From the Archives: Climbing St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

October 20, 2012

I love London. The vibrant jewel in the crown of England is one of my favorite cities in the entire world, and one day I plan to live there. (Probably after I win the lottery.)

In 2008, a childhood dream came true when I spent a glorious week with my boyfriend there – despite the freezing January air and the laughable mishaps of a first-timer abroad. One of my favorite memories is climbing to the very tip top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, so I thought I’d pull out that little snapshot from my then-blog and share here.

A few specs about the cathedral before we get started:

  • The structure that stands now is 349 years old (built in 1677 from Sir Christopher Wren’s blueprints), but there were four cathedrals built before it – the earliest one dating back to the year 604!
  • The Great Dome is 278 feet high and 112 feet wide on the outside
  • A total of 17 bells hang in the cathedral’s towers, with 13 in the north-west and 4 in the south-west (which includes Old Paul)
  • Old Paul weighs 16.5 tons, and is the largest bell in the British Isles

January 2008Β  — Β In a rare burst of uncharacteristic London weather, the sun was shining on this cold January morning, making the sky bleed a bright blue. As we approached the cathedral, I kept humming “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. (For the Disney-challenged, that is the song Mary sings to the children about the beggar woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral and sells birdseed for tuppence – two pence – a bag.)

When we finally got to the base, all I could do was stare and crane my neck upward at the massive structure – it’s gigantic. Like, really gigantic. I got silly chills up my spine looking at the steps, and I simply had to recreate the “tuppence a bag” scene – although the birds wouldn’t cooperate and pose for the picture. In fact, they wouldn’t even come near me.

So here I am, sitting on the steps alone. I’d say that was a letdown, but the illusion of me being swallowed up by the steps proves not only cool, but pretty darn photogenic.

Photography wasn’t allowed inside, so I will try to recreate the magic in words. The first word I choose is magnificent. I truly have never been inside such a glorious and sacred place in my life, and I walked around gaping at the sheer size of everything. (The second word would then be massive.)

The cathedral is composed of several areas, all of which are significant in their own way. When you first enter, you are inside the church – resplendent in a dazzling display of gold, towering columns, gaudy archways, impressive monuments, and plush red velvet. Live worship still takes place, so enter a small door to the side and find…

1. The Crypt lies in the “basement,” home to some 200 graves of historical figures – including Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Alexander Fleming, and St. Paul’s father, the cathedral’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren. We decided, however, to begin with the galleries, which lie above the place of worship/service. The catch is that to get to each gallery, you must climb stairs. Lots of stairs. Steep, winding, narrow, dizzying, vertigo-inducing stairs. They even post warnings to the disabled and the elderly, and caution those with back problems or fear of heights – and to top it off, interspersed along the stairwells are stone benches on small platforms for resting. So we drew our breath, gathered our things, and began the climb to…

2. The Whispering Gallery, the gallery above the cathedral floor that rings around in a circle (walk along behind a balustrade and look down on the church pews). The most memorable – and appealing – element of the Whispering Gallery is its natural acoustics. Architectural genius dictates that if one whispers something into the wall on one side of the gallery, his or her words can be heard on the other side of the gallery some 425 feet (129 meters) away. I wanted to try it, so I ordered the boyfriend to sit and stay while I ran to the other side and whispered.

He, a physicist, claimed he could hear nothing. I, on the other hand, was as entertained as a kid at Christmas: as I walked along the perimeter of the wall, I could hear whispers and ghostly giggles. In fact, one more minute and I just may have thought I was losing my mind.

3. Above the Whispering Gallery is the Stone Gallery, the first balcony-like exterior of the cathedral, which offers a view of London much like the Empire State Building offers a view of New York City. It was incredibly windy up there, but I got some good pictures of the city from that height.

Yet another steep climb took place on a black, metal-wired, spiraling staircase leading straight up from the “attic” beams of the cathedral to the dome tip. It felt like something out of a thriller action movie; the staircase seemed to be mounted only to floor and ceiling….with NOTHING AROUND IT. We were literally climbing through open air. My white knuckles gripped the thin and trembling iron railing, my legs shook in fear every time I stepped on the crumbling steps, and we rose higher and higher through the clouds…the ground was so far down and there was no way back…I needed an oxygen mask…I wasn’t going to make it…Oh God, Bjorn, save yourself! Tell my mother I love her!

Okay, so that’s kind of an exaggeration. But it was really high.

Jelly-legs notwithstanding, we were rewarded. After huffing and puffing our way to the Golden Gallery, which is situated at the very top of the cathedral, we were greeted by a breath-taking panoramic view of London. You could see for miles, and it was absolutely, undeniably beautiful, albeit cold and windy. Just above us was the massive Great Dome, the final part of the cathedral and the only part visible to the outside. We spent a good 20 minutes beneath a weak winter sun, admiring the sprawling sights of my childhood fantasies.

Now, I dare anyone who is even mildly afraid of heights to set back down that spiraling stairwell through St. Paul’s open-air cathedral attic and not go a little loopy. By the time we hit ground, I was dizzy and exhausted, and I fell to my knees thanking Winston Churchill that we had made it out alive.

Back inside the depths of the cathedral, I stood among the church pews and tilted my head back as far as my neck would allow it. There was the underbelly of the Great Dome, a detailed and intricately designed masterpiece, adorned by golden angels and crosses and immaculately recreated scenes of religious history.

It is the door to Heaven itself.

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