An afternoon at St Paul’s Cathedral

Published 12:29 pm Saturday, September 26, 2015

It’s just a couple of Tube stops. We’ll change to the Central Line at Notting Hill Gate, cross under central London and emerge a short walk away.

It’s perched (although something that massive doesn’t perch) on the highest hill in London, Ludgate. The intent is to be impressive and influential far and wide. Indeed it is — even after the 250-plus years since its completion. It’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, or rather the latest in the St. Paul group. Cathedral lineage continues to evolve with archeology in London. Fires and reconstruction somewhat obscure historical exactness.

Sir Christopher Wren, master architect, mathematician and astronomer, designed this building. During the Great London Fire, thousands of homes and buildings and most of the city’s churches were destroyed. The fire burned for about three days, dispossessing the major part of the population and creating a blank slate for an architectural renaissance of sorts in London.

Necessary legislation for financing the restoration was passed, courts were rapidly setup to deal with property disputes and overall plans for the reconstruction were sought from prominent architects. A few major streets were added, but the vast majority of the city was rebuilt using the old street pattern. New requirements to use stone and brick and mortar for larger structures insured that another fire of that magnitude would not occur.

Wren’s overall plan for the city was rejected, but his ideas for churches were accepted, after certain modifications. The design for St Paul’s was approved in 1675. Wren designed the reconstruction/repair of some fifty churches in London following the Great Fire.

During the “Blitz” of World War II, the church suffered limited damage. One of Germany’s bombs penetrated the building but failed to detonate; it was removed by a bomb disposal squad. The dome stood as a symbol of stability and courage to Londoner’s throughout that conflict.

St. Paul’s is the Main Anglican Church of London. King Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic church and, essentially, re-established the prominence of the existing church system in England. England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all had prominent churches. This magnificent cathedral is the second largest cathedral in England, but it’s probably the most famous.

We find our way through a few trees and walk the short pavement to the front of the building. St, Paul’s, like many other churches, is laid out like a cross, generally on an east-west orientation, with the main entrance to the west. We enter beneath ornate twin spires, through massive doors, into a glorious, majestic, imposing, impressive nave. On either side, stained glass and other windows spread light evenly across the distinct checkerboard pattern of the floor. Beyond the nave, the transepts divide the internal area into, roughly, thirds, with the quire (yes, still spelled this way in St. Paul’s) and the high alter to the east.

At the center of the cross, a dome visually and physically join all the sections. It is a Wren masterpiece, designed to create awe in the observer. It does. I also know that the visible dome from here is not the one seen outside. Wren created an additional support structure above this one and raised the external dome high enough to be the tallest structure in London and to be seen from the entire city.

When I can get my mouth closed and begin to think again, we walk the enormous nave and examine artifacts new and old that have been kept or added to the mix of modern St. Paul’s. For me and a lot of children (and would-be children), a climb to the Whispering Gallery is a must. Up 259 steps, along the inside of the dome itself, the circle is so perfect that a whisper on one side traverses the wall and can be heard by a listener anywhere along the wall. It’s fascinating and a little spooky. There are several visitors testing the theory.

I continue beyond the fun stuff to the uppermost public viewing balcony on the outside of the dome. It’s a typical bright, smoggy day in London; buildings and church spires can be seen all the way to the horizon. Workmen are cleaning St. Paul’s front spires. Cars, people, trucks and buses wriggle along streets between buildings. The air is fresh, clean, above it all.

Back inside, I follow the guide book to a scaffolding, walkway to a spot directly over the center of the inside dome. A glass portal has been set, and it’s possible to view or take pictures of the church center, some 214 feet below. It’s an amazing view.

I retrace my path back to the floor, find my family and head for the Tube station. St. Paul’s will keep watch over city; it’s in good hands.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at