Visiting St Paul’s in London

News has just come in that the Occupy London protesters marked their first anniversary by chaining themselves to the pulpit of St Paul’s and reading out a ‘prayer’ criticizing St Paul’s for collusion in the world domination of big bad business. Cathedral staff, says londonist.com, were happy for the protesters to do this. I can’t help feeling a bit miffed, as if cathedral staff treat protesters better than they treat ordinary visitors. This is what it was like a month ago, when I went to St Paul’s to try to admire it, not to voice disapproval or chain myself to its furniture:

“If there are any pre-paid tickets please, anyone with any pre-paid tickets at all, if you’d like to just come to the front of the queue please, pre-paid tickets come right round to the head of the line….”

It was three thirty in the afternoon, on a warm, sunny Saturday. The line was extremely long, extremely chaotic and few of its members spoke English as a mother tongue. The guard was trying to be helpful but she had made no attempt to grade her language, to speak slowly or to remove superfluities from her sentence construction. Consequently the only people who understood what she was saying were ourselves. And we didn’t have pre-paid tickets.

So we waited. And then paid £15 each, were given a content-free handout with an inadequate floor plan and were helpfully asked to be aware that the cathedral would be closing at half past four.

That gives us an hour, we thought. We won’t need more than that.

How wrong we were!

We decided to make climbing to the top of the dome the first step. Or rather steps, because there are a lot of them. (Warning: if you suffer from claustrophobia and don’t have a head for heights, are pregnant, semi-mobile or even the slightest bit unfit, do not embark on this! Once you have started, there is no turning back.) The Whispering Gallery was good. From there you have a splendid view of the Thornhill monochromes in the dome. But “Whispering” has become a misnomer. An unfortunate guard is stationed there and her only role seems to be to bellow “No photographs! No cameras!” at visitors every few seconds. Here is the photograph I took after she shouted at me. I shouldn’t have done it, but the whole thing was beginning to get my goat:

Then we set off to the Golden Gallery, right at the top. This involves a very narrow, open-tread spiral staircase which shudders under the weight of climbers. Progress was extremely slow because at the top, on the look-out balcony, space is very limited and everyone has to wait until everyone else has been round, taken their photos (and with all the bullying indoors about not being allowed to, people go click crazy at the top) and begun the descent. There is one narrow stairway up and another down. For long, long minutes we were prisoners on the iron steps, suspended in space. But at least it meant we made friends with the people above and below us, who were amused by the barrage of signs saying “Way up”, as if there were any realistic alternative.

The views from the top, of the tiny remaining Wren churches crouching among recent office blocks, are worth the long haul to get there. Tate Modern and the Wobbly Bridge are in full view, so is Tower Bridge, the Shard, the narrow green canal that the great Thames river has become. Here is a photo taken from the top, of the Monument to the Great Fire:

By the time we had made our way back down, there was almost no time left to explore the rest of the cathedral. Guards were beginning to bustle about officiously, closing off aisles and transepts with lengths of municipal tape. It was a bit like being at an airport. We managed to crane our necks over one stretch of tape to get a full-frontal view of Nelson’s monument, but it wasn’t satisfactory. It is by Flaxman and is an important work of Neoclassical funerary sculpture. Not that Flaxman’s name is mentioned on the St Paul’s website. You need Wikipedia or a Blue Guide to tell you that. Anyway, it was hopeless trying to get a decent look at it. And by this time everything beyond the crossing had been barred off too, which I was upset about, as I had particularly wanted to see the monument to John Donne, which survives from the Old St Paul’s.

I sat on one of the plastic conference-room chairs that fills the nave and looked up to admire the dome. Thornhill’s monochrome scenes from the life of St Paul are really splendid. I would have liked to spend more time on them. I found myself getting interested in the subject of how a newly-built Protestant cathedral sought to make itself look Protestant, even though the exterior is Italianate and the floorplan is identical to any of the old Gothic cathedrals, built before the Reformation. But the atmosphere isn’t conducive to thoughts like that. The assumption is that the general visitor is too gormless to care and that anyone who does care will be able to gain special access on some scholar’s permit. Not the case. I was only in London for 24 hours. And I don’t want special access. I’m happy with the hurly burly of humanity around me. As long as they seem to be getting the best out of it. Which I’m not sure any of us were. “No photographs, no photographs!” shouted the guards, as some unfortunate visitor tried to snap a view down the nave as a memento. I began to feel so cross, and even crosser because I wondered if I was just being a ghastly blimp and a snob. Out of pique I snapped the dome, and felt a sense of triumph at having done so without being yelled at. Then I felt guilty, because I am usually a rule-obeyer. Here is the photo:

Didn’t manage to see The Light of the World or the Crypt, which the St Paul’s website tantalisingly describes as containing “monuments to conflicts and other outstanding achievements. Had the merest glimpse of Wellington, aquiline nose in the air, before we were hustled out.

We sat on the steps and felt miffed. Why? I suppose because we had paid £15 each and hadn’t had time to see enough. And had felt all the time that we were being shooed through a sheep dip. I know it’s difficult when there are so many visitors. But none of us were morons. We would have appreciated more adult-oriented treatment. It was lovely and warm on the steps. I noticed that the fluting on all the paired Corinthian columns which support the west porch has been filled in, to about chest height or higher. Why? I wasn’t sure who to ask. Next time I’ll bring my chains.

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