering Gallery - the most famous of the galleries and the only one on the inside, it has been described as one of the most amazing acoustical oddities in the world, although the official St Paul's website is slightly less enthusiastic and calls it a 'charming quirk.' Whispers heard on one side of the gallery can be heard on the other side. Some people have trouble making it work, so here is some advice from a visitor.
It only works if you whisper, not if you talk. Lots of people try speaking normally and are disappointed. Even then, you have to talk in a 'loud whisper'. The guys who work in the place (deacons?) often give demonstrations.
You have to put your mouth less than six inches from the wall, and the listener should have their ear within six inches of the wall. The best place to speak is in one of the doorways, because you can put your mouth right at the wall without actually touching it.
Stone Gallery - 378 steps up to the top, this gallery is on the outside of the dome.
Golden Gallery - the highest point of the outer dome and the smallest gallery, visitors have to walk up 530 steps in total to reach this gallery. The panoramic views from the top are well worth the climb.
The crypt is one of the largest in Europe, so large that it is possible to hold corporate dinners and receptions there2. Some of the most famous people in Britain have been buried in St Paul's. They include:
John Donne, a Dean of St Paul's, was buried in the crypt in 1631. His is the only monument from 'old St Paul's' to survive the Great Fire of London. Scorch marks can still be seen on the urn on which his statue is standing.
Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.
Duke Of Wellington. His 12-ton funeral carriage was given model horses and was erected at the west end of the Crypt in 1855. It stayed there until the early 1980s when it was removed to the family seat at Stratfield Saye.
Sir Christopher Wren is also buried here, in a very plain grave. On the wall at the head of his tomb is a plain inscription, in Latin, arranged by his son. It translates as If you seek his monument, look around you. Wren himself had not wanted a memorial at all.
Wren once said I build for eternity. As St Paul's prepares for its 300th anniversary his words have not been proved an empty boast.
The usual view of St Paul's is from Ludgate Hill, approaching from the west, but the best view is from the Millennium Bridge. This is the view the Wren had each morning as he was ferried across from his house over the river.
A strange statue by Edward Bainbridge Copal, erected in 1973, is permanently falling to the ground outside among the bushes along the cathedral's south side. The statue is of St Thomas Becket, the 40th Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on Henry II's orders.
The nearby London Underground station St Paul's was originally to be named Newgate Street but opened as Post Office in July 1900. It was changed to St Paul's in February 1937.
The major cleaning project of St Paul's began in 2003. The west front of the cathedral was totally covered by scaffolding, hanging from which was one of the largest prints ever seen in London - the covered parts of St Paul's had been faithfully reproduced. The cover was made of PVC to withstand sun and rain and was removed in 2005. The dome has also been cleaned, along with all the stonework, gilding, mosaics and sculptures. In total, 15,000 square metres of stone has been cleaned. It was all financed by a single donation of £10.8 million.